"This is a situation that is rapidly spinning out of control," U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Wednesday, following the Damascus bombing that killed four key figures in the inner circle of Syria's President Bashar Assad. "And for that reason it's extremely important that the international community [...has] to bring maximum pressure on Assad to do what's right — to step down and to allow for that peaceful transition." Panetta's concern is understandable, because not only is Syria no longer under the effective control of the Assad regime, but the outcome of its civil war is increasingly beyond the control of outside powers. Russia and China's veto of the latest Western UN Security Council resolution calling for Assad's ouster made clear that there will be no international cooperation on securing a soft landing for Assad regime. Indeed, this week's fighting in Damascus, and the likelihood of a ferocious response by the regime, has rendered ever more remote the prospect for a political settlement to Syria's power struggle. The denouement of the Assad regime is likely to be nasty, brutish and not especially short.
No amount of violence mustered by the regime now is likely to restore the status quo ante — indeed, having seen the writing on the wall, much of the Sunni elite that had backed the regime has begun to peel away from Assad. And the loss of Sunni support underscores the limit on the ability of a regime dominated by the Alawite minority–with support from Syria's Christians and other even smaller minorities–to rule over all of a country with a Sunni majority of more than two thirds.
Losing the Sunnis also negates the regime's Baathist ideological narrative of Arab unity – styling itself as guardian of a pan-Arab nationalism willing to stand up to Israel had always served the domestic political function of legitimizing Alawite minority rule in a majority Sunni country. Still, the regime's sectarian core interests (and fears among Alawites, Christians and other minorities of a gruesome fate should Assad fall) has kept the core of the regime intact until now. With his back to the wall, Assad will likely strike out more brutally than ever. And even if he's forced out, there may be many more months of sectarian violence.
Opposition activists and some analysts have long suggested that the Assad loyalists, once they accept their inability to control all of Syria, may instead circle the wagons in their own strongholds — north Damascus, for example, as opposed to the southern, mostly Sunni suburbs of the capital where fighting has raged this week — or even more dramatically, into an Alawite rump state along the coast, supported by Russia whose naval facility at Tartous it would likely include. In other words, they predict either a Yugoslavia-style breakup of Syria into separate mini-states, or else an institutionalized civil war such as the one that continued for 17 years in neighboring Lebanon, with different neighborhoods of the capital, Beirut, held by rival armed formations.
Some see a pattern of ethnic cleansing emerging in attacks on Sunni neighborhoods aimed at securing the territory of the Alawite statelet. And moves orchestrated by Iraq's Kurdish leadership to forge a unity agreement among rival Kurdish factions to protect an autonomous zone in the north portend a Kurdish mini-state similar to the one in northern Iraq.
University of Oklahoma Syria specialist Joshua Landis finds the 'Alawite state' scenario unconvincing. "Once the regime loses Damascus, it's finished," he answers. "The Alawite mountains are not sufficient basis for a nation state. It has no separate economy of its own, and the regime hasn't planned for this. Such an entity wouldn't have an external backer — Iran wouldn't be in any position to provide the necessary support. Once the Sunnis own the capital and the income from the oil fields, they'd make short work of any remaining Alawite resistance."
Once the regime departs the capital, it effectively vacates the structure of its power, Landis argues. There's no system for organizing Alawite power once that happens. And that raises the danger of even more vicious fighting ahead, spearheaded by the Shabiha units of pro-regime thugs often led by men no older than 21.
Even if it's not the final outcome, it's quite conceivable that Syria's civil war passes through a potentially protracted and bloody phase in which rival power centers control different pieces of territory.
Like Yugoslavia, the Syrian nation state was an invention of the victorious Western powers in the wake of World War I. Those same Western powers saw no reason to stop the unraveling of their handiwork in the Balkans seven decades later, but in Syria — where the geopolitical and security stakes are much higher — they're desperate to preserve a strong central authority in the Syria they created in the 1920s. Whether such an outcome is still possible, however, remains to be seen — and will be decided among the Syrians themselves.