“The beginning of wisdom,” a Chinese saying goes, “is to call things by their right names.” And the right name for what is happening in Syria — and has been for more than a year — is an all-out civil war.
Syria is Lebanon of the 1970s and ’80s. It is Afghanistan, Congo or the Balkans of the 1990s. It is Iraq of 2005-2007. It is not an insurgency. It is not a rebellion. It is not Yemen. It is certainly not Egypt or Tunisia.
It is important to accept this simple fact, because civil wars — especially ethno-sectarian civil wars such as the one burning in Syria — both reflect and unleash powerful forces that constrain what can be done about them. These forces can’t be turned off or ignored; they must be dealt with directly if there is to be any chance of ending the conflict.
So, how do these kinds of wars end? Usually, in one of two ways: One side wins, typically in murderous fashion, or a third party intervenes with enough force to snuff out the fighting. Until Washington commits to either helping one side or leading an intervention in Syria, nothing else we do will make much difference. The history of civil wars — and of efforts to stop them — demonstrates what is likely to work and what is likely to fail.
Stop chasing mirages
At the top of the list of initiatives that rarely succeed in ending a civil war on their own is a negotiated settlement. The likelihood that this could work without force to impose or guarantee an accord is slight. It’s why Kofi Annan’s mission as the U.N.-Arab League envoy was always likely to fail and why, now that Annan has announced his resignation, the effort should be cast aside as a distraction.
It’s also why the Obama administration’s fixation on Russia’s supposed leverage with the Syrian regime and the idea of a Yemen-style solution in which President Bashar al-Assad steps down are equally misconceived. Assad is unlikely to step down, because — like Radovan Karadzic, Saddam Hussein, Moammar Gaddafiand many others before him — he believes that his adversaries will kill him and his family if he does. And he is probably right.
Even if he did voluntarily leave office, his resignation or flight from Syria would probably be meaningless: The war is being led by Assad, but it is being waged by the country’s Alawite community and other minorities, who believe that they are fighting not just for their privileged place in Syrian society but for their lives. Were Assad to resign or flee, the most likely outcome would be for another Alawite leader to take his place and continue the fight.
The insistence that “Assad’s days are numbered” is not only probably incorrect, it is largely irrelevant. Throughout the Lebanese civil war of 1975-1991, there was always a man sitting in the Baabda Palace calling himself the president. And he had a military force that reported to him called the Lebanese Armed Forces. In truth, he was nothing more than a Maronite Christian warlord, and the remnants of the Lebanese Armed Forces had become nothing but a Maronite militia, yet the names persisted.
So Assad may not fall for some time, and he may continue to call himself the president of Syria. He may even be able to sit in an embattled Damascus, defended by a military formation still calling itself the Syrian Armed Forces. But that won’t make him anything more than the chief of a largely Alawite militia.
The dangers of picking winners
If the United States decides that it is in its interest to end the Syrian civil war, Washington could certainly decide to help one side win.
In effect, we’ve already done so. Not only has the Obama administration demanded that the Assad regime relinquish power, but numerous media reports say that the United States is providing limited covert support to the Syrian opposition. According to these reports, the aid is nonlethal — helping to vet fighters, providing some planning guidance.
What Washington has not done is give the opposition the kind of help that would allow it to prevail in short order. Right now, the standoff in Syria is about guns against numbers. The regime has a small pool of tanks, artillery, attack helicopters and other heavy weapons that allows it to beat back the opposition wherever such forces are committed. So whenever the opposition threatens something of great importance to Assad’s government — such as Damascus or Aleppo — the regime can stymie the attack. But the opposition’s numbers are growing, allowing it to take control of large swaths of territory that is of low priority to Assad.
Over time, and especially if its supply of replacements and spare parts from Iran and Russia can be choked off, the government’s stockpile of heavy weapons will diminish, and as the war becomes a contest of light infantry on both sides, the numbers of the opposition should begin to tip the balance.