President Bashar al-Assad promised Wednesday to “cleanse” Syria of the rebels that have challenged his rule, but he’s unlikely to achieve that goal. Indeed, in a rare interview with Syrian TV, Assad conceded that his promised victory would not come soon. Still, there may be more than empty braggadocio to Assad’s claim that, from his regime’s point of view, “the situation is better now.” That’s because although his forces are unlikely to ever restore Assad’s authoritarian control over all of Syria or to pummel the rebellion into submission, at the same time there’s little sign right now of the Syrian rebels or their regional and international backers being able to muster the knockout punch that topples the regime. The rebellion has made intractable gains, but the regime sustains a capacity to fight that negates the narrative of an isolate despot facing the wrath of his people.
Not only is the international community divided over Syria, but even those countries most supportive of the rebellion have not settled on a common strategy, while the disarray among the Syrian opposition further deepens disquiet over intervention.
Whether by design or luck — or the failures of the opposition — the Assad regime may well have created a situation in which it survives for quite some time, even if in considerably diminished form. Lebanon, just next door, is a grim reminder that civil wars can go on for years, and seldom end with a decisive victory for either side.
Here, then, are the five factors that combine to keep Assad in power well beyond the predictions of early enthusiasts of the rebellion:
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.
2. The Regime Has Exported Syria’s Crisis
The borders that distinguish Syria from all of its neighbors are, in the grand historical scheme, somewhat arbitrary: They were drawn by France and Britain at the end of World War I as they exercised the victor’s prerogative of carving up the defeated Ottoman Empire, and they bear little relation to the region’s historical ethnic and sectarian fault lines. As a result, Western powers have been concerned that an escalation of Syria’s civil war will inevitably jump its borders, with consequences across the region. And it appears that the Syrian regime and rebels between them, have made it so. The Sunni rebels fighting the Assad regime in Syria’s southeast are intimately connected with the Sunni tribes in Western Iraq that have long opposed the Shi’ite dominated government in Baghdad — and the level of insurgent violence in Iraq is steadily escalating, although that may have as much or more to do with the authoritarian governance of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki as with dynamics in Syria. The connection has been more direct in Lebanon, where the city of Tripoli has seen 17 people killed and more than 120 wounded in fierce clashes between local Sunni supporters of the Syrian rebellion and local Alawite supporters of Assad. While the Lebanese military has imposed a tenuous truce, fears are widespread that the conflict next door could rekindle Lebanon’s generational civil war that ended in 1992.
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By shrewdly ceding control of towns in the Syrian northeast to Kurdish forces, Assad has created a problem for Turkey, which remains locked in an ongoing bloody cycle of insurgency and counterinsurgency with its domestic Kurdish challengers, the militant separatist PKK. Indeed, Assad’s forces handed over a number of towns to the Syrian ally of the PKK, known by its local acronym PYD, prompting alarm in Ankara and an uptick of attacks on Turkish soil. Turkey now finds itself having to navigate an increasingly complex reality in Syria which has uncomfortable resonance with its domestic political situation. Indeed, besides the Kurdish issue, Ankara also finds its support for the Syrian rebellion challenged by Turkey’s half-million strong Alawite community, and also among the Alevi sect whose members comprise some 25% of Turkey’s population.
But the most immediate problem for Turkey is the steady stream of refugees arriving at its borders — at a rate of some 5,000 a day over the past week. More than 200,000 Syrians have fled the country since the start of the rebellion, almost half of them to Turkey — and most of the rest to Jordan and Lebanon, although in the consummate irony, some 15,000 are reported to have fled to Iraq (from which hundreds of thousands of refugees had fled to Syria over the past decade).
Both Turkey and Jordan are warning that their capacity to absorb the rising number of refugees is finite, pressing Western powers for more humanitarian assistance — and, in the case of Turkey, for the creation of a “safe zone” for refugees on Syrian soil, but protected by Western militaries. But that’s an option over which U.S. officials have been skeptical until now.
By regionalizing the Syrian crisis, the Assad regime raises pressure on his neighbors and foreign powers to find a way to end the conflict, while at the same time making them more leery of direct military intervention.
3. The Opposition Remains Deeply Divided, and Lacks a Clear Strategy
When France’s President François Hollande urged the Syrian opposition earlier this week to form a transitional government in exile that France and other Western governments would immediately recognize as the legitimate government of Syria, he seemed to have forgotten one of the golden rules of French cuisine: You can’t reheat a souffle. Recognizing an opposition government and mounting a regime-change military operation may have worked in Libya, but it’s essentially off the table in Syria. The idea was quickly pooh-poohed by U.S. officials, who branded it “premature” given the consistent failure of Syrian opposition groups, over 18 months of rebellion, to create a single unified leadership. Washington’s response was immediately slammed by Syrian National Council (SNC) leader Abdelbaset Sieda, who accused the U.S. of indecisiveness, but his complaints would have been undermined by the fact that his group’s longtime spokeswoman Basma Kodmani resigned from the SNC on the same day, declaring that it had failed to earn “the required credibility and did not maintain the confidence of the people”. Indeed, despite its support from the French government and Turkey, the SNC appears to have been largely sidelined, having failed to win the support of unarmed opposition groups on the ground, or of the various armed formations that fight under the Free Syrian Army banner.
