There will be (more) blood

The bloodshed in Syria is about to lead to the climax of the Arab Spring.

Pro-Assad Syrian protesters 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Sana/Handout)
Pro-Assad Syrian protesters 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Sana/Handout)
With the pace of slaughter in Syria on the rise, Turkey and the Arab League have separately attempted to broker a ceasefire in order to stop the regime's merciless crackdown on protesters. Unfortunately, it is time to realize that all such efforts are doomed to fail. The volatile elements at work in Syria make it highly likely that we are about to witness more than just the most explosive — and bloodiest — revolution since the Arab Spring began: We are probably about to see one of the more virulent civil wars the Middle East has ever known.
The core of the problem is that Syria is dominated by the Alawites, a sect whose theology is a heterodox off-shoot of Islam and whose adherents were traditionally at the bottom of the country's socio-economic totem pole. As is often the case with such disenfranchised groups, Alawites found that military service gave them a ladder to move up that totem pole, eventually leading to their overrepresentation in the military.
After former Syrian president Hafez al-Assad took power in a 1970 military coup, this trend only strengthened. As Tel Aviv University Professor Eyal Zisser notes in his book, Asad's Legacy, by the time of Assad's death in 2000, 90 percent of those who had attained the rank of general were Alawite, with many senior officers coming from Assad’s Kalabiyya tribe. 
Of course, for decades, the rest of the country has wished for nothing more than an end to the Alawite tyranny. Although the regime has faced occasional unrest by parts of the population (Islamists in the early 1980s and Kurds several years ago), given that the army vastly outguns the rest of the population, the only real threat to the Assad regime's continued rule has been if all opponents were to rise up at the same time.
In order to prevent such a coordinated uprising, the Assad regime—like all modern autocracies—adopted numerous laws against free assembly or free speech. Individuals who violated these laws and spoke out against the regime were imprisoned, tortured, and murdered.
Which brings us to today. Now that the opposition has finally been able to coordinate its activities against the Assad regime and come out en masse, it will require extraordinary amounts of force to convince them to end the uprising. They, like their Libyan counterparts, know quite well that if they end the protests—even for a short time—the regime will spare no effort to hunt down its leadership and thwart any attempt to restart the protests later. In sum, if the opposition fails now, they realize it may be decades before another opportunity arises.
Making matters worse, even if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad were to go quietly into exile, the rest of the Alawites still stand to lose greatly, should the regime fall, and would likely fight on without him. Firstly, the Alawites have no interest in losing their position of great privilege to returning to their previous role—which, as historian and author Daniel Pipes once wrote, was that of "the weakest, poorest, most despised, and most backward people of Syria."
As if fear of losing their privileged position were not incentive enough, Alawites also fear becoming extraordinarily vulnerable to retribution should they lose their grip on power, because losing political power will eventually translate into an end of their monopoly over the means of coercion — i.e. the army and domestic intelligence. While this was true for Sunnis in Iraq, and a core cause for its civil war following the American invasion, the proportion of Alawites in Syria is tiny — a mere 12 percent of the population. Even for a region rife with ethnic minority regimes, no country has been ruled by such a small minority group as in Syria.
Ideally, the sides should be able to reach some sort of a compromise, whereby the Alawites slowly transition to democracy, promising not to harm the protestors or hunt down their leaders, in exchange for the protection of the civil and human rights of the Alawites when they come to power.
What virtually ensures the Syrian tragedy we are about to see unfold, however, is that neither side can give any sort of credible guarantee that it would keep such promises. Almost instantly after such a deal would go into force, the regime would have every reason to renege on its promises and take advantage of the quiet to re-assert its grip over the country.
Likewise, after the Alawites have given up control over the army, there will be many people with a desire for revenge and it is far from clear that any new, shaky transitional government would be able (or willing) to actively prevent such reprisals. Even if a future government could prevent the slaughter of Alawites, it is exceedingly difficult to imagine that there will be no discrimination against them in finance, education, or public sector employment, for example.
If this analysis is correct, and we are looking at a near-term meltdown in Syria, it will have vast repercussions for the region. Although this will be the topic for a future article, I'll suffice with briefly pointing to a few main ramifications: Refugees will flood neighboring countries, creating additional instability. Some of these same neighbors will be drawn directly into the conflict, as well as other international actors with a stake in the outcome.
Of direct importance for Israel, Hezbollah will lose a main patron and enabler, and this will lead Lebanese forces who oppose Hezbollah to challenge the status quo there. Finally, Iran will lose its most dependable ally in the region, meaning that its recent bid for increased regional influence is more likely to end in its regional isolation.
The bottom line: For whatever spectacular fireworks the Arab Spring has produced thus far, the main event is probably still ahead of us. And, for whatever massive implications the Arab Spring has had thus far for the region, and for Israel, it is all likely to be dwarfed by what will happen if Syria does indeed go down the rabbit hole of civil war.
Indeed, we’re through the looking-glass right now.
The writer is the former Deputy Director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center (GLORIA) in Herzliya.