Over the past year, the crisis in Syria, which began in early 2011, has escalated toward a climax, with world media and experts speculating about what will happen next. Will the Syrian regime fall, and if so, how long will it take? Will Syrian President Bashar Assad flee, or will he hunker down and hold onto an Alawite stronghold as Syria disintegrates into various mini-states? Will chemical weapons be used? And will there be an intervention by neighboring states or by the US or Israel?
On Tuesday, Assad’s forces began the new year with the aerial bombardment of large parts of the country, as his ground forces continued to clash with rebel fighters around Damascus. So far, an estimated 45,000 people have been killed in the Syrian uprising, with a reported 160 killed on the final day of 2012. The conflict has become the longest and bloodiest of the Arab uprisings, which began a little over two years ago in Tunisia on December 18, 2010.
Over the past year, the number of people defecting from the regime has continued to increase. Joel Parker, a PhD candidate at Tel Aviv University who is tracking developments on opposition websites and social media, says that in 2012, “We have seen about a dozen diplomats, several cabinet members, as well as a few members of parliament defect from the regime. Although a relatively large number of security officials have defected, very few members of Assad’s inner circle have left the regime.”
In addition, he says it is noteworthy that Assef Shawkat, the former head of military intelligence and Assad’s brother-in-law, was killed in a bombing by the opposition in 2012, along with two other top officials.
“The opposition showed that it was able to kill high-level targets,” says Parker.
Concern about chemical weapons has also grown over the past year as the rebels have advanced. The website The Rogue Adventurer reported last week that in recent weeks, Syria has been using incendiary weapons with increasing frequency.
The Syrian opposition is predominantly made up of Sunnis with a significant Islamist presence; both Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaida-affiliated groups are taking on much of the actual fighting. Assad comes from the minority Alawite sect, which fears for its future if the Sunnis take power.
And with the Kurdish region in the country’s northeast becoming ever more autonomous, some have talked about a break-up of the Syrian state.
In a recent Jerusalem Post feature, Gloria Center expert Jonathan Spyer wrote that the “emergent reality is raising again a question long dismissed from serious strategic discussion: namely, that of the establishment of a Kurdish state.”
One of the first experts to mention the possible break-up of the Syrian state is Dr. Mordechai Kedar, a research associate at the BESA Center at Bar-Ilan University. In a recent Hebrew article in Makor Rishon, which is translated into English on his blog, he states that the Alawite sect never had any legitimacy because it is a minority, and it “is very doubtful whether, according to Islam, they even have the right to live, since they are heretics, idol worshipers. The fall of their regime, which seems inevitable, raises the question: who are the winners and who are the losers as a result of the collapse of Syria.”
Kedar notes that the small sects of Christians and Druse are among the losers because the Alawite regime protected them, and now many are fleeing the country because “they too will be easy prey for the jihadists’ knives.”
He also predicts that the country will “dissolve into a number of political entities.”
He categorizes them geographically as follows: Kurds in the northeast, Druse in the south, a possible Alawite state in the northwest, and possibly a Beduin area in the east. He also says Aleppo could become an entity by itself, separate from Damascus.
One of the biggest losers, according to Kedar, is Iran, which would lose its base in the Arab world – a base that also serves to supply its ally Hezbollah. Kedar states that Iran has thrown around $20 billion into Syria in the past two years in order to keep Assad afloat.
Abdul Rahman al-Rashed, in the Saudi-backed Arabic daily Asharq Alawsat, contemplates what a third year of conflict would mean for Syria. The Syrian regime “has prolonged its life not due to the valor of Assad or his forces but because the superpowers took the decision not to intervene, as they did in Libya.” He goes on to predict Assad’s demise in the coming year.
Such is the irony in the Middle East. The Sunni Arabs hope for salvation from the West, yet no Arab or Muslim country has decided to intervene directly itself. Despite receiving large amounts of Western military technology, countries like Saudi Arabi, Turkey and Egypt have not opted to use it.
Perhaps the answer lies in what Kedar sees as another of the conflict’s biggest losers: Arab nationalism, the idea that “there is such a thing as an Arab nationality with a unified character and distinct characteristics.”