Is Civil War in Syria Inevitable?

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

ibisb sep6 p.jpg
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.

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.