So far, the fighting in Syria has largely been limited to its smaller cities – Homs in particular. Aside from a few isolated incidents the revolt has not yet spread to major cities such as Aleppo and Damascus. All the same, as Syria expert Joshua Landis of the University of Oklahoma points out, Homs is a cautionary example of the dangerous fault lines that run through the entire society.
The city contains a Sunni majority who dominate one side of town, plus an influx of the minority Alawites who also happen to be at the centre of the Assad dictatorship. In Homs, there has been fighting between the local Alawites and Sunnis, who have barricaded themselves into a part of the town now being pounded by the Alawite-controlled Syrian Army – and which has been subject to assassinations and kidnappings carried out by an informal Alawite paramilitary group called “The Ghosts”.
The challenge for the Assad regime is how to crush localised Sunni points of dissent in places like Homs without creating a sectarian split nationwide – a split that would endanger its own alliance with the Sunni upper classes in Damascus and elsewhere. If this uprising becomes a wholesale sectarian struggle along the lines of the Shia vs Sunni conflict in Iraq, the Sunnis who comprise 75% of the population will certainly win. The Assad dictatorship appears to be genuinely confused about how to handle this situation. It is gambling that it can somehow suppress the Sunni-led revolt in Homs without killing tens of thousands of people, and thereby inflaming the entire Sunni population.
As Landis explains above, a tank assault on the Sunni enclave in Homs may put an end to the conflict there – but if it also happened to kill 40,000 people in the process, this would light sectarian fires elsewhere and worsen the social divisions that would eventually, bring down the regime. The Alawites, who comprise only about 12% of the population may carry the big sticks, but they know that they need to tread somewhat carefully. As yet, there has not been widespread support for the rebellion, and not merely because the regime is suppressing the opposition. For all its many failures, the secular Assad regime is still preferred to the combination of reactionary religious zealots and dubious business interests seen to be leading the uprising – and who, as this guest contribution to Landis’ website suggests, the bulk of the rebel leadership has been urging the impoverished Sunni rebels in Homs to take up arms and conduct kamikaze attacks on the Syrian military, while they themselves sit in air conditioned comfort in the likes of Doha.
The international response to the Syrian uprising date has been equally questionable. For regional reasons of their own (eg controlling Iran and influencing events in Lebanon) Saudi Arabia and the US have been supporting the uprising and condemning the bloody repression, while having no real intention of committing troops on the ground. Or of offering much in the way of tangible support beyond keeping up the flow of weapons for an ill-matched battle that bids only to keep the slaughter inside Syria at a diplomatically useful and sustainable level.
The UN process in particular has been worse than useless – assuming, that is, it ever did intend to offer anything but false hope to the rebels. After the way China and Russia got treated last year by a US/European axis that played fast and loose with the meaning of the UN resolution on Libya, there was no way the Chinese and Russians were going to make that same mistake twice, and give the US and the Europeans carte blanche on Syria.
In reality of course, there is little stomach in the West for any outside intervention in Syria. Partly because there is little convincing evidence that the uprising (as yet) enjoys much in the way of domestic support inside Syria. Bad as the Assad regime may be, the Syrian people seem to have little enthusiasm for the current alternative. Which leaves rebel cities like Homs facing a couple of very unpalatable options: surrender, or martyrdom.