After four months of popular demonstrations and ferocious repression, including a bloody crackdown on the central city of Hama on Sunday, the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, still refuses to step down, insisting that he can reform his regime.
What is keeping Mr. Assad in power is the extensive security apparatus that was engineered by his father, Hafez al-Assad, and is dominated by their fellow Alawites, a minority Shiite sect.
Alawites, who constitute just 12 percent of Syria’s population, have mostly thrown their support behind Mr. Assad, fearful that if he is overthrown they will be massacred. If the democratic opposition in Syria is going to succeed, it must first convince the Alawites that they can safely turn against the Assad regime.
This is not as improbable as many observers believe. As the bodies have piled up — security forces have killed around 1,500 civilians since March — Alawite leaders have not been blind to the rapid erosion of the government’s power and its inability to restore control.
If they are assured of their safety, key Alawite leaders might begin to withdraw their support for the Assad family and cast their lot with — or at least tacitly assist — the opposition. A signal from them could persuade powerful Alawite army commanders to defect and take other officers with them.
Alawites have dominated Syria since Hafez al-Assad came to power in 1970. But unlike his father, Bashar has never been able to bring the country’s security apparatus fully under his control since taking power in 2000. Instead, he has tried to cultivate a gentle and humane image and broaden the base of the regime by reaching out to the Sunnis, who make up most of Syria’s population. He married a wealthy Sunni woman whose family is from Homs — a stronghold of the current revolt — and actively encouraged the building of Sunni mosques and Koran schools.
But he hasn’t altered the total domination of Syria’s security forces by his Alawite clan. In the last decade, Bashar left his brother Maher al-Assad to organize the security sector with the support of his uncle and cousins, who control the ubiquitous secret police.
Since mid-March, as suppression of the protests became increasingly violent, the army has purged officers and soldiers — including many hitherto loyal Sunni troops — to reduce the chance of a revolt. The infamous Fourth Division, led by Maher and composed mostly of die-hard Alawite loyalists, played a major role in the crackdown. It is backed by an organized group of thugs, who form a parallel militia in civilian clothes.
Even when a Sunni general is in command, an Alawite deputy is often the one who holds real power. As a result of this structure, the army cannot be relied upon to carry out violent repression, nor is it able to defect as a whole.
Driven by fear of execution, disaffected soldiers have quietly worked to undermine the regime. Opposition leaders report that sympathetic soldiers and officers have sometimes warned them of imminent attacks. However, the army’s top leadership is unlikely to collectively withdraw its support from the government, as happened in Egypt and Tunisia — and opposition forces should not put too much hope in this scenario.
It is the Alawite population as a whole, not the army, that holds the key to change. But the Alawites will need assurances from the opposition before they abandon Mr. Assad. Alawite religious and community leaders have tried reaching out to Sunni religious figures, including leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, in the last month to obtain guarantees that their security and well-being will be protected in the post-Assad era; the opposition should offer such promises, which would encourage Alawites to join the revolt en masse.
The onus falls on the Sunni majority to reassure Alawites and other minorities like Christians, Druse and Shiites — who believe they need the regime’s protection — that they will not be subjected to acts of vengeance. These Sunni religious and political leaders can save Syria from its sectarian demons.
Only Syrians can initiate this delicate process; foreign governments, whether Arab or Western, have limited roles to play. The Syrian psyche is shaped by memories of foreign interference, something the Assad regime did not invent, but has exploited.
In Syria, anyone who calls for outside intervention is likely to be branded a traitor; any Western threat of military action would therefore hurt the opposition more than the regime. Outside powers can play a useful role by declaring they will not use military force. Such a statement would weaken Mr. Assad’s argument that the uprising is the result of foreign meddling and remove a major source of anxiety among Syria’s hesitant majority.
Syrians of all stripes are beginning to understand that everyone is a victim of this regime and that the real conspiracy is that of the Assads themselves. Sunni leaders must act now to prevent the revolt from descending into civil war by assuring minorities that they will not face reprisals in a new Syria. This could bring Alawites into the opposition’s ranks and seal the regime’s demise.
By Bassma Kodmani, the executive director of the Arab Reform Initiative.