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 this 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-Qaida’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.
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 wellbeing in the country. Direct
political and military influence is seen as the best way to offset the Sunni
Arab majority. Some 80 percent 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
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.
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 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
On the diplomatic front, a UN resolution seeking to end the
bloodshed was predictably vetoed by Moscow and Beijing. Nonetheless, hours
before the vote and 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 alongside 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 capable of merely slowly bleeding Assad’s
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 fully 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 beachheads for a further insurgency.
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 reestablish an independent Alawite state there.
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 40-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,
Druse, Christians and Kurds know all too well. These groups have been protected
by the Assad regime for decades and this 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
The writer is an intelligence analyst at Max-Security
Solutions, an Israeli geopolitical risk-consulting firm.