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Besides having no umbrella political leadership, the rebellion also appears to have limited military coherence, with hundreds of disparate fighting formations making their own decisions at local level, and Islamist fighters — some of them foreign — making an increasingly visible showing.
The danger of a militarized rebellion without clear political leadership was highlighted in the recent battle for Aleppo, where rebels freely conceded that they failed to win over the majority of the city’s residents, and that even many anti-Assad elements were angry that the mostly rural insurgent groups had chosen to wage a head-on battle that they had no hope of winning, at great cost to the local civilian population. While the fighting in Aleppo has underscored the tenacity of the rebellion and the inability of the regime to destroy it, the impact on its ability to peel away middle class support for Assad has been mixed.
Even if it was provoked by the regime’s own brutality, the militarization of the rebellion runs the risk of alienating many elements ambivalent or opposed to Assad. A protracted war that sees the economy steadily decline has already seen elements of the Sunni elite and middle class switch sides, but should the military impasse remain unresolved, it also risks creating a war wariness in the population — and, perhaps, also in the region and beyond — that eventually makes ending the war a greater priority than its outcome.
4. Regional and International Strategic Rivalries Reinforce the Stalemate
It’s no secret that the international community has never spoken with one voice about Syria — it was the fundamental division between Russia and China, on the one hand, and the Western powers on the other that put the kibosh on U.N. Security Council action on Syria, and eventually prompted the resignation of Special Envoy Kofi Annan, who warned that international discord over Syria’s immediate future — driven by preexisting strategic rivalries — sabotaged his efforts to forge a political solution to the conflict. And the best efforts of the Obama Administration to cajole or shame the Russians and Chinese into changing their positions proved fruitless. Syria has become a battleground of a new geopolitics, in which Beijing and Moscow are determined to block Western powers from toppling Middle East regimes outside of their strategic orbit — as well as a battleground of a longstanding regional geopolitics that has pitted Saudi Arabia against Iran in proxy conflicts from Lebanon to Afghanistan. So the Saudis fund and arm rebel forces, while the Iranians are reportedly even sending military personnel to help the Assad regime fight the war. Russia and China insist that a political solution can’t be premised on demanding that Assad first step down, and also that Iran’s participation is essential to any workable regional solution. Washington has strenuously opposed any role for Tehran in a Syrian solution.
With efforts to forge a common international approach in abeyance — and schemes such as the proposal by Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsy to create a quartet composed of Egypt, Syria, Turkey and Iran to seek a political solution unlikely to go beyond wishful thinking in the near term — international players appear increasingly in disarray. The strategy by the Western powers in conjunction with Turkey and Arab countries to boost the SNC as a credible alternative to Assad has failed, and there’s evident discord among the “Friends of Syria” states over issues such as whether to escalate the conflict through providing heavier arms to the rebels, imposing a partial or full “no-fly” zone which won’t have any U.N. authorization or to create a buffer zone inside Turkey for refugees, or rebels.
Iran has already signaled its own response by allegedly sending troops to help Assad in the fight, and it’s not clear whether Russia would stand aside or would, for example, take steps to boost the capacity of the regime to defend its airspace should Western powers move to intervene directly.
Nor is any change in the U.S. reluctance to embrace the many and complex risks of intervention likely to change before November’s presidential election.
5. The End Game Has Grown More Complex
While there are various exercises underway in Washington and Berlin involving Syrian dissidents in extensive if hypothetical planning for a post-Assad Syria, the operating assumption of much of the thinking and planning assumes that doing away with the dictator takes care of most of the problem: Sure, there would have to be outreach to communities that traditionally supported Assad and some form of reconciliation process to avoid the violent retribution that so many are expecting; and hopefully the rump of the police and national army can be maintained intact to avoid repeating America’s mistakes in Iraq, by ensuring order and avoiding chaos. But generally, the discussion assumes that Syria as we’ve known it will remain intact, albeit with a different and more democratic distribution of power.
Assad, of course, has had other ideas, and has plunged Syria into a vicious sectarian civil war in which neighboring communities have turned on one another in scenarios sometimes reminiscent of the collapse of Yugoslavia in the early ’90s. After 18 months of conflict, it’s worth asking whether what we’re seeing is simply the death throes of a despot, or a new dynamic in which the regime has chosen to fight on a terrain that at once diminishes its power and tacitly abandons its claim to rule all of Syria, but which allows it to survive in that diminished form for a more protracted period?
The growing danger is that the military and communal trajectory being followed by the conflict deals a fatal blow to prospects of stitching Syria back together again, instead creating a situation analogous to Lebanon from the late ’70s, where a protracted civil war left a fractured state that could no longer be ruled by any one power center. It’s not yet clear whether Syria has reached that point, but it is increasingly evident that it has eluded the full gamut of outcomes that ended the Arab rebellions of the past two years.