from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

The Syrian Civil War

December 11, 2011

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The revolt against the Assad regime is becoming a civil war. The London-based Arabic newspaper Asharq Alawsat reports this:

Defections from the Syrian army and other security forces is on the rise, leading to an increase in the frequency of armed clashes between Syrian security forces and defectors in a number of Syrian provinces, particularly the Idlib Governorate, which borders Turkey. Observers monitoring the course of events in Syria have been surprised by the recent defection of a large number of elements from the Syrian Air Force Intelligence Directorate. This represents a sudden and surprising shift in the mindset of this security apparatus, which was previously considered one of the most loyal to the Syrian regime.

A Jerusalem Post story says this:

Hundreds of army defectors in southern Syria fought loyalist forces backed by tanks on Sunday in one of the biggest armed confrontations in a nine-month uprising against President Bashar Assad.

These revolts within the military will grow. For one thing, three-quarters of the Syrian population is Sunni and Syria has a conscript army broadly representative of the population. It is logical to expect more Sunnis in the security forces to turn against the Assad clique. For another, more and more people in the security forces are likely to conclude that Assad is playing a losing hand, and will seek to get out of the line of fire or jump to the side that may win.

This is a growing disaster for Syria, for it means more violence, more sectarian divisions, and more economic damage. Putting the pieces back together after Assad is gone becomes that much more difficult. That’s why the sooner he goes, the better—and every effort should be made to bring that day closer.

Does that include backing the opposition forces, such as the “Free Syrian Army?” The relationship between the military opposition and the Syrian National Council (the civilian, political opposition leadership) is apparently a difficult one, and that is no surprise: we have seen the same thing in Libya. As the fighting goes on those problems will only grow: in the end, forces that feel they won the war against Assad will want a share in power even if they are not entitled to it through democratic procedures. But it is nevertheless the case that we should be broadly supportive of the struggle against Assad, including the military struggle, for after all it was he not the opposition who chose to militarize the confrontation. It was he, not they, who started shooting.

How we do that should be a prudential judgment. Perhaps the Turks are already doing what is needed by giving the Free Syrian Army a safe haven; perhaps the Saudis, or Qataris, or other Arabs are helping them (as the Qataris helped the opposition in Libya with training, guns, and money). Perhaps they are not and we ought to be encouraging them to do so, as well as encouraging friends in Europe (the French, in particular) to get into this. Or we could get in directly, through covert support. There is certainly no moral argument against doing so, for we want this struggle over and Assad out as soon as possible, and want influence with those who will inherit power in Syria. Moreover, given the vast efforts made by the Assad regime to help jihadis kill Americans in Iraq, we should have no hesitation to help bring him down. How best to do so is, again, a prudential judgment requiring more information than I have.

But the civil war in Syria is growing. It is useless for American officials to decry it and urge the Syrian opposition to eschew the use of force. Let’s adopt a new policy goal: winning, as fast as possible.