As the violence in Syria continues to escalate, the question of how to respond is now confronting the international community with increased urgency. One way to judge how this should unfold is to consider not only the kinds of principles that need to be promoted?like human rights, security, and democracy?but the situation as it exists.
Last Wednesday, in a major blow to the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, a suicide attack killed the defense minister, Daoud Rajiha, and his deputy, Assef Shawkat (who is also president?s brother-in-law). This was part of a broader effort that saw rebel forces?made up of former army soldiers and volunteers?mount an offensive on Damascus, the capital. Since then they have begun seizing border outposts in the northern and eastern parts of the country and have attempted to take Aleppo, Syria?s second city. One of the crossings is the town Abu Kamal, which straddles the border with Iraq and through which most of the goods entering Syria pass.
These developments could reflect a turning point in the conflict that has raged since March 2011 and claimed the lives of more than 10,000 people, according to the United Nations. They also add to the recent momentum that has been building in the rebels? favor.
Earlier this month, Manaf Tlas, a general with close ties to al-Assad, defected and apparently established ties with the opposition. Last week, Nawaf al-Fares, the ambassador to Iraq, also changed sides. Russia, Syria?s major supplier of arms, has promised to stop weapons transfers until stability is restored. On top of this, outside support is being provided to the opposition.
Although details remain murky, the United States does not appear to be funding the opposition but has been giving it communications support. This includes training rebels on how to help break firewalls that limit internet use and advising on how they can ensure the security of their cellular phones. The CIA?anxious to prevent extremist elements within Syria from receiving weapons?has apparently been sorting out which of the many rebel factions will get access but has not itself been providing arms. This task has been taken up by Qatar and Saudi Arabia, both of which are anxious to appease their restive populations, who sympathize with the opposition.
Transported into Syria via Turkey, rocket-propelled grenades, automatic rifles, machine guns, and anti-tank weaponry have allowed the rebels to make important strides in the past few months. They have moved from being a beleaguered force to one that has successfully used guerrilla tactics to carve out areas of control in parts of the country. The decision to attack Damascus reflects this growing power but is no doubt fuelled by the belief that the weapons shipments will continue to pour in. And therein lies the problem (more on that in a bit).
With the memory of Iraq still fresh in their minds, world leaders are not interested in forcibly removing al-Assad from power. Indeed, Russia and China?s vetoes of Security Council resolutions that could bring about an armed intervention are a red herring. The UNSC might choose to aid the rebels from the air?as happened in Libya?but the Syrian military is far more powerful than Gaddafi?s. At the same time, the images of dead Syrians appearing on television screens can?t be ignored forever, and they know there is much political capital to be gained from mixing humanitarianism with foreign policy.
This leaves one option on the table for governments that sympathize with the rebels: joining Qatar and Saudi Arabia and sending even more arms and funds. This?at least from the perspective of those with the power to make decisions?is a cheaper and more efficient option (especially, in the United States, during an election year). If such aid was given on a steady basis, then the government?s days could be numbered.
Yet the likelihood of this is faint at best. In fact, after its jet was shot down by Syria in June, Turkey reportedly put limits on arms transfers, which, in turn, delayed the march on Damascus. The regime?s military strength still easily surpasses anything that the rebels have, or that sympathizers on the Iraqi side of the border could hope to provide. Nouri al-Maliki?s government is still on al-Assad?s side, largely because it wishes to preserve its alliance with Iran but also because of al-Maliki?s background (he was allowed to operate in Syria during his exile in the 1980s and 1990s). In fact, Iraq has already sealed the crossing at Abu Kamal by putting up concrete blast walls meant to block arms from getting into the rebels? hands. Moreover, the area appears to be under the control of only a few fighters?a half dozen, according to one estimate. It is therefore conceivable that this border crossing, along with the others that are held by rebels, could be taken back by state forces if they manage to restore control in the capital.
