The Geneva Syrian talks, like the President’s speech on Syria, have left out many things, but most importantly several inescapable truths about this conflict:
(i) At least 70 percent of the Syrian population is Sunni; Alawite Shiites, the power base of Bashar al-Assad, probably account for no more than 15 percent of the country. Although regime-loyal Sunni soldiers have probably been critical to Assad’s survival, the vast majority of Sunnis surely now hate the regime and Alawites.
(ii) The kill/casualty rates in this war favor the opposition—the regime ‘s forces are falling in larger numbers than are opposition fighters, who have a vastly larger pool of young men to draw from. The research done by Jeffrey White, the military analyst at the Washington Institute for Near Eastern Policy, gives a casualty rate (combining killed with wounded) of 213,000 combatants for the regime, compared to 90,000 for the opposition. Even if we assume that medical care is much better on the regime’s side, and more wounded regime soldiers retake the field, the opposition is still experiencing a significantly lower loss of men. This conjecture is backed up by the available killed-in-action figures, which as of late June, 2013, were, according to White, 13,539 dead rebel combatants, 2,518 unidentified and non-Syrian rebel fighters, and 2,015 defected soldiers and officers. Compare those figures the regime’s KIA: 25,407 regular soldiers, 17,311 combatants for regime-loyal popular defense committees and the irregular shabbiha units, plus an addition 169 Lebanese Hizbollah.
(iii) The killed/wounded rate has been rising steadily for the Alawite irregular forces, which now approaches the loss rate experienced by regular, primarily Alawite, military units. In other words, the regime has been drawing increasingly on young male Alawite irregulars for frontline combat duty.
(iv) This path is unsustainable for the regime unless it can significantly increase the kill/casualty rate for the opposition with much smaller losses for its forces. A protracted conflict always favors the opponent with a greater population to draw on; the Sunnis have a decisive advantage. The Alawites have used all of the conventional weaponry at their disposal—with the exception of napalm—as aggressively as they possibly could and the opposition has taken it and inflicted ever-higher casualty rates on the Alawites.
(v) Probably the only way open to the regime is the use of unconventional weapons, and, as the Levantine authority Lee Smith has pointed out, the Alawis must maintain their chemical-weapons stockpile for the defense of their coastal homeland in case they must surrender Damascus. Topographically, Latakia is probably indefensible with a conventional force given the much greater manpower of the Sunni community. With time, the Alawites would lose their homeland, too, and most probably their lives unless they could flee by boats to Cyprus.
(vi) There is most probably no political solution to this conflict since the Assad clan has so successfully bound the Alawite community to their cause—they are all, at least in the eyes of most Sunnis, culpable for the regime’s crimes. The only real defense they have against their possible liquidation is unconventional weaponry.
(vii) The Russians—the Soviets and the Communist Czechs—were instrumental in the regime’s development of unconventional arms. The Syrians have continued to use Russian designed CW plants, possibly with Russian assistance. Neither the Russians nor the Iranians have any interest whatsoever in disarming Assad since they are well aware that chemical weapons remain the regime’s fail-safe weapon.
(viii) As long as the war continues, Syria’s Sunnis radicalize. The presence of Al-Qa’ida-type jihadists in Syria, still representing probably no more than 15 percent of the total opposition fighting force, has grown with the conflict. Their growth rate appears to be greater than the rate of increase for non-jihadist forces though figures for this are fluid. Although the opposition unquestionably has a long-term advantage over the Alawite regime, Assad’s armed forces could continue to pulverize Sunni Syria for sometime—before it must resort to chemical weapons or fall.
(ix) To stop this radicalization, the regime must collapse. Shooting cruise missiles, which are useless against buried and well-fortified targets, from offshore won’t do the trick. The regime still possesses a huge advantage in artillery, which it has used relentlessly against civilian Sunni communities. That artillery advantage needs to be drastically degraded. Realistically, the only way that can be done is through a sustained air campaign. Clandestinely supplied weaponry from the Gulf Arabs, the Jordanians, and the Americans is simply too light, and too little, to counter the substantial Soviet- and Russian-supplied heavy weaponry.
To summarize: Everything President Obama discussed in his speech—everything that has transpired in Geneva— is irrelevant to what is actually transpiring on the Syrian battleground. It will neither cripple Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons nor stop him from trying to smash Sunni society, which is the primary driver of religious radicalization. The president obviously still wants to avoid another military conflict. Most Congressmen appear to agree. But this conflict will most unpleasantly affect us all if it is not stopped, sooner not later.
Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA case officer, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the author of The Wave: Man, God, and the Ballot Box in the Middle East.