In his latest speech, Bashar al-Assad made it clear that he is unwilling to compromise and is willing to fight until the very end. What isn’t clear is whether he will make widespread use of chemical weapons against his own people.
Assad himself, his government, and nearly all of the country’s military officers come from the Alawites, a formerly-persecuted minority, who fear that this war is a matter of kill-or-be-killed. The Alawites make up about twelve per cent of Syria’s population. A heretical sect in the eyes of orthodox Sunni Muslims, the Alawites lived an isolated existence for centuries as their religion evolved to reflect various folk traditions.
The Alawites don’t have many defenders in the Arab world, partly because of religious differences and partly because of the horrible nature of the Baathist regime they have controlled since the 1960s. It doesn’t help that they’re a pawn of Iranian interests. Thus, the regime’s fall — whenever that might happen — will not be widely mourned in the Arab world outside of Iran and Hezbollah (another Iranian pawn).
The fall of the Assad regime most likely will be widely celebrated in the West — but the prospect of a well-organized Syrian expatriate community forming a government for any length of time would a losing bet. They might have the support of the Obama administration and others but they do not stand a chance of holding power in Syria for any period of time, barring some sort of international occupation.
Thus, it seems that the people who eventually will take power in Syria are the armed men who control the country’s streets, villages and towns right now. They do not speak with one voice; the rebel ‘army’ is really families and communities struggling to protect themselves from the Assad regime.
The so-called ‘Free Syrian Army’ has no command of or control over its constituent units. The idea of foreign jihadis — al-Qaeda and its followers — infiltrating the Syrian opposition and coming to power in Damascus is an unrealistic one. There is little evidence that foreign jihadis represent anything more than a small number of those fighting the Assad regime.
Syria does not need foreign jihadis and radical Islamists — it has more than enough of the homegrown variety. This is where people so often miss the nature of Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood, easily the most coherent political force in Syria’s opposition today. It is an organization stuck in a time warp from 1982, when it lost the last round of Syria’s long civil war, and has been waiting for its chance at revenge.
Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood is not like its analogues in Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan or Morocco. It has not been part of the political process for decades, “tamed” by having to get its hands dirty in the everyday stuff of politics. It has been a capital offense to be a member or give any support to the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria for three decades. As a result, the organization is secretive and opaque, and it is not clear how much its cadres inside the country interact with its exiled leadership.
Neither Syria nor the region would be well served by a decisive victory by either the Assad regime or by the opposition. Breathless supporters of Syria’s revolution need to be careful what they wish for. The most powerful elements of Syria’s armed opposition almost certainly would be no friends of liberal democracy were they to seize power for themselves.
Consider this: The dissidents who brought down autocratic governments in Egypt and Tunisia — even the political Islamists among them — were far more politically liberal than their counterparts in Syria. And look at those countries now.
What, then? It might not be fashionable to say so, but a negotiated outcome remains the best option to end the killing and prevent the worst elements from winning Syria. An outright opposition victory likely would produce a momentary air of euphoria before the steep decline toward autocracy and darkness began.
If the rebels do overthrow the Assad regime, the Obama administration might go down in history as having let it happen.