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Syria's quagmire points to eventual foreign intervention

The most realistic scenario in Syria is quagmire: Assad still has loyalty; the opposition is splintered, though protests continue; and the international community is indecisive, including the Arab League. But stalemate could finally prompt foreign intervention and a needed 'safe zone.'

Anti-Syrian regime protesters shout slogans as they march in a demonstration Jan. 17 in the mountain resort town of Zabadani, Syria, near the border with Lebanon. Opposition activists said Syrian troops shelled Zabadani, which has come under the control of Army defectors. Syria's powerful ally Russia said Jan. 18 it would block any attempt by the West to secure UN support for the use of force against the regime.

AP Photo

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Much of the analysis of the crisis in Syria looks at the upheaval through a binary lens: Either Bashar al-Assad manages to defeat his political opponents and his regime survives, or the regime collapses and a new political leadership takes control of the country.

But there is a third, increasingly more realistic, possibility: prolonged internal violence under a weakened and failing – but neither defeated nor failed – Assad regime.

Under this framework, a better question to ask about Syria’s future would be: How long can a regime function in this “failing state limbo” and how long can it endure massive internal violence before imploding?

In Syria, the answer depends on three main factors: the strength and cohesion of the regime and its coercive apparatus, the strength and cohesion of the civil opposition to the regime, and the degree of international involvement. A brief analysis of these three elements explains why the prolonged-violence scenario seems the most likely for Syria and the Assad regime.

First, President Assad can count on a relatively strong and united regime and, specifically, he can count on the loyalty of the Army and coercive apparatus. Unlike in Tunisia and Egypt, the Syrian military and security branches are closely identified with and connected to the regime. The potential downfall of Assad directly threatens their own status and power, giving them a strong incentive to continue backing him.

Similarly, the patronage networks created in the past decades by the minority Alawite rulers now serve as an additional incentive for security personnel and government officials alike to stand by the regime. In this sense, the regime is still strong and internally cohesive, despite some defections from the security and policy offices.


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