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In Syria, hardening sides, and risks of an even bloodier civil war

A new report argues the Syrian civil war is going to get a lot worse unless the country's rebels take a series of difficult and improbable steps.

By Staff writer / August 1, 2012

This image made from amateur video released by the Ugarit News and accessed Tuesday, July 31, purports to show Syrian government forces in Damascus, Syria.

Courtesy of Ugarit News via AP video/AP

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Syria's Bashar al-Assad praised his military today in a written statement and once again branded the uprising against the Baath regime as led by "terrorists." He vowed that his regime will win the Syrian civil war. "Today, as every day, our people look to you as you defend their honor and dignity and give the nation back its stability," his statement said.

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Staff writer

Dan Murphy is a staff writer for the Monitor's international desk, focused on the Middle East. Murphy, who has reported from Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, and more than a dozen other countries, writes and edits Backchannels. The focus? War and international relations, leaning toward things Middle East.

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But in fact, whatever unity existed among Syria's diverse population, where the minority Alawite sect Mr. Assad hails from has long held a privileged position, has dissolved during 17 months of war. This time the use of torture, summary executions, and collective punishment of whole families that had been so successful down the decades for Assad and his father Hafez has only served to enrage regime opponents, largely drawn from the country's Sunni Arab majority.

Rebel groups continue to hold out against a central government counterattack in parts of Syria's largest city and commercial capital, Aleppo; the country's economy is collapsing from both the war and international sanctions; and some rebel groups are claiming that more arms and money are flowing in from outside to support their cause. Unnamed rebels told NBC yesterday that they'd received a shipment of two-dozen "anti-aircraft missiles" via Turkey. While that report is unconfirmed, the rebels have been receiving outside support for some months now.

So the Syrian regime that is led by Assad is in big trouble, right? Well, yes and no, if a new report from the International Crisis Group report on Syria out this morning gets it right.

The ICG argues that while the Baath regime has been weakened, many Syrians see regime survival now as matter of personal survival. And that whatever chances there ever were for a negotiated end to the war from the side of Assad and his supporters has now vanished. The Sunni-dominated rebel groups, for their part, don't have the military capacity to win Syria's civil war any time soon. And that, the ICG argues, is a recipe for a much deeper humanitarian crisis, with the risk of full-on sectarian bloodletting.

"There are more than enough ominous trends, none more alarming than these: a regime seemingly morphing into a formidable militia engaged in a desperate fight for survival; an Alawite community increasingly embattled and persuaded its fate hinges entirely on the regime's; and an opposition that, despite sometimes heroic efforts to contain them, is threatened by its own forms of radicalisation. Together, this could portend a prolonged, ever more polarized, destructive civil war... both the regime – by design – and its opponents – through negligence – appear to have ensured that a large portion of the Alawite community now feels it has no option but to kill or be killed."

The ICG does propose steps that rebel forces could take to contain the danger. But they are steps that few organic uprisings have ever been able to take in modern history, requiring a great degree of leadership, accountability, and a willingness of commanders in the field to focus more on long term questions of reconciliation than the rough justice the men fighting under them, many of whom have lost family members in the war, will be demanding.

"The regime almost certainly will not change its ways, and so the burden must fall on the opposition to do what – given the immensity of its suffering – must seem an improbable undertaking: seriously address the phenomena of retaliatory violence, sectarian killings and creeping fundamentalism within its ranks; rethink its goal of total regime eradication and instead focus on rehabilitating existing institutions; profoundly reassess relations with the Alawite community; and come up with forward looking proposals on transitional justice, accountability and amnesty... No single indiscriminate massacre of Alawites has yet to be documented, but given current dynamics one almost assuredly lies around the corner."

The paper acknowledges repeatedly that taking those steps is unlikely. But it bears underlining. The so-called Free Syrian Army (FSA) that is fighting the central government is an army in name only. It is a lose collection of semi-autonomous militias, with a variety of ideologies and political agendas behind them. And the Syrian National Council (SNC) that has sought to present itself as the civilian face of the uprising, a sort of government in waiting, is wracked with political divisions of its own.

A disunited opposition

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