As geopolitical heavyweights gather in New York on Tuesday for a U.N. Security Council discussion on Syria’s increasingly bloody struggle for power, the Obama Administration insists the writing is on the wall: Syrian President Bashar Assad “will go,” said White House press secretary Jay Carney, and he urged those opposing a Security Council resolution requiring Assad to step down to reconcile themselves to the strongman’s ouster. But the White House would be ill advised to hold its breath waiting for Assad’s departure, inevitable though it may be.
It’s not news to the head of a ruthless regime that shows little compunction in unleashing military force on its opponents that Western powers and Arab adversaries want him out; Assad long ago priced that into his calculations and concluded that, on the basis of the domestic and international balance of power, he can fight his way out of the immediate crisis, even if his long-term prospects are bleak. Assad is not about to heed a resolution put before the Security Council by the Arab League — and backed by Western powers — that bluntly demands his surrender, because that outcome does not reflect the balance of forces on the ground, in what has evolved into a full-blown civil war.
The Security Council draft resolution — which reportedly requires that Assad hand power to his deputy Farouk al-Sharaa, who would be required to form a unity government with the opposition Syrian National Council and plan for new elections or face unspecified “further consequences” within 15 days — is unlikely to pass, with Russia having made clear that it will veto the text in its current form. Russia backs Assad to the hilt, openly sending massive arms shipments to enable the regime’s ability to sustain its crackdown. Moscow counts Damascus as a key regional ally, providing the Russian navy with its only Mediterranean port facility at Tarsus, and it is determined to prevent Western powers from securing authorization for any action that might open a gap that could, as in the case of the UNSC resolution authorizing the protection of civilians in Libya, evolves into a regime-change operation. China late last year backed Russia’s opposition to a resolution calling for action on Syria. And challenging Western geopolitical influence, albeit from a position of relative weakness outside of the Security Council, may be something of a calling card of Vladimir Putin, as he orchestrates his imminent return to the Kremlin.
The spiraling violence on the outskirts of Damascus last weekend and the mounting death toll in other parts of the country suggests that the remedies being pursued via the U.N. are being eclipsed by the dynamic on the ground: full-blown sectarian civil war. Assad, to be sure, has directed events onto that course through his militarized response to the rebellion, aware that his ability to retain his power base — the Allawite and Christian minorities and the Sunni urban elite — depends more on their fear of the alternative than on their affection for his regime.
Despite the increasingly dramatic challenges from armed opposition members, many of whom have defected from the regime’s army, Assad’s key security forces remain largely intact, with vastly superior armaments and organization. Those security forces are dominated by the Allawites, who rightly or wrongly fear for their future in a post-Assad Syria, and are willing to fight to keep that eventuality at bay. While Assad’s prospects for ruling over a unified Syria with the consent of the majority of its citizens have long since collapsed, there are plenty of historical and neighborhood examples of authoritarian regimes based on ethnic or religious minorities hanging onto power despite challenges — hence Assad’s readiness to wage the power struggle on the basis of a sectarian war rather than simply a political conversation.
University of Oklahoma Syria expert Joshua Landis sees three reasons the regime may well last another year or more, despite its deteriorating security and diplomatic and economic situations:
First, he argues, the regime has prepared for this eventuality for the best part of a half century, stacking the key security forces and the machinery of state with loyal Allawites who dominate the officer corps and the most important fighting units. Those forces are vastly superior in military terms to the predominantly Sunni rebel forces, first and foremost the defector-based Free Syria Army. Despite significant defections, primarily among Sunni conscripts, the regime’s security forces have shown no sign of substantial fracturing. Instead, they’re girding themselves for a protracted fight, in which they believe defeat dooms their communities.
Secondly, Landis notes, the opposition is politically divided, with divisions evident between the leadership of the exile-based Syria National Council and many of the revolutionaries on the ground, particularly when it comes to accepting negotiations with the regime. The Free Syria Army, also, is not directly subordinate to the Syria National Council, and at this stage appears to be based more on autonomous local fighting groups than a coherent national chain of command. It may be some time before the FSA is in a position to challenge the regime’s forces head-on. The equivalent forces in Libya, remember, triumphed only after months of close air support by NATO and allied air forces. But that raises Landis’ third reason to doubt the regime’s imminent fall: the limited appetite by foreign powers for intervention.
Western powers are highly unlikely to go into Syria, except in support of an intervention by neighborhood players, such as Turkey or the Arab League. But the Arab League is divided, with Lebanon, Iraq and Algeria more supportive of Damascus, while even Saudi Arabia shows little inclination to push for a direct military response. And Turkey, despite its support for the opposition and the FSA, is increasingly concerned about the implications of Assad’s fall for its internal struggle with a restive Kurdish population. Syria’s Kurds have not joined the rebellion to any substantial degree, and it’s highly likely that if Turkey were to intervene, the Assad regime would revive its erstwhile strategy of backing the PKK as a proxy force, fanning flames that Turkey is trying hard to smother. Indeed, all the foreign powers are intimately aware of the multiple regional dangers raised by Syria’s descending into civil war that potentially draws in sectarian partisans from Lebanon and Iraq and raises threats of instability in Turkey, Israel and Jordan.
All this works to Assad’s advantage, of course, and the more he forces things onto the terrain of civil conflict, the more he reinforces factors that, in the short term, shore up his regime, even if they weaken it in the long term. The more militarized the conflict, the more likely it is to be dominated by the most radical and sectarian elements on both sides, at the expense of more inclusive, moderate political forces.
So the conversation this week in the Security Council may not herald the onset of the Syrian endgame as much as the start of a protracted and increasingly bloody conflict that will be a recurring theme at the U.N. for many months to come.