x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Assad's demise is the only future Syrians can agree on

The International Crisis Group last week warned that the Assad regime is morphing from a government into a factional militia.

A week is a long time in politics, goes an old saying, and by that measure, the past 17 months of bloodletting in Syria have been an eternity.

In that time, so much has changed both inside and outside Syria that nobody can say how or when the civil war will end. In fact, the conflict may already have ruptured Syria's foundations as a nation state, and it has buried the post-Cold War geopolitical order in which the western powers, acting in the name of the "international community", felt free to intervene to reorder troublesome regions.

But while the Syrian outcome remains unknown, it's a relatively safe bet that it won't end happily. Civil wars rarely do.

After a year and a half of escalating warfare, the regime hasn't crumbled, even though it has lost control over vast swathes of territory and can no longer be said to govern in any meaningful sense. Monday's defection of Prime Minister Riyad Hijab was a reminder that President Bashar Al Assad is also starting to lose the elite Sunni support that allowed an Alawite minority regime to present a "national" face.

But the willingness of hardcore Alawite loyalists to die and kill for the regime has, if anything, intensified. As the International Crisis Group warned last week, the Assad regime is morphing from a government into a factional militia, "mutating in ways that make it impervious to political and military setbacks, indifferent to pressure and unable to negotiate.

"Opposition gains terrify Alawites, and defections solidify the ranks of those who remain loyal. Territorial losses can be dismissed for the sake of concentrating on 'useful' geographic areas. Sanctions give rise to an economy of violence wherein pillaging, looting and smuggling ensure self-sufficiency and over which punitive measures have virtually no bearing. That the regime has been weakened is incontrovertible. But it has been weakened in ways that strengthen its staying power."

When viewed through the regime's sectarian prism, defections of senior Sunni figures - or conscript infantrymen - become almost predictable. But the Alawite core in the security forces and the shabbiha militias fights with increasing ferocity, convinced that a triumph by the rebellion means their grisly demise. Much of the Alawite community sees its fate as tied to Assad's, while the Christians and other minorities remain at best ambivalent towards the rebellion.

The revolt has also changed: The broad-based unarmed civil society uprising among urban activists that began 17 months ago has been eclipsed by an armed rebellion of growing military capability but little internal cohesion or connection to the political opposition, and a strong Islamist component that includes a small coterie of foreign fighters whose presence sparks much western hand-wringing.

The exile-based Syrian National Council, on whom western and Arab powers had pinned their hopes, has failed to achieve coherence, much less political authority over the armed forces of the rebellion or the internal political opposition. The agenda of the rebellion is being set, increasingly, by the hard men, and the longer the war persists, the greater the bitterness driving both sides to fight.

Once it became impossible to suppress the rebellion through violence, Mr Al Assad chose sectarian warfare, mindful of how it preserved the regime's core. And he has shown a keen ability to improvise in manipulating minority politics, ceding control of Syria's Kurdish northeast to Kurdish militias trained and backed by the Iraqi Kurdish leadership in Irbil, in exchange for agreement to remain neutral in the war.

It's as if Mr Al Assad knows his prospects for restoring control over all of Syria have receded, and is now reorganising the distribution of power on the ground to give his side a fighting chance of survival - at least as a faction in control of a major part of Syria. That move also put Turkey on the back foot. Having once been a prime candidate to lead in any outside intervention to topple the Assad regime, instead it finds itself focused on the danger posed by the emergence of a second Kurdish polity on its border for its domestic separatist insurgency waged by the PKK.

Many of those who first rose against Mr Al Assad, hoping to wage an inclusive, peaceful democratic rebellion, have watched uneasily as their struggle has morphed into a full-blown civil war, reinforced by the regional battle for influence between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and also by renewed global strategic competition between the US and Russia and China, which has paralysed the United Nations. Western powers remain unlikely to intervene, unwilling to take on new commitments.

Even if there's a power shift in Damascus, Syria's war could continue. It has already metastasised beyond Syria's borders - through clashes in Lebanon; the Kurdish-Turkish dynamic; the resurgence of Sunni insurgent activity on both sides of the Syria-Iraq border; the influx of refugees to Jordan and a growing awareness in Israel that the perils it faces in Sinai could be dwarfed in the Golan Heights by various jihadist groups should Assad fall.

Syria's rebellion has served as a reminder that the borders that make the up modern nation-states of the Levant are less than a century old, and were artificially grafted onto the old Ottoman province of Syria by Britain and France after the Second World War. The decade book-ended by the US invasion of Iraq and the Syrian rebellion has revealed the dangerous fragility of that system of nation states.

And that's bad news for Syria, whose civil war is in danger of becoming the open wound that can't be healed. As former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan warned in his resignation as the UN-Arab League mediator last week, Syria's only hope is for the emergence of new consensus among Syrians themselves across communal fault lines - and that, in turn, requires accord among all of the international players backing the various factions. Don't hold your breath.


Tony Karon is an analyst based in New York

On Twitter: @TonyKaron