Syria’s military is escalating its offensive on the country’s Sunni rebels; however the violence in Syria is not likely to end in the near future, even if the Assad regime is ousted. To that point, Damascus has been unable to implement a strategy capable of ending the eleven-month Sunni uprising, likewise the opposition has yet to oust the regime from power.
Syria’s sectarian fault-lines have been drawn for centuries and the opposition has been unsuccessful in diminishing the importance of such divisions. Most importantly, they failed to convince Assad’s forces to defect en mass, thus Syria’s military remains a cohesive, effective, and motivated fighting force. Meanwhile, Al-Qaeda’s recent call for jihad against the Alawite regime will not help in persuading many minorities to abandon it. Furthermore, Damascus has prepared for an internal Sunni uprising for over four decades and while many are quick to predict Assad’s demise, his ouster would not end the sectarian conflict in Syria. Ultimately, the conflict’s sectarian character along with several other important factors will lead to a long and bloody civil war in Syria.
The Alawites – a distinct religious sect – are the backbone of the Assad regime. As a consequence of various historical and political factors, they along with Syria’s other minorities determined that influence in the military offered the most favorable course to enhance their overall well-being in the country. Direct political and military influence is seen as the best way to offset the Sunni Arab majority. Pointing to their domination of the military, some 80% of the officer positions in the military are held by Alawites, although they make up just 10% of the general population. The Sunnis on the other hand, have been largely marginalized or absent from important positions within the armed forces and the government.
Opposing the regime is the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) which is composed of recent defectors from the country’s armed forces. However, most defectors are Sunnis who held lower-ranking positions or served in non-elite units. Their numbers are growing, but they are outgunned, outnumbered, decentralized, and becoming increasingly divided. They have seized a few small and isolated cities, yet they mostly remain on the defensive.
The second major factor leading to a prolonged war of attrition is the government’s hesitance to use its entire arsenal. Assad’s year-long crackdown has claimed some 8,000 lives, yet surprisingly his repression has been carefully calibrated. To put this number into perspective, Hafez al-Assad – the current president’s deceased father – killed five-times that number in the city of Hama alone during a swift operation to crush a 1982 Muslim Brotherhood rebellion. The operation lasted just 26 days.
Contrary to the UN sanctioned intervention in Libya, Assad believes the international community is willing to tolerate the current level of violence in Syria and will not resort to direct military involvement. It is important to note that Assad has largely refrained from deploying Syria’s air force and missile arsenals. Unlike in 1982, Assad calculates that the heavy use of the air force and ballistic missiles would ultimately bring about foreign intervention and directly threaten the regime’s viability. Damascus is likely to utilize its strategic weaponry only after determining that the positive benefits of their usage would outweigh the negative.
On the diplomatic front, a UN resolution seeking to end the bloodshed was expectantly vetoed by Moscow and Beijing. Nonetheless, hours before the vote and knowingly under intense media and foreign scrutiny, Assad launched his deadliest assault yet. The offensive in Homs, which is still ongoing, has killed thousands and was a clear message to the international community that the regime is far from finished.
Another contributing factor is that the Assad regime is not without its allies. Damascus continues to receive support from Russia, China, Iraq, Iran and Lebanon. The commander of Iran’s Al-Quds force is reportedly serving in Syria’s war-room and Hezbollah and Iranian forces are actively fighting along-side Assad’s forces. For the opposition, recently failed diplomatic initiatives are likely to compel Western and Sunni Arab states to begin a campaign of covert arming, funding, and training of rebel forces. This would be a major development, but for the short term the opposition will remain merely capable of slowly bleeding Assad’s military.
With neither side able to achieve a total-victory in the short-term, the situation is likely to foment a continued breakdown of the Syrian state as a cohesive and full-functioning entity. Areas with a heavy minority presence will remain loyal to the ruling regime. While predominately Sunni areas opposed to Assad’s rule will continue attempts to establish bridgeheads for a further insurgency. Besides organized fighting, communal warfare between rival sects is likely to increase in towns and cities of mixed populations. Moreover, should the security situation deteriorate to a point of no-return, the Assad government could resort to withdrawing to its historical power-base in the mountains of northwest Syria and attempt to re-establish an independent Alawite state there.
Most analysis regarding the Syrian war continues to gloss over the sectarian issues which are at the heart of this conflict. The country’s Sunnis have come too far and achieved too much to simply abandon their cause outright. Also, their defeat would subsequently put them at the mercy of an even more ruthless and dictatorial regime. With revolutionary fervor and Islamist sentiments gripping the region, they likely feel now is their best chance to remove the forty-plus year Alawite domination of Syria.
On the other side, being an unprotected minority in the Middle East is often a painful reality which the Alawites, Druze, Christians, and Kurds know all too well. These groups have been protected by the Assad regime for decades and is not something they take for granted. With that being considered, Alawites have legitimate fears that their entire existence is in jeopardy, and will continue their fight to protect it. With neither side willing to give in, Syrians are entrenching for a long and bloody civil war.
Daniel Brode is an Intelligence Analyst at Max-Security Solutions, a geopolitical risk-consulting firm based in Israel