Syria’s Continuing Civil War

Syria’s Continuing Civil War

The pitched battle for Syria’s future could eventually pull the country apart and precipitate a seismic sectarian shift in the region, says Mideast expert Mona Yacoubian.

March 7, 2013 11:23 am (EST)

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

Syria’s nearly two-year-old insurrection continues to prompt international concerns of sectarian violence inflaming the broader region--fears stoked yet again in March 2013 by cross-border bloodshed in Iraq, where more than forty Syrian soldiers were ambushed and killed by suspected Sunni militants. Mideast expert Mona Yacoubian says the Obama administration feels increasingly compelled to intervene, as indicated by its recent pledge of millions of dollars in nonlethal aid, but the White House remains deeply apprehensive of the potential unintended consequences of arming rebels. Should the fighting drag on, she says, Syria may eventually split into sectarian enclaves. "Are we watching the beginning of the unraveling of the post-Ottoman order in Syria? And maybe even in the Levant?" she asks.

The Syrian insurrection is now almost two years old, and it seems no closer to an end now than it did a year ago. What’s your assessment?

It has very much morphed into a sectarian civil war, one with horrendous human consequences. Death toll estimates stand at 70,000 or more, while the number of refugees registered by the UN has reached the one million mark. The humanitarian situation inside Syria is equally tragic, where you have large numbers of internally displaced people and so forth.

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We also see no end in sight to the fighting on the ground. In fact, there are worrying signs that it’s spilling over now into Iraq. And there are certainly concerns about Lebanon. So I’m afraid to say that the conflict’s current trajectory is one of protracted violence, unfortunately.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry recently pledged nonlethal assistance to rebels--essentially food and medical supplies--but that’s been ridiculed by some of the Syrian opposition as inadequate. What should the United States be doing?

The United States, understandably, is feeling a greater sense of urgency as the situation in Syria continues to deteriorate. There are people talking about the "death of Syria," the disintegration of this country. There’s a growing sense around the world of moral outrage at what’s happening to Syrians. So the Obama administration is feeling increasingly compelled to do something. But at the same time, the White House remains constrained by very deeply rooted doubts about the dangers of arming the rebels and the potential unintended consequences. Secretary Kerry’s announcement of $60 million dollars in nonlethal assistance to the Syrian opposition was made in the spirit of wanting to increase, at least somewhat, the U.S. stake in all this. But it also signals an unwillingness to take the leap into some sort of more direct military involvement via arming the rebels.

Iran and Russia continue to supply the Syrian regime, but when we talked last year, you thought Moscow might be pulling back. Why are the Russians so strongly behind Assad?

I got that wrong, for sure. From my perspective, it seemed as though Russian interests would be better served by trying to pull support for the regime as Syria was beginning--even at that point--to descend into civil war. I’m no Russia expert, but it seems clear now, as you’ve noted, that we have not seen the sort of disavowal of the Assad regime that some of us had hoped for.

My sense is that, of course, it’s President Putin driving the policy on Syria. His policymaking is driven by an imperative that has to do with internal security, and that has to do with this principle of nonintervention in other governments’ affairs. Quite frankly, I think he watches with tremendous concern the precedent of Arab regimes having been unseated across the Arab world. For that reason I think we’re seeing a continuation of Moscow’s support for Assad.

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"One gets the sense that the Assad regime, Tehran, and Hezbollah are now bound together in a kind of mutual pact to stick this out to the bitter end."

However, it’s important to note that there have been a number of comments made by senior Russian officials, including Putin himself, that seek to at least rhetorically put some distance between them and Damascus. They talk a lot about the need for a negotiated settlement and the need for greater international cooperation to find a solution to the crisis. So it’s not the kind of doubling-down of support for the Assad regime that we see, for example, from Iran. But no doubt--they have not moved in the way many of us would have hoped. I still maintain that that might have made a difference had it happened early on.

And Iranians are the big supporters now?

They are the number one ally of the Assad regime. If anything, we’re seeing a deepening of their support—and, of course, of their influence as well. One gets the sense that the Assad regime, Tehran, and Hezbollah are now bound together in a kind of mutual pact to stick this out to the bitter end.

The Iranians, of course, are a major Shiite nation, as is Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the Alawites in Syria are a Shiite offshoot. And of course the Saudis, a leading Sunni nation, are helping the rebels, who are Sunnis by and large. Do you see this as a growing sectarian war?

I absolutely do see this as a growing sectarian conflict, one that is going to have or is already having reverberations across the entire region. The depth of sectarian animosity inside Syria is deeply concerning. We’re seeing a centuries-old society ripped apart by these tensions that are going to be extraordinarily difficult to repair once the fighting stops.

Of course, you have a number of minority groups in Syria, including Christians, Alawites, and Druze. They’re all concerned, yes?

I think so. The fears of minority groups, particularly Christians and Alawites, have deepened as the fighting has become increasingly sectarian, and as we’ve seen the rise of more extremist groups, such as the Sunni jihadist group Jabhat al-Nusra, which many believe has links to al-Qaeda.

Christian villages in the north of Syria and elsewhere are arming themselves, or perhaps being armed by the government. We have probably a retreat back to the regime by some of these minority groups, who, as they see this civil war unfolding, are increasingly concerned about their place in a post-Assad Syria.

When the Arabs and the Israelis had their wars, the major powers--that is, the United States and Russia--would get together and try to work out a cease-fire. Is this prolonged conflict a result of Washington and Moscow now having very little influence?

As this conflict drags on, the complexities on the ground are such that it is increasingly difficult for the major powers to turn things around. There’s a dynamic unleashed inside Syria that has its own momentum. As we watch sectarian violence unfold, and the ways in which various Syrian communities are increasingly isolated, there is some degree--and it’s hard to document--of soft partition, where various minorities go back to places where they feel more safe.

One wonders: Are we watching the beginning of the unraveling of the post-Ottoman order in Syria? And maybe even in the Levant? This would be a shift of historic implications.

In other words, Syria might break up into city-states?

"There’s a dynamic unleashed inside Syria that has its own momentum."

I wouldn’t necessarily predict a breakup into formalized city-states, but you’re seeing the potential for a de facto creation of various enclaves that are historic in nature and defined largely by sect. You have, for example, the traditional ancestral Alawite homeland in the mountains in western Syria and along the coast. Tartus, for example, a city in the south, has been spared a lot of violence, and that’s an area where there are a lot of Alawites who have sought refuge. Then you have the heartland of Syria, which is predominantly Sunni. You have the Kurds, who are in northeastern Syria, where they are already talking about the establishment of a Kurdistan. And then you have even smaller groups, like the Druze, for example. So if you took out an old Ottoman map and had a look at how these various religious and ethnic groups break out, that might give you an indication of where Syria could be heading. But, of course, I hope that doesn’t happen.

Have you been surprised at Assad’s will to hang in there?

I have. I still believe that he ultimately is not going to survive this, but I have been surprised by his resilience. He leads a brutal regime that views this as nothing less than an existential battle. And I believe he’s seen it that way from the very beginning, and therefore is willing to pull out all the stops--including shooting Scud missiles at its own people--in order to stay in power. I don’t think they’re going to succeed, but sadly, some version of the regime could cling to power, say, inside Damascus and maybe along the coast, for quite some time to come.


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