In a column penned last April, I called the Syrian civil war a death match and argued that a death match is not negotiable.
That essay addressed the predictable demise of a highly-touted ceasefire agreement negotiated by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and argued that negotiations seeking compromise were not going to end Syria’s civil war. The prospects of saber-rattling theatrics spiced with guarantees of gilded asylum for regime thugs were not promising, either. Harsh words and alluring offers of plush exile in France would not convince the Assad regime to negotiate in good faith.
Annan’s April agreement failed to stop the gunfire and the killing.
Check the calendar. It’s November, Assad remains in power, and the killing hasn’t stopped, it has accelerated. In late March 2012, the death toll in the then year-old conflict was 10,000 human beings. Last week, as the US held its presidential election, the body count surpassed 36,000.
The math describes the conflict’s murderous arc. The death match has become more desperate and intense.
Diplomacy aimed at crippling the regime by imposing effective economic sanctions and an arms embargo has also failed, thanks to Assad regime’s powerful friends: Iran, Russia and China. Iran provides weapons, money, security advisers and proxy forces in the form of Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas. Russia and China run interference in the U.N. Security Council.
Turkey’s tough talk, tank brigades rolling toward the border and occasional artillery volleys have not curbed the regime’s willingness to kill. When cross-border gunfire by Syrian security forces wounded several people at a refugee camp inside Turkey, the Turkish government considered invoking NATO Article 5, which commits the alliance to defend an ally when it is attacked. Turkey repeated the threat after Syria downed a Turkish recon jet in June. When Syrian artillery hit a Turkish border town and killed several Turkish civilians, Turkey fired back. The Assad regime, however, reads Turkey’s verbal threats as bluster.
The regime knows the Turkish military is quite capable of crossing the border and establishing a buffer zone or, for that matter, toppling the Assad regime. The regime, however, has countered with several threats of its own. First came the implicit threat to employ chemical weapons. The threat amounted to this: topple us and we unleash mass death.
The regime has also presented Turkey with a deadly dilemma tailored to Turkey’s own ethnic struggle. The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) has been at war with Turkey since the early 1980s. A PKK alliance gives Assad a way to regionalize the war. Should outside forces intervene in Syria, a massive PKK-led revolt in Turkey, Syria and Iraq would certainly hinder the intervening forces. Turkish military analysts contend that Assad is already using Syrian Kurdish militias as proxy forces to fight Syrian rebels.
So why the death match? Why? Early on, the Assad regime concluded it is locked in a kill or be killed war with Syria’s fragmented but numerous rebel groups. The regime is rooted in Syria’s Alawite religious minority group, perhaps ten percent of the population. To an Alawite, the war is about preventing a genocide — his clan’s own genocide. Losing political power in Syria means losing control of the security forces. If the Alawites lose control of the security forces, they believe they will inevitably face widespread revenge attacks by their long-repressed ethnic and sectarian rivals.
So the death match continues. The rebels have demonstrated they, too, are resilient, for they believe their lives and their families’ lives are at risk to Alawite revenge. The war will continue and the death toll will rise until one side shatters. An ironic scenario is emerging: an international force, perhaps led by Turkey, intervening to protect the surviving Alawite minority from genocidal slaughter.