Claims from political observers that the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is experiencing its last gasps at life are overly exaggerated. Syria is not Egypt, Tunisia, or Libya, and the conditions on the ground have set the stage for a prolonged and bloody civil war with the scales tipped in Assad's favor.
Unlike the militaries of Tunisia and Egypt, which operated independently, the reign of Hafez-al Assad, the current president's father, cemented the military institution to the regime. To maintain his grip on the state's security apparatus, he filled the upper echelons of the military with loyal Alawites. Today, the military is so intertwined in the texture of the ruling regime that it is almost impossible to view the two as separate entities. This institutionalized loyalty to the throne of Assad helps to explain the sluggish rate of defections of Syrian military officers to the side of the opposition—a defining factor in dethroning Arab strongmen like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Libya’s Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi. Indeed, the military’s enduring allegiance to Assad’s Ba’athist regime will ensure he clings to power.
Another painful realization is that external intervention has proved to be on the side of Assad. A former Cold War ally, Russia continues to bolster the Syrian army’s ability to stamp out the rebellion with arms sales amounting to $1.5bn. Assad's reign especially guarantees Russian access to the port of Tartus, the only Russian naval base located outside the borders of the former Soviet Union. Indeed, Damascus is the only launching pad for Russian power projection in the Middle East. Moscow will not allow such an indispensible asset to teeter.
More ghastly is that both international and regional efforts to squelch the unbridled repression of the Syrian government have run dry. Last years concerted sanctions by the U.S. and Turkey have had little effect at coercing Assad to halt his warpath. In addition, while the Arab League’s decision to impose sanctions late last year is unprecedented, they too have failed to nudge the Syrian leadership in any meaningful way. More recently, Russia and China have proved their resolve at stonewalling any international action against Assad at the United Nations, hoping that the Syrian government will clear up the mayhem itself. Despite a majority call to end the bloodshed, an international response has been sadly muffled.
For now there remains no appetite for outside military intervention on the side of the opposition. With the curtain closed on Libya and the protracted conflict still ablaze in Afghanistan, the US and NATO show little signs of jumping into the mix. Western powers also note the unfavorable military conditions in Syria, citing a lack of workable intelligence and the scarcity of leverage over the regime. More importantly, the Syrian opposition has publically refuted external military assistance and sanctions on their behalf. They instead wish to fashion their rebellion with a peaceful tone, opting for a political solution to defuse the crisis, however unlikely.
Even so, the conditions stated above have imbued the Syrian president with an unabashed confidence to continue his assault on the Syrian people for the foreseeable future. But one shred of hope still remains. The credibility of Assad’s government has eroded domestically and abroad. No state besides his immediate partners in Iran, Russia, and China will procure diplomatic relations with him again, nor will the Syrian opposition resign from its posts.
The world must now prepare to manage a deepening civil war in Syria. It will not be swift, and it will be unsparing. And as the bloodshed continues, it will test the international community’s tenacity at reinforcing freedom and self-determination in the Arab world.