Although Bashar al-Assad could still kill off the revolt against his tyranny, it seems increasingly unlikely. The rebellion today is far larger—geographically and numerically—than the rebellion of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood in Hama in 1982. Two past massive revolts can still give Bashar hope: the triumph of the Algerian military junta over Islamists in the 1990s and the crushing victory of Saddam Hussein over Iraq’s Shiites following the First Gulf War. In both cases, the regimes slaughtered tens of thousands of people, as well as tortured thousands more, to quiet the eruptions. Given the increasing ferocity of the government onslaught against civilians, the Syrian regime is obviously now betting that the outside world will not intervene. It’s probably a bad bet, however, since outside powers really don’t have to do that much—the apparent sine qua non of foreign assistance—to topple the Assad family and the Shiite Alawite forces behind it.
Although the Alawite units in the army and the Alawite-dominated security services have stayed steadfastly loyal to Bashar, they appear to be just too few in number to kill enough Sunnis in enough places quickly enough. Although the vast majority of Syrian Sunni military units have not risen against the government, they have not been used in front-line assaults against the rebellious cities and towns. The regime is probably loath to risk such a deployment as it might cause a rapid and decisive crack in discipline, changing overnight the regime’s odds of survival. Unlike his father in 1982, Bashar hesitated to bring the full force of his power against the opposition last year. The regime has since had to deal with uprisings everywhere. Alawi forces have repeatedly cleared towns yet failed to hold them.
The alternative to manpower is, of course, armor and airpower. And here Bashar, too, is in a difficult spot. The regime has increased its use of tanks and artillery, with devastating results. But the regime still isn’t leveling neighborhoods—the tactic used by Hafez al-Assad in Hama and by Saddam Hussein in the Shiite south of Iraq in 1991. Such methods would kill thousands quickly, and possibly end the revolt. But it could provoke Turkey and Arab states—Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Jordan—to actively arm the opposition with tank-killing weaponry. And if Bashar ordered the use of chemical weapons à la Saddam Hussein against the Kurds, unquestionably the most effective weapon against domestic unrest, it would be extraordinarily difficult for Ankara and Washington not to intervene. Western and Turkish ethics have changed since Halabja in 1988.
Bashar could try the long march, as in Algeria, where the regime’s security forces slowly and methodically wiped out Islamist forces in a guerre à outrance. But the Algerian regime had huge oil and natural gas resources behind it, as well as the tacit support of France and the sympathetic neutrality of the rest of the West and the Middle East’s autocrats. The Assad regime today is resource poor. Heavily sanctioned Iran, Bashar’s only real ally, now lacks the money to keep Syria financially afloat. And Russia, Syria’s principal weapons supplier, isn’t the Soviet Union: it has neither the stomach nor the wealth to keep indefinitely arming Assad’s killing machine.
Sooner not later, Bashar’s ineffective savagery will overcome the reluctance of Ankara—though perhaps not the Obama administration—to intervene “clandestinely” in Syria. Saudi Arabia and Qatar—the two Wahhabi states that are vying with each other for prominence among burgeoning Sunni Arab fundamentalist movements—appear ready to deliver weaponry to the Syrian opposition. They both know how devastating to Shiite Iran the loss of Syria will be. The Turkish-Syrian border is porous. Masoud Barzani, the Kurdish chief of western Iraqi Kurdistan, has already signaled that he’s willing to help his rebellious Kurdish cousins in neighboring Syria.
The Jordanian–Syrian border, which crosses the great al-Hamad desert, isn’t close to the main centers of rebellion but it’s also pretty open. The US Army learned how deadly weapons and suicide-bomber transport routes across the al-Hamad could be in Iraq. Provided someone stiffened the spine of Jordan’s King Abdullah—and the Saudis more or less now own the perpetually-bankrupt Hashemite throne—portable anti-tank weapons could start to move north. Portable surface-to-ground missiles are also critical since they could check the regime’s helicopter gunships and tactical aircraft. Bashar could easily throw these into the fight if he thinks the West will do nothing—given recent statements from Washington and Europe, a possible deduction. An anti-aircraft missilery could also encourage more soldiers with heavier weapons and armored vehicles to defect to the opposition since they’d fear less the regime’s aerial capacity to stop them.
A determined clandestine effort by the United States to arm the opposition via Turkey and Jordan would be far more efficacious: the faster the Assad regime collapses, the smaller the chance that Syria’s Sunni community will wreak a terrible vengeance upon the Alawis and the Christians, who’ve been sympathetic to the Assad dynasty. The Obama administration endlessly talks about preventing a Syrian civil war, yet its timidity makes it more likely not less. And, as important, the faster the Assads fall, the quicker the shock arrives in Tehran. But the Obama administration is not strategically minded when it comes to hard power. The great Syrian revolt will continue to depend on the tenacity of the Sunni faithful—until the Turks and Damascus’ Arab foes realize that clandestine support is both urgent and practicable.
Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former case officer in the CIA and the author most recently of The Wave: Man, God, and the Ballot Box in the Middle East, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies
This post is part of The Caravan, a periodic discussion on the contemporary dilemmas of the Greater Middle East. Other commentary in this symposium on Syria is provided by Charles Hill, Itamar Rabinovich, Habib Malik, Russell Berman, Nibras Kazimi, Abbas Milani, Joel Rayburn, Josh Teitelbaum, Reuel Gerecht, Asli Aydintasbas, Camille Pecastaing, and Fouad Ajami.