It's comforting to picture President Bashar al-Assad as a Syrian Muammar Gaddafi, being kept in power only by military aid from Iran and Russia, diplomatic cover from Moscow and Beijing—and what Republicans like Senator John McCain say is the "fecklessness" of the Obama Administration. Comforting, but wrong.
Iran, Russia and China may be helping keep Assad in power, but so are whole communities of Syrians who see their own fates tied up with that of the regime. That's why after 15 months of open rebellion and sanctions, the regime remains cohesive, its core security units intact and committed to the bloody suppression of the rebellion. The tenacity and scale of the rebellion may have stretched the capacity of those security forces, and the regime is unable to rely on conscript regular army units to do its dirty work. As a result, Assad's forces have resorted to arming village-level irregulars, the shabiha, to do some of the nastiest work. Reports suggest it was shabiha forces from neighboring villages that carried out much of the vicious, close-quarters massacre of more than 100 people, including 49 children, last week in Houla. And the same appears to have been true at a second massacre, this week, in the village of Qubair.
The shabiha—and, indeed, the regime's core security forces—are drawn from the Alawite minority; their victims are mostly Sunni. They are killing their neighbors not out of personal loyalty to Assad, but fear of what a future without his regime would hold. The Alawites, aquasi-Shiite sect that comprises around 12% of the population, was a long-suffering minority elevated during the French colonial era into a loyalist military caste as a counterweight to Sunni and Christian Arab nationalists. When Assad's father, Hafez al-Assad, seized and consolidated power, the Alawites were the prime beneficiaries. They monopolize the ranks of the bureaucratic and security elite, enjoying a stature not unlike the position of the minority Sunnis in the Iraq of Saddam Hussein.
The frenzy with which many Alawites have been ready to bludgeon opponents of the regime reflects the success of Assad in presenting himself as their protector, and perhaps also the failure of the opposition thus far to appeal to the regime's traditional base. Sectarian civil war may even have been a path chosen by Assad when the rebellion first began in the belief that it tied his regime's fate to those of its core constituencies and potentially also made him indispensable to restoring the peace. (Slobodan Milosevic employed a similar tactic in the Balkans.) But today sectarian civil war has become a reality. And that means it won't be ended by solutions that fail to take account of its sectarian nature, and frame the issues simply as a dictatorship vs. a popular uprising.
"The fight is much more about the implications for redistribution of power between communities in Syria than it is about constitutionalism and democracy," explains Vali Nasr of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International studies. "It's really about management and redistribution of ethnic and sectarian power, but the United States really doesn't have a strategy for dealing with the sectarian issues in the region."
Until communities that remain firmly in the regime's camp can be convinced that their lives and livelihoods -- and their communal interests -- are not imperiled by the rebellion, Assad will have an army willing to kill to preserve his regime. And foreign powers will remain reluctant to commit forces to a conflict that looks more like Bosnia than Libya.
A similar principle applies to the diplomatic front: Russia and China remain committed to oppose any military intervention in Syria, and are determined to ensure that Syria does not become an opportunity to extend Western influence in the region. Iran is aggressively helping Assad's efforts to repress the rebellion, mindful of the geopolitical stakes in his fall -- indeed, many in Washington advocate intervention to topple Assad precisely because that would weaken Tehran. UN Special Envoy Kofi Annan now appears to be advocating a "Contact Group" model for enforcing a peace plan, by forging a consensus between the permanent members of the UN plus Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran. The U.S. is balking at including Tehran in any such process, but again, unless all stakeholders can see their concerns addressed, the civil war will also be a proxy conflict between regional power players, more like Lebanon's 17-year sectarian civil war -- harder than ever to resolve.