The make-up of the state?s most important fighting units also deserves attention. Most of those within the military that have withdrawn their support for the regime are Sunni Muslims. While Sunnis make up 75 percent of Syria?s population, it is the Alawites, a Muslim minority sect (which al-Assad belongs to), who represent the army?s dominant element. Because their religious practices are viewed as heretical by many Sunnis?they celebrate Christmas, Palm Sunday, and Easter?relations between the two communities are strained. Added to this is the memory of France?s divide-and-rule tactics when it administered Syria from 1920 until 1946. The northwestern region of Latakia (where most Alawites live) was given a wide measure of autonomy in exchange for helping the French put down Sunni-led rebellions; the same region came to control the state because of its prominence in the armed forces.
Today, the Alawites make up an estimated 70 percent of the elite units in the military, which have carried out most of the fighting against the rebels, and 80 percent of the officer class. They are also in charge of watching over Syria?s vast arsenal of chemical weapons. For this reason, the decisions they make about whether to continue fighting have far-reaching implications. Fearful that the toppling of al-Assad will lead to a Sunni-dominated state and revenge attacks, Alawites have not defected en masse, and reamin unlikely to do so. The resulting stability this provides the regime might be enough for it to overcome the instances of disloyalty that have arisen in recent weeks. It may also help it outlast the attempt to take Damascus.
As for Russia, its pledge to suspend arms sales won?t hold for long. In the past, Moscow has frequently relented to pressure from Syria?s enemies, such as Israel, and halted transfers of fighter jets and missiles to the country?only to resume shipments when it saw fit. This partly reflects a geopolitical strategy. Russia is worried about the instability in Syria and its other ally in the region, Iran, and is therefore eager to forge relations with Tel Aviv. It also worries that any intervention would add to a growing list of precedents?Kosovo, Iraq, and Libya?that have enabled regime change to take place and which could one day be used against it.
Beyond this, however, arms sales serve an economic need: the defense industry in Russia employs around 3 million people and accounts for 20 percent of all manufacturing jobs. Furthermore, the money at stake?Russian firms generated nearly $5 billion in weapons sales to Syria between 2007 and 2010?almost ensures that the relationship will be renewed quickly, thus giving Damascus the chance to continue its violent suppression of the uprising.
Taken together, all of this means that pronouncements about the imminent collapse of the Syrian state?usually issued by the opposition?have come far too soon. Hence, there is no in between when it comes to helping the rebels: either they will be given everything they need to succeed without interruption or a long, drawn-out war will ensue. Worse still, if the arms shipments from Russia resume and are not matched with equal commitment to the rebels by the West, they will be slaughtered along with their supporters (just like the thousands of Iraqi Kurds who were killed in the mid-1970s after Iran and the United States suddenly withdrew their assistance). And if the international community isn?t prepared to lend ongoing support, then it must acknowledge the continued need for a negotiated solution.
With both sides seemingly bent on defeating each other in the short-term, a prolonged battle is set to plague the country for the next few weeks and, probably, months. But when the dust settles there is a strong likelihood the regime will still be standing?it has already pushed most of the rebels out of Damascus and appears ready to do the same in Aleppo. While it is true that the Syrian authorities have not shown a great willingness to engage in dialogue, al-Assad did suggest to Kofi Annan only a few weeks ago that he was interested in reaching out to the rebels through an interlocutor. Whether this was a bluff meant to buy more time is beside the point. Negotiations could be the best way to end the violence, because the state is still the strongest player within Syria and has the ability to carry out even greater brutality than it has already. After all, the only way to deal with one?s enemies is to either crush them in an endless war or talk to them: the Taliban and Mao?s China serve as apt examples.
One possible route is to begin talks on the list of reforms suggested by al-Assad in February when he promised a referendum on a new constitution that would have apparently guaranteed a multiparty system, freedom of speech, and presidential term limits. While it does not appear that he was serious?the provision on fixed term limits would have only been applied from 2014 onward, allowing al-Assad to stay in power until 2028?the gains made by his opponents in recent weeks could change his tone. It is an option that should at least be explored. The alternative is to allow the conflict to play out; that decision stands to make the hardship that now confronts the Syrian people even worse.
Peter Fragiskatos holds a PhD in international relations from Cambridge University and teaches at the University of Western Ontario. Follow him on Twitter @pfragiskatos.