After 22 months of civil war, in which an estimated 60,000 people have died, Syrian President Bashar Assad gave a defiant speech Sunday that ruled out negotiations with rebel fighters and made clear that he intends to remain in power as long as possible. Assad’s words came as no great surprise. Seasoned diplomats, including former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, have tried and failed to broker a peace.
So why does the war drag on? One key reason is that neither side believes it is losing.
The opposition controls a significant amount of territory and has established a presence in large parts of Syria, especially the north and east. It has recently formed a unified political and military structure, winning the recognition of numerous countries. But Assad’s government can take comfort in the rebels’ failure so far to take any major cities, including the two most important ones, the business center, Aleppo, and the capital, Damascus. The insurgents have received arms and other support from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, which has further emboldened them, yet the regime retains an overwhelming advantage in firepower. With neither side convinced it will lose, neither is ready to stop fighting.
Another reason for the war’s continuance has to do with the ambivalence of various Syrian minorities about a future government dominated by a Sunni Arab majority. The Kurds in the northeast, for example, have largely stayed out of the fight, focusing instead on carving out what they hope will be, at minimum, the sort of autonomous region their Iraqi brethren have acquired in the wake of Saddam’s Hussein’s ouster. It’s not that the Kurds like Assad; it’s that they assume that the opposition’s victory will mean that minorities in the country will be further oppressed. Assad, a member of the Alawite minority — which makes up just 12% of the population — needs support from other groups among Syria’s dozen or so minorities, who together constitute about a third of the country’s population, to retain power, and so has treated them with some deference, something they fear a Sunni Arab-dominated government would not do.
That same reasoning has kept even many Syrian Sunnis loyal, especially urban professionals, intellectuals and bureaucrats who fear they have less in common with those who might come to power in a new Syria than they do with the current regime. Despite a number of defections, including some by top officials, Assad has been able to salvage enough of a bureaucratic and military apparatus to govern the places he holds and to keep fighting the war.
Assad has also — so far — retained the loyalty of the army and the security services, which has been crucial to his survival. In the recent history of the Middle East, rulers who have lost their hold on the military have also lost control of their countries. President Zine el Abidine ben Ali of Tunisia fled once the military high command told him that he had to go, and President Hosni Mubarak was tossed overboard by Egyptian generals who realized that they could not maintain their political and economic power without cutting Mubarak loose. If this pattern had repeated itself in Syria, Assad and his cronies would now be in exile — or dead.
Fear has also contributed to Assad’s hold on power. Members of the Alawite ruling circles, who are deeply steeped in blood at this point, have little incentive to push the president toward peace, because they fear brutal score-settling if the Sunni-dominated resistance takes power. Even if a deal could be negotiated that guaranteed them a role in a transitional government, they would worry that such an arrangement would be but an interregnum that precedes an orgy of revenge killings.
So where does this leaves Syria? Not in a good place. The regime does not seem to have lost its taste for bloodshed, and it may even believe that it can fight on indefinitely from Alawite bastions (mainly the coastal area between Latakia and Tartus) even if the opposition is able to take Damascus. The resistance, for its part, has gained battlefield experience the hard way and is a far better fighting force than it was in the early months of the war. It is now better-armed as well, and its international support is growing as Assad’s wanes. With neither side feeling pressure to negotiate a settlement involving power-sharing, the Syrian war grinds on.
Rajan Menon is a professor of political science at City College of New York/City University of New York and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.