The Washington Post recently noted that the success of the Libyan rebels "is prompting calls within the Syrian opposition for armed rebellion and NATO intervention after nearly six months of overwhelmingly peaceful demonstrations that have failed to dislodge President Bashar al-Assad." Reporting for the paper, Liz Sly reported banners calling for NATO or other foreign intervention force as well as the increasing use of firearms by formerly peaceful protesters in Homs and other cities. The New York Times reported increasing defections by rank-and-file soldiers and the creation of an ad hoc organization claiming to represent them called "The Free Officers of Syria."
The regime itself appears to be preparing for precisely such a conflict. In mid-August, Iran concluded an agreement with Syria to construct a large military compound in the Latakia airport that would serve as a direct supply route for heavy weaponry and other military supplies from Tehran. Crucially, Latakia is the de facto capital of the Alawite-dominated areas of northern Syria, an important port city, and the site of some of the fiercest attacks on protesters and Palestinian refugees by regime forces. The creation of a new major military base and supply conduit in the Latakia airport suggests the regime wants a Plan B in the event of a civil conflict that might eventually go badly for the well-armed but potentially badly outnumbered Alawite forces.
A Changing Region
The sectarian dynamics of Syria's conflict are no longer limited to Syria's borders. Much of the greater Sunni majority in Turkey and most Arab countries see their fellow Sunnis being massacred by members of the Alawite minority, who are frequently not perceived as "real" Muslims but as "heretics." In a recent edition of Ash Sharq al-Awsat, noted Saudi preacher Dr. Aaidh al-Qarni condemned the Assad regime, calling it worse than the crusaders. "What can a Muslim think," he wrote, "when watching a regime carrying out such torture and oppression to other sincere Muslims who have taken to the streets demanding dignity, freedom, justice, and equality?" The sectarian subtext is impossible to miss.
The possibility that regional states might feel a political or emotional impulse to intervene to stop this killing should not be underestimated. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states no longer appear to regard Assad as a source of regional stability, but as an asset of much-feared rival Iran. Materiel, intelligence, financial, and political support from the Gulf and other parts of the Arab world for any armed rebellion in Syria could be significant. And if the conflict intensifies, pressure on the West to become involved will mount for both moral and strategic reasons.
The risks of launching a full-scale civil war on behalf of the opposition, however, are enormous, and not just because of the probably heavy death toll. There are real doubts about the plausibility of unseating the Damascus regime by force. Unless large parts of the army defect along with their heavy weaponry, a Syrian civil war would pit opposition groups with small arms, explosive devices, and improvised weaponry -- a guerrilla insurgency -- against Assad's formidable and highly mechanized military machine.
The rebels would also risk losing the moral legitimacy of nonviolence, finally providing the regime with a semblance of arguments that it is combating "terrorists" or "armed gangs," as it has so far described the protesters. As with other underground opposition movements in the contemporary Arab uprisings, the Syrian opposition would no doubt include Salafist and even Salafist-Jihadist elements, further strengthening regime claims that it is combating Al Qaeda and similarly nefarious organizations.
There are also significant concerns that a civil war in Syria could turn into a proxy conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Writer and analyst Meir Javedanfar has suggested that Iran might reluctantly welcome such a conflict because "it would help Tehran undermine Israel's security and Saudi Arabia's interests." This could seriously damage Iran's already frayed relations with its erstwhile ally Hamas and could lead to major tensions with Turkey, but Tehran may feel it has no choice other than to push back against its regional rivals through Syria.
Bruce Riedel recently noted that for their part, "The Saudis sense a strategic opportunity has opened in Syria, a unique chance to deal a mortal blow to one of their enemies, the Shia terror group Hezbollah, and a serious blow to their regional adversary Iran." Saudi Arabia and even Israel appear to believe that, while chaos and civil conflict in Syria is very dangerous to their interests, the fall of Assad would be a potentially calamitous blow to Iran. The West would have an obvious stake in helping to ensure that Iran's allies do not prevail. Syrians on both sides of the divide might be able to find foreign patrons prepared to help, but risk turning a Syrian civil conflict into a proxy battle, a violent outlet for the ongoing Middle Eastern Cold War.
A Troubled Opposition
By using extreme measures against unarmed protesters, the Assad regime has made it quite clear how it would react to any genuine armed rebellion. Taking up arms would mean facing the unrestrained wrath of a large, disciplined, well armed, and, apparently, fiercely loyal elite military who already appear capable of almost unimaginable levels of cruelty. Syrians, perhaps more than any other Arabs, are intimately familiar with both the self-crucifixion of Lebanon and the sectarian carnage in Iraq.
The opposition has so far been unable to organize even politically. Could it really organize a coherent armed rebellion? Unlike in Libya, there is no clear political body for the international community to engage with, as Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton has pointed out.
Sectarian differences, tensions between secularists and Islamists, internal and external opposition groups, personal and ideological rivalries, and other divisive factors have thus far prevented the development of a single coherent opposition grouping. Most worryingly, Kurdish figures walked out of one of the latest of many opposition conferences, protesting that most of the participants wanted any post-Assad Syria to remain defined as an "Arab" country, as the current designation "the Syrian Arab Republic" has it.
Opposition hopes currently rest on long-time dissident Burhan Ghalioun, who agreed, apparently reluctantly, to lead the self-described "Syrian National Council," the latest effort at an alternative national leadership. But his unenthused and apparently haphazard appointment is not encouraging. Traditional opposition leaders and young protesters still appear divided. These would-be political leaders could be simply brushed aside by an ad hoc leadership of armed men -- especially one driven by the worst elements of banditry, Salafism, and even Salafist-Jihadism.
Prospects for Outside Action
The long-term success of an armed uprising in Syria would probably require not just Arab and Turkish but also Western assistance. However, the appetite in the West for getting involved a civil conflict in Syria is virtually nonexistent, due to reasonable anxieties about a spillover effect into neighboring countries, particularly Lebanon and Iraq. Therefore, overt encouragement at this stage, let alone materiel support or the remote contingency of a limited engagement along the lines of the Libya intervention, is hard to imagine at this stage. French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, continuing his country's aggressive stance as the leading European force supporting some key Arab uprisings such as that in Libya, recently ruled out any military intervention but insisted, "we need to accelerate regime change."
However, if the Syrian opposition creates a unified front, builds a credible (if initially outmatched) rebel fighting force with Arab and possibly Turkish support lines, establishes some sort of rival government or authority, and enters into a protracted civil conflict with the Assad regime, how long could the West neutrally sit on the sidelines as if it had no stake in the outcome? Regional forces appear to be preparing for the possibility of such a conflict, as are elements of the Syrian opposition, and so does the Assad regime itself, which is leaving the opposition few viable alternatives. Under such circumstances, the United States and its Western allies had better think seriously about what it will do if and when a full-blown civil war erupts in Syria.