Why Syrians fight, and why their civil war may be a long one

Tony Karon writes: The reason that there’s no plausible end-game in Syria anytime soon — and that thousands more Syrians may be fated to die before the conflict is ended — is that the Assad regime is fighting a very different war to the one envisaged by many of its opponents. For Arab and Western powers, and many Syrians, President Bashar Assad is a doomed despot desperately holding on by force to the power he can never hope to exercise by democratic consent. But for Assad — and more importantly, for the minority Allawite community on which his regime is based — this is an existential struggle against an implacable sectarian foe. A majority of Syrians may be fighting for their rights and dignity; for the ruling minority it’s a battle to avoid the fate that befell Iraq’s Sunnis after the fall of their brutal benefactor, Saddam Hussein.

There’s no way of establishing its veracity, but one anecdote from the tormented city of Homs speaks volumes about how Syria’s power struggle is likely to play out: As regime forces continue to exact an horrific toll in their bombardment of Bab Amr and other opposition-controlled Sunni neighborhoods, residents in adjacent Allawite communities allege that the rebels are retaliating for regime attacks by firing mortars into Allawite neighborhoods. The Allawites of Homs, so the tale goes, are livid that the regime hasn’t more forcefully crushed the uprising, accusing President Assad of being too fearful of foreign intervention to smash the rebel forces with the ruthlessness his father would have mustered.

The story could be true, or it could simply be propaganda fare aimed at whipping up Allawite fears — either way, though, it resonates with the deep fear of sectarian retribution among the minority sect that constitutes the key pillar of the regime’s support. Whatever their views of Assad, many Allawites — a community in which, by some estimates, every family has at least one member in the security forces, and which dominates the key structure of power — are willing to fight to preserve the system of minority rule over which he has presided, first and foremost out of fear of the alternative.

At least two thirds of Syria’s population are Sunni Arabs, yet the country is ruled by an authoritarian regime dominated by Allawites — a syncretic offshoot of Shi’ism that comprises some 12% of the population. But the Assad regime presents itself as the guarantor of the interests not only of Allawites, but also Syria’s Christians (10%), Kurds (10%) and smaller communities of Druze, Yazidis, Ismailis and Circassians — against the specter of a vengeful sectarian Sunni Muslim Brotherhood. No surprise, then, that the regime has, through its own violent strategy, encouraged the rebellion against Assad’s rule onto the path of sectarian civil war. Call it Assad’s Milosevic option, in which the despot narrows the political alternatives, and forces minority groups to either support his regime or stay on the sidelines for fear of the alternative.

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