The thousands of refugees pouring into Syria,
the YouTube videos showing mass demonstrations, and even the angry condemnations and international sanctions do not necessarily attest to the Assad
regime’s imminent collapse. The opposite may be true: The above attests to the fact that the opposition and Muslim Brotherhood are unable to coalesce the mass demonstrations and sporadic armed rebellions cross Syria into a all-out popular uprising.
Most leaders and groups that are part of the secular-liberal opposition, as well as the Muslim Brotherhood leader, are not in Syria. They are indeed highly successful in their virtual campaign to enlist sympathy for the dissidents and erode Assad’s national and international legitimacy, but are weak when it comes to organization; very weak. They are also unable to offer an alternate regime or leadership.
Hence, nowhere in Syria have we seen a critical mass of motivated protestors that would topple the violent regime (as was the case in Egypt,
Tunisia and partly in Libya as well.) Moreover, after more than three months of upheaval, at this time it appears that the balance is starting to tilt in the regime’s favor. Why?
First, because the Assad family and Baath Party leadership are showing brutal determination in their efforts to hold on to power. There is almost no means – including mass bloodshed – that is off limits as long as they the rebellion is defeated. This determination of course stems from a desire to cling to power, but no less so – and possibly more so – as result of great fear as to the possible fate of members of the ruling Alawite sect and Baath regime activists.
The main element that threatens them and the regime is the Sunnis at rural areas and peripheral towns, which are known to be greatly influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood.
The regime knows that these Sunnis hold an overwhelming majority in the cities and villages in Syria’s north, where large Shiite concentrations of Alawites also exist. Many residents there have stashed weapons in their homes, which have been used in clashes with the regime. Hence, should the army fail to contain the Sunni rebellion, Alawite neighbors can expect a grim fate.
This is what the government means when it justifies the utilization of the army against “armed gangs.” This claim holds more than a grain of truth, but only half the truth. The regime’s propaganda arms make no mention of the thugs who operate against the Sunnis within and alongside the army. These are Alawite citizens and members of the Baath Party who in the 1980s and 1990s were members of militias set up by the Assad family in order to repress the previous rebellion against it. Today, many of them serve in the Syrian security arms and are those who direct sniper fire at unarmed protestors and physically clash with them.
In addition, Alawite citizens are playing an active part in displays of support for the regime and in “minor” clashes with their Sunni neighbors. And so, the main confrontation in Syria at this time is in fact a battle between sects, where the regime protects its own interests and mostly defends the Alawite minority vis-à-vis the Sunni majority.
The Assad regime has been able to secure its objectives thus far because it has managed to maintain loyalty, obedience, and operational capabilities among its main power sources: The army, security arms, Alawite sect and the business community. Syria imposes a mandatory army service and military units are therefore mostly heterogeneous. Members of all sects serve and have been trained to obey, even if these are Sunnis or Kurds who secretly despise the regime. They also know that security officers operating alongside them, and even low-ranking officers within their units, will not hesitate to shoot them in the back should they refuse orders.
Despite this, quite a few Sunni soldiers and low-ranking commanders defected thus far. Yet for the time being at least, it appears that we should not be impressed with these rather sporadic defections. They don’t threaten the regime and cannot even paralyze the units in question. Shaul Menashe, an Iraqi-born expert on Mideastern affairs, says that as a rule, an army threatens the regime only when a significant number of senior commanders in the large corps switch allegiances and come out against the regime in an organized manner. The military key is held by top generals, division commanders and Air Force chiefs.
We should also keep in mind that rebellious ground forces can also be suppressed, as Saddam Hussein did in the past using massive air power. In Syria, 11 of the 12 division commanders in the ground forces are Alawite whose loyalty to the regime is almost absolute. The same is true for a large part of battalion commanders (including Special Force) and top Air Force commanders.
Moreover, the Syrian army includes two divisions – one commanded by Bashar’s Assad Maher and the Republican Guard division – who are almost entirely Alawite. Hence, they are used as the sphere head in suppressing the protests and armed uprisings. The regime mobilizes units form these divisions from one uprising center to another, where they utilize forces without any moral or legal constraints. They also ensure that other military units operating alongside them obey government orders. The same is true for the Air Force.
A third reason for the Syrian regime’s survivability is the international community’s failure to intervene in any effective way in a bid to end the brutal suppression. The absence of effective military and diplomatic pressure grants the army and security arms time and maneuvering space to “take care of” every rebellious site one after the other, and at times simultaneously, until it’s neutralized.
The main reason for the diplomatic and military inaction shown by the West vis-à-vis Syria is the fear that should the Assad regime fall, an all-out civil war between all Syria’s sects will erupt and spill over beyond the country’s borders, destabilizing the entire region. Such war would almost certainly draw the Lebanese Alawites and Hezbollah, who would come to the rescue of Syria’s Shiites on Iran’s orders and with its assistance, as well as the Sunnis and al-Qaeda from Iraq and possibly from Turkey, and the Kurds from Iraq and from Turkey. This would also prompt a huge number of refugees to seek shelter in Lebanon,
Turkey and Iraq.
A second factor preventing global intervention is Russia’s and China’s objection. Russia views Syria as a satellite state not only because of the arms it sells Damascus, but mostly because Assad grants the Russians a naval base, thereby allowing the Kremlin to exercise its influence in the area. China objects in principle to military intervention in the affairs of other states in order to prevent a precedent that may be applied against it should a popular uprising erupt in China as well.
The third reason that prevents military intervention is NATO’s limited force. In Libya it was already proven that European Air Forces lack the armaments and budget need for an effective air campaign against Gaddafi. NATO states headed by the US reached the limit of their economic and military abilities to manage a war through their actions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and now Libya.
Moreover, Syria is not Libya. It has one of the world’s largest aerial defenses arsenals, requiring a major, expensive air campaign to neutralize it. Syria also possesses a huge arsenal of rockets and missiles and may be tempted to use against Israel.
All of the above make Syria almost immune to international intervention, which allows Bashar Assad to “screen” calls from the United Nations chief and blatantly disregard Washington and Paris.