Why has the Syrian civil war lasted so long?

The Syrian national flag flies amid war damage in the city of Daraa’s al-Balad district on July 12, 2018. (Mohamad Abazeed/AFP/Getty Images)
The Syrian national flag flies amid war damage in the city of Daraa’s al-Balad district on July 12, 2018. (Mohamad Abazeed/AFP/Getty Images)

The war in Syria may be drawing nearer to a close. Syrian regime forces have advanced through rebel territory, most recently taking Quneitra province in the southwest. President Bashar al-Assad’s regime appears, according to much commentary, to be heading toward victory. The war is seven years old. Hundreds of thousands are dead, millions displaced. How has this bloody war lasted so long? How has Assad survived several moments, especially early on, in which his rule appeared doomed? And what does this mean for other civil conflicts?

My research, in a recent paper, suggests a grim answer. One key to the war’s length and Assad’s survival is that the regime has long pursued a sectarian strategy, putting key posts in the hands of certain members of a small religious minority. This strategy has worked. It has helped the regime maintain a loyal core that has kept it in power at critical moments and lengthened the war. It has trumped efforts by nonsectarian opposition groups to transcend Syria’s identity divisions. And the Syrian war reflects a broader, global pattern.

To be sure, there are several reasons for the war’s duration. Probably the most important is international involvement. Outside players like Russia, Iran, Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the Western coalition have provided cash and fighters to keep failing forces (notably the regime) afloat and worsened already fiendishly difficult negotiations among the dizzying array of armed groups.

However, the regime has also benefited from a hard core of loyalist troops. Military loyalty is critical to survival because rebels are usually at a significant disadvantage in raw military power; the way they win is by getting government soldiers to abandon the fight. But though the civilian opposition and the armed units of the Free Syrian Army were able to provoke massive defections in the first two years, the regime was always able to count on die-hard support in some elite military units and militias.

This loyalty rests, to an important degree, on the regime’s sectarian strategy. The Assad family, in power since 1970, has long promoted certain well-connected members of the Alawite minority — about 12 percent of the population — to key posts in the regime, has favored some Alawites with its social policies, and has set up Alawite-dominated elite military units. In consequence, even though there were and are profound inequalities among Alawites, it has been common to treat the regime as Alawite.

This idea of an “Alawite regime” and the fact that previous opposition movements mobilized along sectarian lines have made it easy for Alawites to fear that rebels would target them as a group, regardless of whether they stood by the regime. Even Alawites who are shut out of the regime’s largesse and who resent Assad for dragging them into a war of immense suffering may carry on fighting if they fear rebel groups more. They are in what I call a loyalty trap.

What is especially striking is that this strategy worked even though the most important segments of the rebellion in 2011 and 2012 took a nonsectarian line, focusing on democracy and inclusiveness. There were Alawite protest leaders, and the opposition attempted to reach out to Alawite communities to assuage their fears. But the regime’s strategy of exclusion may have made it easy to believe that Alawites would eventually become targets, whatever the rebel leadership said.

The regime also actively reinforced these fears. Faced with protests beginning in March 2011, regime agents encouraged Alawites to fear violence, presenting the uprising as Sunni Islamist even before the conflict broke out, distributing rifles and sandbags to Alawite communities in the suburbs around Damascus, and spreading rumors of massacres. Of course, even from early on, some rebels did commit massacres and deliberately target Alawites, against the official stance of rebel leadership. These rebel actions reinforced the regime’s strategy. And mistrust of the rebels only deepened when sectarian extremist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra (al-Qaeda’s wing in Syria) and the Islamic State emerged, starting in 2012, and steadily became among the most powerful rebel forces. On the other side, the regime’s brutal record of violent repression made it likewise difficult for many rebels to imagine surrender or negotiation. The regime’s identity strategy is thus part of a broader dynamic of polarization.

The loyalty-trap dynamic also seems to show up elsewhere. In the paper, I did a statistical analysis of civil wars around the world from 1946 to 2005. I focused on conflicts where the rebel group didn’t mobilize along identity lines to see whether, as in Syria, a regime’s strategy of exclusion can make wars longer and harder to resolve even when rebels are trying to bridge identity divisions. I found that even in these civil conflicts, the greater the share of the population excluded from power along identity lines, the longer the civil war — on average, about three and a half times as long in an extremely exclusive regime than in an inclusive one.

Despite the importance of the regime side, rebel claims still seem to matter. Civil wars are longer when rebels mobilize along identity lines than when they don’t. It is, thus, not as if there is not some war-shortening effect in non-ethnic appeals. My work shows, though, that the regime’s exclusion makes this considerably harder.

This doesn’t mean that people automatically fight for “their” group, which we know not to be the case. Many Sunnis have fought for the regime, too. And many Alawites have supported the regime despite disgust with it. The key, then, is the regime’s strategy, not a matter of timeless solidarity.

This result has some depressing consequences. Identity manipulation can work for a regime, even as it lengthens brutal civil wars. Members of a supposedly privileged identity group can carry on fighting even if, as individuals, they are shut out of the elite and resent it. On the flip side, a pluralist, pro-democratic rebellion against a narrow, exclusive regime may seem highly justified. And it may seem especially justifiable for outsiders to promote these kinds of democratic, nonsectarian opposition groups. Supporting Syria’s rebels earlier and more strongly than the West did may have been a more ethically justifiable policy, or it may not have; my purpose isn’t to take a position on that very difficult question here. But the very exclusion against which these groups rebel makes their fight an especially long and uphill one.

Theodore McLauchlin is an associate professor of political science at the University of Montreal, studying civil wars, political violence and military cohesion.

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