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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.

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Manaf Tlass, a Sunni whose father was one of Hafez Assad's strongest and closest hands and was himself a powerful loyalist of Bashar Assad, left the country a few weeks ago and has been shopping himself as a potential broker for a transition, someone who could help keep Syria's institutions – including its security apparatus intact – in the event of rebel victory. That has obviously made many supporters of the uprising uneasy, but has been music to the ears of many international powers, including the US, who now view the American decision to dissolve Saddam Hussein's military and to purge that country's Baath party from political life in 2003 as the single greatest cause of the horrific civil war that followed there. 

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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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The SNC, composed as it is of longtime exiles and recent regime defectors, has rarely been able to maintain the appearance of unity that was so crucial to the Libyan revolution garnering international support. A reminder of that came yesterday, with the announcement of the creation of the "Council for the Syrian Revolution,"  a competitor to the SNC.

So the various opposition personalities abroad are not united, and not really in control of the fighters opposed to Assad on the ground anyway. Local commanders, with new status and real power in their communities, are unlikely to take orders from the outside. The political apparatus around Assad is little better at this point, with his government reduced to governing by force and force alone. It's of course the rule of violence, and the corruption that surrounds it, that set the stage for the uprising. Greater doses of violence reconfirm to the rebellion the necessity of their war.

What kinds of violence? Torture and executions? Sure. Arbitrary shelling of civilian neighborhoods known to harbor rebels? Of course. But the report catalogs just how bad it has gotten. Both the Syrian military and the civilian shabiha militias fighting for Assad have, since the turn of this year, been engaging in "industrial-scale" looting of civilian homes and businesses in restive areas. Arson is a common tool of punishment.

"One of the distinctive traits of the so-called military solution has been the army’s tendency to shell towns and neighborhoods without ever undertaking a ground operation, as if recapture was not an objective," the ICG writes. "As a result, opponents have come to see the regime as capable of the most horrendous exactions. They have come to believe reports that it deliberately targeted children, massacred in cold blood entire families, and engaged in other forms of arbitrary killings, sexually abused women, summarily executed detainees and burned bodies."

What of the international community? Russia and China have successfully opposed international action, something that the US, at any rate, has little stomach for. Kofi Annan has failed as a peace envoy, both because of great-power rivalry and the domestic dynamics of the Syrian war.

The ICG authors write that the future of Syria will hinge on how the Alawites, which make up an estimated 10 percent of the population, are treated in the aftermath of regime defeat. They admit that for the opposition, doing the right thing will be difficult. 

"How will it ensure, tomorrow, that the transition includes the Alawites as full-fledged partners? How can it dismantle the structures of the regime
without punishing the community that, more than others, depended on it? How creative and forward looking can it be regarding questions of transitional justice, accountability, amnesty and the safeguarding of some current institutions? There are no easy responses. As opposition leaders no doubt will be quick to point out, the mood on the street – which, so far, they have felt compelled to respect – hardly is amenable to generous, open-minded proposals."

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