Yesterday UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan said that war torn Syria is running out of options, and risks descending into “full civil war.” “We cannot allow that to happen,” he added (www.cnn.com,May 9,2012.)
Annan’s statement begs the question of what anyone can do to prevent chaos that could destabilize the entire region. The Assad regime has continued its policy of violent repression, refusing to abide by a cease-fire agreed to in April.Assad himself has long insisted that “the uprising (has) nothing to do with demands for political change but (is) rather a foreign plot by the enemies of Syria to pay radical jihadis to destabilize the country.” (New York Times, May 8, 2012.)
For their part, opposition forces say they will wait for governmental compliance to lay down their arms. The stalemate exacerbates frustrations on all sides, and terrorist groups have not missed the opportunity to step into the escalating violence.
The differences that divide the factions in war torn Syria are political, economic, and religious in nature. While about 75 percent of the country is Sunni Muslim, virtually all of the top political, military and intelligence posts in the government are held by members of the tiny Alawite Muslim sect, which is affiliated with Shia Islam, and to which the Assad family belongs.
Key government posts are held by the family itself, while lower echelon government jobs belong mostly to well-to-do Sunnis who are loyal to the regime. The majority of poor, disenfranchised Sunnis resent the Alawite regime and its privileged Sunni lackeys.
But the Assad regime has used its family’s extensive influence and vastly superior firepower to retain its grip on power. And from the outside, Assad is supported by the Shia majority in Iran and by the Lebanese Hezbullah.
In addition to the Sunni and Shia, Kurds make up about 10 percent of the Syrian population. Opposition leaders meeting in Istanbul, where the factions struggle to create a viable coalition, have said that Kurd support is pivotal, though many Kurds seem to be keeping their heads down. And there’s a new wave of opposition spurred on by a highly Sunni, highly religious ideology, which looks ever more Islamist.
Local Coordination Committees draw together young, unorganized protesters, document protests, and spread anti-government messages. There are also significant Druze and Christian groups in Syria, and reports vary as to their loyalties.
As a result of their differences, those opposed to the regime have not managed to create a united front, which prevents them from securing a geographical stronghold from which they might expand their influence, and to which supporters could send arms and supplies.
Unlike in Egypt and Libya, opposition forces have not succeeded in taking and holding a single town, though Assad’s forces have concentrated their wrath on the Sunni population of Hama and Idlib in the western part of the country, as though those areas were shared opposition headquarters.
The United States, France and some other countries support the Syrian National Council, an opposition government currently headquartered in Paris, as the head of the insurgency. The SNC is led by westernized Syrians, and refuses to send arms or aid to more militant combatants inside Syria. It is headed up by Burhan Ghalyun, a French professor at the Sorbonne.
The Free Syrian army, which is made up largely of former Assad troops who have defected, is furious at the SNC’s refusal to help those actually fighting for the cause. It differs with the SNC as to how, and even whether to garner support outside Syria, and whether to negotiate with the Assad regime.
With such a widely divergent insurgency, the collapse of the Assad government might well leave a black hole, with deadly chaos close behind. And history teaches that deadly chaos is a fertile breeding ground for Islamist extremism.
So Assad’s habit of labeling the opposition as terrorists is not just rhetorical. Qatar, Saudia Arabia and Turkey are reportedly funding Syrian insurgents, at least some of whom are Islamist terrorists. If Assad is toppled, terrorists could indeed begin to crush the other factions, thus killing off any remaining vestiges of hope for peace talks.