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Syria’s Mutating Conflict

Damascus/Brussels  |   1 Aug 2012

As fighting rages in Aleppo, the combination of a regime morphing into a formidable militia and an Alawite community fearing for its survival leaves Syria’s opposition – itself threatened with radicalisation – with a difficult task: to tackle its own demons, reach out to the Alawites and focus on restoring strife-torn institutions.

Syria’s Mutating Conflict, the latest report by the International Crisis Group, exposes trends that, if left unaddressed, could worsen the country’s already highly destructive conflict. In its effort to cling to power, the regime has compromised much of what made it a state, but preserved and even consolidated what could ensure its resilience as something more akin to a powerful, intractable militia.  The opposition, even as it peels away the regime’s outer layers, has failed to crack its inner core and is threatened from within, despite its efforts, by sectarianism, retaliatory violence and fundamentalism. Increasingly intertwined with what is left of the power structure, much of the minority Alawite community feels that it has to kill to survive, or be killed trying.

“The regime is unlikely to change its ways, so it is up to the opposition to prove it can take the lead in offering the country a future”, says Peter Harling, Crisis Group’s Syria, Egypt and Lebanon Project Director. “It is focused on its objective of annihilating the present regime, while the latter has ensured such a goal has become synonymous with the destruction of the Alawite community, intercommunal harmony and what is left of the state.  The opposition needs to distinguish between these, beginning by addressing the serious challenge of radicalisation in its midst”.

Increasingly entrenched and fearing neither threats nor sanctions, the regime has burned all its domestic bridges, and hardliners with little capacity for compromise are firmly in control. Seemingly indifferent to its own losses, it has survived assassinations and street fighting in Damascus and Aleppo.  It is almost impossible to destroy, but it also is incapable of defeating its enemies or coming up with a political solution to end the fighting.

On the other side, civil society has developed in remarkable ways, promoting forms of solidarity that came as a surprise to Syrians themselves.  Still, ominous trends exist: protracted fighting has attracted small but conspicuous numbers of jihadis to opposition ranks, nurtured fundamentalism and sparked sectarian killings and revenge attacks.

Against this backdrop, the Alawite community is running scared, having historically overinvested in state, party and security structures. If the opposition aims to destroy the regime and has no plan that ensures the Alawites a political future as real partners, then wider conflict is almost certain. If such a scenario is left to unfold, Syria’s other minorities – the Kurds, Druze, Christians, Ismailis – might fear they are next. The opposition must reassure them, notably by cleaning its own ranks and developing forward-looking proposals on issues of justice, accountability, amnesty and the preservation of some of the country’s institutions.

“For those Syrians who have endured seventeen months of repression, for whom the instinct of revenge must be hard to suppress, this might seem an inappropriate, unrealistic mission”, says Robert Malley, Crisis Group’s Middle East and North Africa Program Director. “But it is a necessary and inescapable one if the transition is to be worth the enormous price that is being paid”. 

 
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