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In Syria, hardening sides, and risks of an even bloodier civil war

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Syria's Bashar al-Assad praised his military today in a written statement and once again branded the uprising against the Baath regime as led by "terrorists." He vowed that his regime will win the Syrian civil war. "Today, as every day, our people look to you as you defend their honor and dignity and give the nation back its stability," his statement said.

But in fact, whatever unity existed among Syria's diverse population, where the minority Alawite sect Mr. Assad hails from has long held a privileged position, has dissolved during 17 months of war. This time the use of torture, summary executions, and collective punishment of whole families that had been so successful down the decades for Assad and his father Hafez has only served to enrage regime opponents, largely drawn from the country's Sunni Arab majority.

Rebel groups continue to hold out against a central government counterattack in parts of Syria's largest city and commercial capital, Aleppo; the country's economy is collapsing from both the war and international sanctions; and some rebel groups are claiming that more arms and money are flowing in from outside to support their cause. Unnamed rebels told NBC yesterday that they'd received a shipment of two-dozen "anti-aircraft missiles" via Turkey. While that report is unconfirmed, the rebels have been receiving outside support for some months now.

So the Syrian regime that is led by Assad is in big trouble, right? Well, yes and no, if a new report from the International Crisis Group report on Syria out this morning gets it right.

The ICG argues that while the Baath regime has been weakened, many Syrians see regime survival now as matter of personal survival. And that whatever chances there ever were for a negotiated end to the war from the side of Assad and his supporters has now vanished. The Sunni-dominated rebel groups, for their part, don't have the military capacity to win Syria's civil war any time soon. And that, the ICG argues, is a recipe for a much deeper humanitarian crisis, with the risk of full-on sectarian bloodletting.

"There are more than enough ominous trends, none more alarming than these: a regime seemingly morphing into a formidable militia engaged in a desperate fight for survival; an Alawite community increasingly embattled and persuaded its fate hinges entirely on the regime's; and an opposition that, despite sometimes heroic efforts to contain them, is threatened by its own forms of radicalisation. Together, this could portend a prolonged, ever more polarized, destructive civil war... both the regime – by design – and its opponents – through negligence – appear to have ensured that a large portion of the Alawite community now feels it has no option but to kill or be killed."

The ICG does propose steps that rebel forces could take to contain the danger. But they are steps that few organic uprisings have ever been able to take in modern history, requiring a great degree of leadership, accountability, and a willingness of commanders in the field to focus more on long term questions of reconciliation than the rough justice the men fighting under them, many of whom have lost family members in the war, will be demanding.

"The regime almost certainly will not change its ways, and so the burden must fall on the opposition to do what – given the immensity of its suffering – must seem an improbable undertaking: seriously address the phenomena of retaliatory violence, sectarian killings and creeping fundamentalism within its ranks; rethink its goal of total regime eradication and instead focus on rehabilitating existing institutions; profoundly reassess relations with the Alawite community; and come up with forward looking proposals on transitional justice, accountability and amnesty... No single indiscriminate massacre of Alawites has yet to be documented, but given current dynamics one almost assuredly lies around the corner."

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The paper acknowledges repeatedly that taking those steps is unlikely. But it bears underlining. The so-called Free Syrian Army (FSA) that is fighting the central government is an army in name only. It is a lose collection of semi-autonomous militias, with a variety of ideologies and political agendas behind them. And the Syrian National Council (SNC) that has sought to present itself as the civilian face of the uprising, a sort of government in waiting, is wracked with political divisions of its own.

A disunited opposition

Manaf Tlass, a Sunni whose father was one of Hafez Assad's strongest and closest hands and was himself a powerful loyalist of Bashar Assad, left the country a few weeks ago and has been shopping himself as a potential broker for a transition, someone who could help keep Syria's institutions – including its security apparatus intact – in the event of rebel victory. That has obviously made many supporters of the uprising uneasy, but has been music to the ears of many international powers, including the US, who now view the American decision to dissolve Saddam Hussein's military and to purge that country's Baath party from political life in 2003 as the single greatest cause of the horrific civil war that followed there. 

The SNC, composed as it is of longtime exiles and recent regime defectors, has rarely been able to maintain the appearance of unity that was so crucial to the Libyan revolution garnering international support. A reminder of that came yesterday, with the announcement of the creation of the "Council for the Syrian Revolution,"  a competitor to the SNC.

So the various opposition personalities abroad are not united, and not really in control of the fighters opposed to Assad on the ground anyway. Local commanders, with new status and real power in their communities, are unlikely to take orders from the outside. The political apparatus around Assad is little better at this point, with his government reduced to governing by force and force alone. It's of course the rule of violence, and the corruption that surrounds it, that set the stage for the uprising. Greater doses of violence reconfirm to the rebellion the necessity of their war.

What kinds of violence? Torture and executions? Sure. Arbitrary shelling of civilian neighborhoods known to harbor rebels? Of course. But the report catalogs just how bad it has gotten. Both the Syrian military and the civilian shabiha militias fighting for Assad have, since the turn of this year, been engaging in "industrial-scale" looting of civilian homes and businesses in restive areas. Arson is a common tool of punishment.

"One of the distinctive traits of the so-called military solution has been the army’s tendency to shell towns and neighborhoods without ever undertaking a ground operation, as if recapture was not an objective," the ICG writes. "As a result, opponents have come to see the regime as capable of the most horrendous exactions. They have come to believe reports that it deliberately targeted children, massacred in cold blood entire families, and engaged in other forms of arbitrary killings, sexually abused women, summarily executed detainees and burned bodies."

What of the international community? Russia and China have successfully opposed international action, something that the US, at any rate, has little stomach for. Kofi Annan has failed as a peace envoy, both because of great-power rivalry and the domestic dynamics of the Syrian war.

The ICG authors write that the future of Syria will hinge on how the Alawites, which make up an estimated 10 percent of the population, are treated in the aftermath of regime defeat. They admit that for the opposition, doing the right thing will be difficult. 

"How will it ensure, tomorrow, that the transition includes the Alawites as full-fledged partners? How can it dismantle the structures of the regime
without punishing the community that, more than others, depended on it? How creative and forward looking can it be regarding questions of transitional justice, accountability, amnesty and the safeguarding of some current institutions? There are no easy responses. As opposition leaders no doubt will be quick to point out, the mood on the street – which, so far, they have felt compelled to respect – hardly is amenable to generous, open-minded proposals."

Follow Dan Murphy on Twitter.

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