There was always doubt that the Arab Spring would succeed in Syria. The security forces, who are led by members of President Al-Assad’s minority Alawite sect, know their future is inextricably linked with the regime’s. This is the critical difference between Syria and countries such as Egypt and Tunisia, where the military refused to stand with the regime and mow down “their own.”
Additionally, in Egypt and Tunisia, economic reforms had increasingly de-linked the military (who had previously benefitted from the state’s patronage) from the regime; years of controlled economic liberalization were used by the state to enrich civilian regime cronies and family members. While there is broad disgust at similar crony capitalism in Syria, the security forces there know that democracy would mean the total demise of minority Alawite rule. This they cannot allow.
Moreover, key segments of the Syrian population seem ambivalent about regime change. The millions of protesters that came out in Tunisia and Egypt have not been seen in Syria. The two largest cities, Damascus and Aleppo, have remained relatively quiet, and the protest movement has struggled to build momentum. Many thousands have protested - even in the face of brutal crackdowns - but the country has not yet ground to a halt.
The reason for this is not popular support for the regime. Assad can count on his Alawite community (about 10% of the population), the Christian community (another 10%, which sees the secular Alawite regime as their best defense against a Sunni Muslim majority), and the small but influential Sunni business elite, who fear the end of Assad’s pro-business policies. But most Syrians feel little love for the regime. Indeed, if the ubiquitous underground jokes in Syria are any indication, they loathe it.
Rather, the fear is that regime change will usher in the violent sectarian and ethnic splintering of the country. Iraq’s shadow looms large and is brandished by the regime. The bloodbath that overtook Syria’s neighbor after the toppling of Saddam Hussein remains a chilling reminder of the risks of regime change in a state with limited national identification. Syria is more like Iraq, with its complex ethnic and sectarian mix, than the relatively homogenous Tunisia or Egypt. Daily life, possible even under a hated regime, becomes impossible in a state of civil war.
But another analogy is increasingly relevant: Algeria. The opposition in Syria (always divided between the secular and the religious, between exiles and those who remained in the country, and between regions of the country and classes) has splintered further and far more dangerously into those committed to peaceful protest and those who have taken up arms against the state. This has provided a vital excuse for Assad to go after the protesters. As the standoff becomes more violent and civilians are caught in the cross fire, the cost of challenging the regime may prove too much for the Syrian citizenry. This is exactly what happened in Algeria.
When the Algerian military abrogated the results of the 1991 elections that the Islamist FIS won, and unleashed a full-out assault on the Islamists, they ushered in a civil war that cost at least 100,000 Algerian lives. While both sides committed atrocities, there were many credible reports of state security forces donning Islamist garb to attack alleged Islamist supporters in an effort to discredit the FIS. Similar reports originate in Syria now. Faced with the full force of the state, the opposition in Algeria splintered and disintegrated; those who were left became more radicalized and violent, delegitimizing themselves in the eyes of the Algerian citizenry and validating the regime’s brutal crackdown. By the late 1990s, it was over – the state had won. The majority of Algerians accepted a resumption of military rule. That was preferred to the chaos and bloodshed of civil war.
The prospect of Syria going the way of Algeria is real. While the gradual tanking of the Syrian economy in the face of sanctions may well cost Assad his last bastions of support, if the country becomes locked in a protracted bloody battle that makes civilian life untenable the population could swing behind the regime. This could give Assad a new lease on life that many doubted a few months ago. Indeed, many observers of the Arab world have remarked at how quiet Algeria has been during the Arab Spring. But after living through the carnage of the 1990s, it is no wonder that Algerians seem to have little appetite for more warfare with the state, regardless of its roundly acknowledged corruption, economic mismanagement and repression.
Events may yet take an unexpected turn. Clearly, the Syrian regime is under threat. But the Western intervention that made regime collapse possible in Libya is unlikely in Syria; it is not uniformly called for within the Syrian or Arab context, and Russia and China, veto-holding members of the UNSC, would never sanction it. The demographic and geostrategic complexities of Syria also make the West queasier about intervention.
That authoritarianism may yet have to run its course in the Arab world, from the Gulf to the Levant to remaining bastions in North Africa, attests to the long and difficult road ahead for the Arab Spring.