Is Civil War in Syria Inevitable?

Why the country appears on track for the worst, and what happens when it gets there

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Protesters rally against Assad in the tribal province of Deir al-Zor, eastern Syria / Reuters

The prospects for a full-blown and largely sectarian civil war in Syria are mounting by the day. Much of the Syrian opposition, dedicated to non-violence, appears extremely reluctant to even consider the prospect. But as President Bashar al-Assad's crackdown worsens, as the options for any other means of achieving regime change seemed to dwindle, and with the Libya model presenting itself, however imprecisely, as an alternative stratagem, the drift towards conflict is starting to feel palpable.

The Syrian Powder Keg

In some senses, all of the required element are already in place for a civil war to erupt. In recent weeks some of the opposition has been slowly suggesting a greater willingness to accept the use of arms. There are hints that arms and financing for weapons are being delivered by outside forces. And increasing numbers of the rank-and-file Syrian military are defecting. Together, these factors could prepare the nucleus for an armed rebel group. The emergence of a significant and potentially effective armed rebel group in Syria is now readily imaginable.

The Christian Science Monitor reports that Lebanese arms merchants are noticing a huge spike in prices, which they attribute to vastly increased demand for black market weapons in Syria. Mohammed Rahhal, a leader of the Revolutionary Council of the Syrian Coordination Committees (one of many opposition groups), last week bluntly told the pan-Arab newspaper Ash Sharq al-Awsat, "We made the decision to arm the revolution, which will turn violent very soon, because what we are being subjected to today is a global conspiracy that can only be faced by an armed uprising." According to David Ignatius, "a newly emboldened Saudi Arabia has been pumping money to Sunni fighters in Syria."

The most important factor pushing Syria in the direction of civil conflict may be that the Assad regime has left the opposition few other options for anything resembling success. The largely nonviolent protests have brought nothing in the way of serious reform or to weaken the regime's grip on power. The protest movement, as it is presently structured, does not seem capable of either. If anything, the regime seems to have consistently worsened its behavior. With the opposition basing its strategy primarily on embarrassing the regime and increasing international pressure, rhetoric, and sanctions, the nonviolent tactic has been almost all pain with very little gain. At some point, other options will have to be considered -- or the fight against Assad abandoned.

The battle lines are already drawn in Syria, and they are largely sectarian

The Tunisian and Egyptian models are not being repeated in Syria. In both of those cases, elements within the power structures decided that regime decapitation (taking out the top-level leadership but retaining the overall structure), managed reform, and a transition led under implicit pact with the protesters were preferable to risking complete downfall. Neither the Syrian political elite nor the most well-armed and well-trained professional soldiers, most of which come from the minority religious Alawite sect of which Assad is the leader, have demonstrated any interest in such a process.

The ouster of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya would seem to present a second model for regime change in the Arab uprisings. In Syria, such an approach may or may not be applicable, wise, or even practicable. The Libyan model essentially reduces to a four-stage process:

1) Establish a viable, armed rebel fighting force, base of operations, and rival government and capital in some part of the country. (In Syria, one can imagine this emerging in Hama, Homs, or Deraa, to name three possibilities.)

2) Appeal for international support in weapons, training, financing, and possibly even air support or other arm's-length military intervention;

3) Chip away at the power of the regime in a relentless war of attrition using these resources;

4) Overthrow the regime militarily in a full-fledged revolution.

The Assad regime, however, is not nearly as hollow, in terms of support and infrastructure, as Qaddafi's. It has proven its resilience and that it commands a fiercely loyal sectarian and ideological following among a hyper-empowered minority. Since that minority seems to increasingly feel it is not only fighting to preserve its power but also even possibly to prevent its physical decimation should they lose, the regime is quite unlikely to collapse from within.

This idea -- that an intransigent Arab dictatorship can in fact be overthrown by an armed rebellion in a genuine revolution through a process of civil war -- is a relatively new one in the contemporary Arab world. Neighboring states such as Turkey, some Gulf countries, and Western powers would be extremely unlikely to stand idly by doing nothing if a full-blown civil war were to erupt in Syria. The stakes would simply be too high.

The battle lines are already drawn in Syria, and they are largely sectarian. The respected German publication Zeit Online recently reported that at least one major Syrian city, Homs, "now resembles Beirut in the 1980s, divided along ethnic and religious lines where it's too dangerous for people to travel in a particular direction because they will be shot if they do so." The report adds, "Alawites have secured the streets leading to their residential areas with checkpoints. Their street barricades aren't manned by the military, but by Alawite civilians who now fear being massacred in a Syria without Assad."

Several reports suggest that other non-Sunni minorities, including many Christians, are also concerned about reprisals and the rise of Islamist forces in a post-Assad Syria. The great exception seems to be the Sunni merchant classes of Damascus and Aleppo, which appear to be more afraid of the chaos and violence of a civil war than they are of the regime's brutality. However, as the daily death toll mounts, this calculus seems to be changing. It could change further as Western sanctions intensify, possibly convincing these urban middle classes that they have more to gain with the removal of the regime than tolerating its abuses.

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Hussein Ibish is a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, a weekly columnist with The National and NOW Media, and a frequent commentator on Middle Eastern affairs in the American and Arab media.

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