The Syrian Stalemate

Sectarian tensions have made the conflict transnational.

In December, Russian deputy foreign minister Mikhail Bogdanov noted that "the Syrian government is losing control of an ever widening portion of the country." From the moment he spoke, the tempo of statements predicting the imminent collapse of the Syrian regime in some European capitals and around Washington's Beltway reached a giddying peak. This is wishful thinking: it is premature to assume that the days of the regime are numbered and folly to assume that the fight for Syria will end with the fall of the regime.

The Obama administration has lost its opportunity to shape the future of a post-Assad Syria. Therefore, it should formulate a policy along the lines of what Dimitri K. Simes and Paul J. Saunders have perceptively recommended: seek a negotiated settlement with the help of Russia to end the fighting.

The Alawi-dominated Assad regime has lost both legitimacy and control over large swaths of Syrian territories. Conversely, the Syrian opposition has made strides in putting the regime on the defensive, while at the same time growing more powerful and bold. Nevertheless, this military shift in favor of the opposition does not spell the imminent collapse of the regime.

The Syrian war has become bigger than the battle for Syria. The conflict has taken on interrelated sectarian, religious and regional dimensions that Syrians themselves cannot resolve on their own. Syria today faces a stark choice between resolving the conflict on terms acceptable to Russian and regional powers or plunging deeper into sectarian bloodshed—irrespective of whether or not President Assad is in power.

A Sectarian and Transnational Conflict

In contrast to what the opposition Syrian National Council recently stated, the revolution in Syria has become sectarian and bloody. Broadly speaking, Sunnis are killing and kidnapping Alawis and their cognate sects, and the Alawis are doing the same. The uprising against the oppressive rule of the Assad regime has lost its revolutionary fervor in support of democratic principles as radical Islamist forces from within and beyond the borders of Syria began to stake a significant role in the rebellion.

Sectarian polarization has awakened long-suppressed revanchist religio-political impulses. Humiliated and persecuted by the Assad regime and its allies in Tehran and West Beirut, Sunni Islamists found common cause in working together to remove the regime, regardless of their origins or ideological backgrounds. Thus, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and the Free Syrian Army (more or less) joined foreign Salafi-Jihadi groups in the fight against the regime. No less significant, Saudi and Qatari support for certain Salafist groups has enhanced this cooperation for the common cause of overthrowing the Assad regime. The unintended consequence of this cooperation has been the creation of transnational alliances that drove a wedge in Syria's national integrity.

Even noncommitted Christians have become a target of this blind sectarian warfare that engulfed Syria. Recently, Al-Ansar brigade in Hama warned two Christian towns, Mharda and Sqilbiya, that they will be attacked if they don't evict regime forces.

Conversely, Shia Islamists have rushed to help their beleaguered brethrens. Notwithstanding sectarian solidarity, several factors have have motivated this Shia Islamist drive toward Damascus: Shia and Alawi historical indignation at the hands of Sunni rulers; regional strategic considerations revolving around Iran's projection of regional power and protection of its nuclear program; and cultivated relationships between Iran and Syria on one side and Alawis and Lebanese Shia on the other. Iran has made it clear to Russia and Arab parties that it will not forsake the Assad regime even if the whole world rallied against it. Nothing reflected this defiant attitude more than Secretary General of Hezbollah Hassan Nasrallah's recent statement: "The current situation in Syria has grown more complicated, and those who think and believe that the armed opposition is capable of finishing off the battle are very, very, very dubious." As such, the Assad regime has received lifeline support from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah's militants, and this support may increase to fend off the growing power of Sunni Islamists in Syria.

The battle for Syria has become an extension of the region's unsettled cold war following the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. There is a rising and assertive Persian and Shia power on one side and a defensive Arab conservative force feeding a Salafist assertiveness on the other.

The Endgame

Syrian national coexistence has not been the only victim of this rabid sectarianization and Islamization of the conflict. Washington's current and future influence in Syria has been no less affected. The more the conflict has Islamized, the more influence Washington has lost with Syrian opposition groups. The reaction from Syrian opposition groups to Washington's designation of the Islamist opposition organization Jabhat al-Nusra as a "foreign terrorist organization" demonstrated Washington's weakened influence. Not only did the Muslim Brotherhood and the recently U.S.-recognized Syrian National Coalition oppose and condemn Washington's decision, but most notably, non-Islamist members of the opposition joined the chorus criticizing Washington. Shortly thereafter, on December 22, 2012, eleven Islamist battalions declared the creation of the Syrian Islamic Front, with the objective of overthrowing the Assad regime.