23/12/2012 06:55 GMT | Updated 21/02/2013 05:12 GMT

Chronicle of a Downfall Foretold: Syria After Assad

In Gabriel García Márquez's classic novel Chronicle of a Death Foretold, the protagonist is the last person in the story to know that he is about to be killed, while those around him meet the news of his impending death with disbelief and confusion. This could be a parable of Syria today. As Bashar al-Assad and his hardcore of supporters continue killing and maiming in their futile bid to preserve their regime - each day making the job of stitching the country back together again more difficult - the rest of the world must look facts squarely in the face and overcome its own confusion about the consequences of Assad's inevitable downfall, and how they can be mitigated.

With Syria's cash reserves dwindling and its armed forces ceding more and more territory to the rebels, nothing could be more certain today than the inevitable downfall of Assad. However cathartic that moment may be, it is unfortunately unlikely to mark the end of the Syrian civil war.

The passing of the era of strongmen in the Middle East has revealed deeply-divided societies, as post-war violence in Libya and ongoing political instability in Egypt attests. It is no simple matter to build a national political consensus based on trust which can replace one imposed by force - and Syria, where the violence of civil war has been most brutal and prolonged, is at risk of entering a downward spiral from which it may not recover in our lifetimes.

The disintegration of the security forces which maintained Assad's brutal rule in Syria points to a future in which it is unlikely that any one side will be able to maintain a monopoly of force and hence some degree of stability in the country. Despite their attempts to form an umbrella organisation, the rebels are fragmented and currently united only by their desire to see the back of the current regime.

The rebels include militants with an anti-western and Islamist cultural agenda, Sunnis who are disaffected with the current distribution of socio-economic spoils in the country, and Kurds who are seeking greater autonomy. With the inevitable violence and economic dislocation that will follow the downfall of the regime, it will be hard for all of the rebel groups to offer their supporters the sorts of benefits that will make them feel their sacrifices during the civil war have been worthwhile. Thus aggrieved, they are likely to turn on each other.

This situation is likely to be made worse by the collapse of Syria's national institutions, especially the army. In Iraq, the United States dissolved the Iraqi army and large parts of the civil service, only to create a security vacuum which was filled by militia such as the Mahdi Army and by militant Sunni groups, many of whom drew their personnel and supplies from ex-army units. Iraq was plunged into a violent and sectarian civil war following the bombing of the Al-Askari Mosque in 2006, and it took the US troop surge to finally stem the bloodshed.

In Syria, it is entirely unclear whether any dominant force would emerge to stitch the country back together. Every day, the ties that bind Syrians to one another are fraying. As the United Nations noted in a recent report, the conflict in Syria has been taking on an increasingly sectarian character, with crimes being committed not only by Syrian government forces but also by the rebels against communities who they suspect of supporting the government. Frustration at decades of oppression and inequality is bubbling to the surface, only to be made worse by each day's violence. It could take a long time for Alawites and Sunnis in Syria to learn to trust one another and live together in the same political system again.

Given Syria's strategic position and importance to both regional and global powers, the risk of the country sharing Lebanon's fate and becoming a plaything of foreign powers will also be increased after the downfall of the Assad regime. In a situation where numerous different armed groups are jockeying for power and sectarian conflict continues between Sunnis and Alawites, countries as diverse as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Iran and the United States will all feel pressure to pick a side and support it with arms and money.

Then there is the delicate issue of Syrian WMD - the country has large stocks of chemical weapons which could fall into the hands of anyone, including terrorist groups or rogue warlords who will use them against their domestic enemies within Syria. Stopping this from happening is an urgent interest of the United States, but one the Pentagon estimates could take 75,000 troops to do properly.

If the US and the West as a whole wants to avoid being forced into a costly and dangerous intervention - perhaps under UN auspices - to secure Syrian WMD or even to stop a murderous and indefinite cycle of violence, then it needs to use what influence it has to bring about a political transition in Syria that will maintain in place enough of Syria's national institutions, including the army, to prevent an outbreak of anarchy. Unfortunately, the influence we have is little, and the task too difficult - and so, like García Márquez's characters, we are stuck watching a tragedy unfold which we can't quite believe is happening, about which there is little we can do, and whose long-term impact on us remains sickeningly unclear.