1. In a Sectarian Showdown, Assad Has a Posse
The collapse of a dictatorship usually begins when its edifice of fear that has cowed its people into quiescence is punctured by brave protesters taking to the streets — and ends when the strongman is abandoned by so many of those who had been willing to kill their fellow citizens on his behalf, that he is forced to flee for his life. The rupture in Assad’s edifice of fear happened in February 2011, but 18 months later, despite the defection of some senior figures and thousands of its foot-soldiers, the core security forces on which Assad relies remain very much intact, and brutally effective. Far from being ground down by the attrition of more than a year of full-blown civil war, the regime’s core fighting forces remain more determined and fanatical than ever. Indeed, as the International Crisis Group recently noted, the regime’s control has at once diminished and hardened, its will and capacity to fight fueled by the sectarian character of the civil war.
The fighting forces of the rebellion are overwhelmingly drawn from Syria’s Sunni Arab majority, and the duration of the war has, perhaps inevitably, seen Islamist elements playing the most prominent role. But Assad’s regime is dominated by members of his minority Alawite sect, though it has traditionally counted on the support of other minorities such as the Christians, Kurds and Druze, as well as of Sunni business, political and military elites. The defections from the regime have largely come from within that Sunni elite — and the Sunni conscripts that make up the bulk of the regular armed forces.
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But Assad retains the fierce loyalty of a hard core of Alawites, a community that sees its own fate tied to that of his regime, fearing at best, disenfranchisement, and at worst, brutal retribution, should the Sunni-led rebellion triumph.
The increasing militarization of the rebellion hardens hearts on all sides, raising the level of viciousness on the ground and reinforcing the support not only of Allawites, but also of many Christians, Druze and members of other minorities for the regime. While Assad loyalist forces are accused of massacring Sunni villages, stories of Christians expelled by rebels from their homes around Homs and elsewhere, and of senior Christian clerics seeking refuge abroad while warning about Islamist extremism in the rebellion reinforces that dynamic.
Kurdish residents of the northeast, meanwhile, have declared a de facto autonomy from their Arab brethren, whether regime or rebel, instead making common cause with the Kurdish polity in northern Iraq — much to the alarm and chagrin of Turkey.
Handwringing in Western capitals over the need for the Syrian opposition to adopt an inclusive vision of a post-Assad future has done little to change the dynamic on the ground, where the rebels have thus far failed to peel away the layers of political support without which Assad couldn’t survive. If they’re unable to isolate him from his traditional base of support, they’re unlikely to end the civil war, even if the territorial balance changes. And the obvious absence of an inter-communal consensus in Syria reinforces the reluctance of Western powers to intervene, taking sides in what could be a protracted and messy civil war.