The Syrian Stalemate

January 7, 2013 Topic: Failed States Region: Syria

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.

In a further sign of the growing influence of the Islamist opposition, the declaration indicated that the Front "seeks to build a civilized Islamic society governed by the rule of God and in which Muslim and non-Muslim alike will benefit from Islam's justice."

Parallel to this is a development that makes a resolution of the Syrian conflict nearly impossible on sectarian grounds. The military situation in Syria seems to be moving more toward a stalemate as the regime repositions its reinforcements along the approaches of the Alawi heartland in the provinces of Latakia and Tartous. Moreover, the regime, despite its efforts to keep fighting in most provinces and especially in the country's major urban cities, is apparently redrawing the borders of its Alawi stronghold to include the areas in the provinces of Idlib, Hama, and Homs (in which sizable Shi'a, Ismaili and Christian minorities reside). Already, a significant number of minorities from different parts of the country have moved to these areas, including Latakia and Tartous. The regime has worked hard to make these areas safe havens.

The regime also has tried very hard to keep control of the major highway connecting Aleppo with Hama and Homs in order to protect both the mobility of its troops and access to its stronghold. These maneuvers are more or less similar to those undertaken by the Ba'thi regime in 1963 and 1964, following an abortive coup by Nasserites. (It's noteworthy that Alawi officers met Alawi dignitaries, shortly after the abortive Nasserite coup of July 18, 1963, to lay foundational plans for the future establishment of an Alawi state with the city of Homs as its capital.)

The regime, backed by Iran, Hezbollah and, to a lesser extent, Iraq, will most likely dig its heels into its stronghold, and try to let the conflict spill over into neighboring countries. Certain Lebanese areas, such as Tripoli, Akkar and Sidon, have already become a cauldron of intense sectarianism. This likely scenario, if not countervailed, will undoubtedly plunge Syria deeper into bloodshed.

Since Washington's influence in Syria will wane as Islamist power waxes, a negotiated settlement along the lines of what Simes and Saunders have recommended is most suitable for Syrians and the U.S. national interest. As such, Washington should cooperate with Moscow on a solution that might entail protecting some Russian influence and a Alawi holdover in a post-Assad Syria. But in order for this diplomatic initiative to sail through, a major military offensive is needed to pressure hard-line Iranians and Alawis into believing that that their interests are better served with an U.S.-Russian negotiated settlement. In other words, diplomacy should coincide with a military offensive aimed at disrupting the major artery connecting Aleppo, Hama and Homs. It must move the bulk of the battles to Homs, Hama and their hinterlands. They are the gateway to the Alawi heartland and the key to ending the regime's last hope of survival.

Robert G. Rabil is associate professor of political science and the LLS Distinguished Professor of Current Events at Florida Atlantic University. He is the author of Syria, United States and the War on Terror in the Middle East and most recently Religion, National Identity and Confessional Politics in Lebanon: The Challenge of Islamism.

Image: FreedomHouse