It’s comforting to picture President Bashar al-Assad as a Syrian Muammar Gaddafi, being kept in power only by military aid from Iran and Russia, diplomatic cover from Moscow and Beijing—and the alleged “fecklessness” of the Obama Administration. Comforting, but wrong.
Iran, Russia and China may be helping keep Assad in power, but so are whole communities of Syrians who see their own fates tied up with that of the regime. That’s why after 15 months of open rebellion and sanctions, the regime remains cohesive, its core security units intact and committed to the bloody suppression of the rebellion. The tenacity and scale of the rebellion may have stretched the capacity of those security forces, and the regime is unable to rely on conscript regular army units to do its dirty work. As a result, Assad’s forces have resorted to arming village-level irregulars, the shabiha, to do some of the nastiest work. Reports suggest it was shabiha forces from neighboring villages that carried out much of the vicious, close-quarters massacre of more than 100 people, including 49 children, last week in Houla.
The shabiha—and, indeed, the regime’s core security forces—are drawn from the Alawite minority; their victims are mostly Sunni. They are killing their neighbors not out of personal loyalty to Assad, but fear of what a future without his regime would hold. The Alawites, a quasi-Shiite sect that comprises around 12% of the population, was a long-suffering minority elevated during the French colonial era into a loyalist military caste as a counterweight to Sunni and Christian Arab nationalists. When Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, seized and consolidated power, the Alawites were the prime beneficiaries. They monopolize the ranks of the bureaucratic and security elite, enjoying a stature not unlike the position of the minority Sunnis in the Iraq of Saddam Hussein.
The frenzy with which many Alawites have been ready to bludgeon opponents of the regime reflects the success of Assad in presenting himself as their protector, and perhaps also the failure of the opposition thus far to appeal to the regime’s traditional base. Sectarian civil war may even have been a path chosen by Assad when the rebellion first began in the belief that it tied his regime’s fate to those of its core constituencies and potentially also made him indispensable to restoring the peace. (Slobodan Milosevic employed a similar tactic in the Balkans.) Until communities that remain firmly in the regime’s camp can be convinced that their lives and livelihoods are not imperiled by the rebellion, Assad will have a posse. Plus, foreign powers may be reluctant to commit to participating in a conflict that looks more like Bosnia than Libya.