Syria’s crisis is now a year old, with close to 10,000 people, mostly civilians, dead – and no end in sight. The country is at a stalemate: the opposition is unable to topple President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, and Assad’s forces are unable to quash the resistance.
Both sides are adamant: the opposition is determined to bring down a regime that it views as illegitimate, sectarian, corrupt, tyrannical, and stained with blood, while the regime’s hard-line core believes that by persevering it will ultimately silence the opposition, whereas any concession would jeopardize its very existence. Its downfall, they believe, would mean dispossession and death for the regime’s leadership and for a large part of the minority Alawite community from which it is drawn.
Assad and his cohorts are encouraged by the world’s failure to respond effectively to their brutal suppression of the revolt in Homs, and have proceeded to inflict vicious punishment on its survivors as a warning to opponents elsewhere. This may cow some of Syria’s civilian population in the short term, but it will serve only to exacerbate popular rage, and thus to increase the prospect of a bloody reckoning with Assad and his cronies down the line.
Today’s brutal stalemate is likely to continue for some time. Diplomatic and humanitarian missions led by former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan and current UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Valerie Amos seem as ineffective as earlier efforts by the international community and the Arab League to mitigate the conflict or to facilitate a political solution.
To be sure, the authorities have suffered some defections, with the most significant coming soon after the violence in Homs reached its peak, when the deputy energy minister resigned and joined the opposition. But, while defections have occurred among the officer corps as well, the regime has maintained its basic cohesiveness.
The army, the security apparatus, and the Alawite community are still solidly supportive. A large part of the Syrian population – the middle class in Damascus and Aleppo, the Christians, and other minorities – are passive or sitting on the fence, worried that the alternative to the status quo is chaos, civil war, and possibly a radical Islamist takeover. And Russia and China continue to provide diplomatic cover, with Iran sending material support. Life in Damascus, despite increasing shortages, seems almost normal.
The regime’s foes, on the other hand, seem undeterred by the killings, continuing to stage protests across Syria. Armed opposition is spreading, albeit slowly. The Western countries, Turkey, and most of the Arab world are incensed by the brutal killing and destruction, and pressure to intervene and stiffen international sanctions is building.
But regional and international pressure on Assad has been ineffective. While the Arab League seemed to act decisively last November when it suspended Syria’s membership, the military-observer mission that it sent to Syria was a farce. Turkey’s initiatives have lost steam, and the United States and its European allies are merely going through the diplomatic motions; in practice, their efforts imply little serious impact on the regime.
America and the West claim that they cannot act significantly without a UN mandate, which Russia and China are denying them by vetoing anti-Syrian resolutions in the Security Council. But the truth is that governments in Washington, London, Paris, and elsewhere could do much more without a Security Council resolution.
Perhaps most strikingly, while some governments have closed their embassies in Damascus (citing safety considerations), there has been no systematic severing of diplomatic relations with Syria. Indeed, there has been no stoppage of flights to and from the country, or any other measures that could tilt the population of Damascus and Aleppo against the regime and bring the crisis to an end.
This ambivalence can largely be explained by Western and Arab concern with the weakness and opacity of the Syrian opposition’s political leadership. There is a dramatic discrepancy between the courage and tenacity of the demonstrators and fighters in Homs, Idlib, and Deraa, and the Syrian National Front, whose people and factions have failed to formulate a coherent political program, build an identity, and obtain name and face recognition. Western policymakers and those in the Gulf ask themselves what Syria would look like the day after Assad is toppled. This was starkly illustrated in the second week of March, when US defense officials vented their frustration with the Syrian opposition in several press briefings.
The regime has been effective in exploiting that uncertainty by spreading the fear of an Egyptian scenario, in which the weakness of secular activists leads to a takeover by the Muslim Brothers and jihadis. In fact, it is difficult to separate cause from effect. Recognizing the opposition as the legitimate government of Syria, as was done in Libya, would give Assad’s foes a boost, but, so far, they lack the gravitas that such a bold measure would require.
The opposition must build itself as a credible and attractive alternative to the Assad regime, and the regime’s international and regional critics must assist in that process. Assad’s regime is doomed. It has no legitimacy, and it is bound to fall. But that could take a long time – and come at an alarming cost. The alternative is an effective opposition that enjoys unambiguous support by the key regional and international actors.