A Free Syrian Army fighter takes up position inside a burnt
room in the Aleppo district of Salaheddine. Syria is now in
the grip of a real civil war. Photo from Reuters.
Syria now has a new government-in-exile that allegedly
unites all the groups seeking the overthrow of President Bashar
al-Assad's murderous regime. But if this is the best that they
can do, Assad will still be in power next year, and perhaps for
a long time afterwards.
It took a week of haggling in Qatar to bring all the
fractious Syrian rebel groups together, and it would not have
happened at all without great pressure from the Gulf Arab
countries and the United States. Basically, the Syrian rebels
were told that if they wanted more money and arms, they had
to create a united front.
So they did, kind of, but the fragility and underlying
disunity of the new government-in-exile is implicit in its
cumbersome name: the Syrian National Coalition for Opposition
and Revolutionary Forces. It's really just a loose and
probably temporary collaboration between different sectarian
and ethnic groups whose ultimate goals are widely divergent.
This new body has already been recognised by the Gulf states
as "the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people",
in the words of Qatar's Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin
Jassim. France, Syria's former colonial ruler, has done the
same, and other Western countries may follow suit (although
probably not the United States). But it won't end the war.
It is a real civil war now; the days of the non-violent
Syrian democratic movement that tried to emulate the peaceful
revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia are long past.
Moreover, it is a civil war whose ultimate outcome is
unclear. It is by no means certain Assad and the Ba'athist
regime will finally be defeated.
The Syrian Government has all the heavy weapons, but it does
not have enough troops to establish permanent military
control over every rural area in a country of 24 million
However, it does have the strength to smash any attempts to
create a rival authority with the powers of a real government
in those rural areas, and it still holds most of the cities:
the front line in Aleppo has scarcely moved since last
How has Assad managed to hang on so long when other Arab
dictators fell so quickly in the early days of the "Arab
Partly it is the fact that he's not a one-man regime.
The Ba'ath Party which he leads is an organisation with
almost half a century's experience of power, and plenty of
patronage to distribute to its allies. It began almost as an
Arab Communist party (without the atheism), and although its
economics are now neo-liberal, it retains its Communist-style
Moreover, the Alawites who populate its higher offices know
that they have to hang together, or else they will hang
The other thing Assad has going for him is the highly
fragmented character of Syrian society. Seventy percent of
the population are Sunni Muslims, but the other 30% include
Shias, Alawites (a Shia heresy), Druze (an even more
divergent sect with Islamic roots) and Christians. All of
them are nervous about Sunni Muslim domination in a
post-Assad Syria, and the presence of various foreign jihadis
on the battlefield only deepens their anxiety.
Moreover, the main suppliers of arms and money to the
insurgents are Sunni Muslim countries in the Arabian
peninsula, like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, that are not known
for being tolerant of non-Sunni minorities. This has
persuaded most non-Sunni Syrians that they are under attack -
and 30% of Syria's population, with a big, well-equipped army
and air force, can probably fight to a standstill 70% of the
population with only light weapons.
In fact, the Syrian battlefield, after only a year of serious
fighting, is already coming to resemble the Lebanese
battlefield after the first year of the civil war there.
Large tracts of the countryside are under the military
control of the religious or ethnic group that makes up the
local majority, while the front lines in the big cities have
effectively congealed into semi-permanent boundaries.
In Lebanon, the level of fighting dropped a lot after that
first year, apart from the period of the Israeli invasion and
occupation in 1982-83, but the country continued to be
chopped up into local fiefdoms until the Taif accord in 1989
led to the end of the fighting.
There are obviously differences between the Lebanese and
Syrian cases, but they are not big enough to justify any
confidence that Syria's future will be different from
Lebanon's past. Assad will continue to have access to arms
and money from Iran and Russia, and there will be no
large-scale military intervention from outside to tilt the
balance decisively one way or the other.
A split in the Ba'ath Party or a military coup could open the
way to national reconciliation if it happened relatively
soon, but that is not likely.
Apart from that, the only thing that might really change all
these calculations and break the stalemate is an Israeli
attack on Iraq and a general Middle Eastern conflagration.
That is not a price anybody wants to pay.
• Gwynne Dyer is an independent London