Yesterday there were two interesting Syria pieces in the Sunday papers. The Washington Post ran a story by Liz Sly—who, by the way, has been killing it on Syria for months—about the increasing capacity and coordination of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Apparently, Gulf money and weapons bought with these funds are now flowing to the FSA, with American assistance of some sort, after a slow start. Neil MacFarquhar weighed in at the New York Times with reporting detailing fissures within Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s Alawi community. Most of the reporting on Syria since the uprising began in March 2011 indicates that the country’s Alawis, which make up 12 or 13 percent of the country’s 22.5 million citizens, have coalesced around Assad out of fear for what might happen to them if the regime falls. As MacFarquhar makes clear, reality is far more complex and nuanced. Imagine that. Granted, he only had access to a dozen people, but along with Alawis who are deeply suspicious of the Sunni majority and are dismayed that Assad has not been tough enough on the rebellion, there are those who are profoundly ashamed of the crimes the regime has committed.
The two stories offer a glimmer of hope that Assad and his family are slowly, but surely, losing their grip on Syria. According to the FSA and outside observers, Assad’s ability to control territory is diminishing. Once an area is ostensibly pacified and government forces leave to deal with another restive city, rebels return and assert control. As Sly points out in her WaPo article, the regime has clearly been unable to turn that battlefield advantage it gained after vanquishing rebels at Bab al Amr earlier this year into victory. Still, we’ve seen hopeful signs—or what observers wanted to believe were hopeful signs—before, and yet Assad has continued to fight on. I don’t doubt what Sly and MacFarquhar have written, but weren’t the Russians softening their position a few weeks ago? This was to have turned the tide against Assad who wouldn’t have been able to withstand the pressure of a truly unified international community. Clearly, it didn’t happen. It seems that our contemporary Russianists are about as good at gauging the intentions of the Kremlin as their Sovietologist forebears. (Too low? Maybe. I couldn’t resist, even if I live in the glass house of Middle Eastern political stability.) I have also heard recently from a journalist about a bank account in Moscow that is being topped off for the Assad’s use while they are in Russian exile. That sounds just like Muammer Qadhafi’s alleged flight to Venezuela or South Africa or Zimbabwe. Where was the former Libyan strongman when he was caught and summarily executed? In Libya. Fighting.
Let’s keep in mind that Assad has every incentive to continue to fight: He has no place to go (unless you believe rumors). For Assad the fight is and always was about securing his family. Even as the FSA has grown more capable, it remains no match for the Syrian military, which has proved to be surprisingly resilient. Finally, it seems that Moscow, Beijing, and Tehran will continue to stick by him, which means that money and arms will continue to flow to the military and shabiha. Under these circumstances, it is unlikely that Assad will give up.
Diplomacy has failed as many predicted it would. Syria has now slid into the civil war that opponents of intervention said an international military response would hasten with disastrous consequences. It seems that this disaster is now upon us anyway. Now what?