As 2012 drew to an end, Syria continued to be headed by Bashar al-Assad’s clan
and the country plunged deeper in violence, along with a serious humanitarian
crisis. Thousands have been killed, while thousands are reported missing or in
detention and more than a million people are now refugees.
The 2011 Arab Spring movements ended dictatorships in Tunisia, Egypt and
Lebanon, the trial of strength between the Damascus regime and the Free Syrian
Army has intensified, and the conflict is at a greater risk of radicalisation.
The conflict fuels a Salafi extremism emerging from the opposition; it also
emphasises the prospect of the regime resorting to non-conventional weapons, and
might extend the stage of confrontation to other neighbouring countries.
The recent events in Damascus and Aleppo as well as the failure of the
diplomatic approach ‒ buried by the double veto at the UN Security Council ‒
underline how the end of the conflict is not necessarily as close as it seems.
Communalising the Conflict
Turning the Syrian people’s uprising into a true civil war is undoubtedly the
Assad regime’s only success, its masterpiece. Indeed, when the first popular
protests against the regime broke out, the regime chose the communalisation
option. Its propaganda apparatus has never mentioned any confrontation between
an authoritarian regime and a political opposition (before the latter became
militarised), but has rather opposed an open and multi-confessional Syria ‒
represented by the regime ‒ to Salafi terror groups with foreign support. The
protest movement then included Christian, Kurdish and Alawi opposition figures,
while the regime was still supported by many Sunnis, mostly prominent citizens
or religious people. Only later, as the conflict gradually became militarised,
did the regime become trapped in the community logic it had set up. The Sunni
supporters have gradually shifted towards the opposition or dwindled, while the
radicalisation of Sunni rebels has kept many minorities1 away, the latter having
retreated into silence and angst.
In this context, the rebellion’s recent attacks against the Alawi region may
certainly be considered as acts of revenge and as collective punishment2. But
they correspond to a strategic choice in the eyes of the opposition, with two
The first consists of preventing the regime from setting up a homogenous and
defendable withdrawal zone. The Free Army is thus trying to prevent any
territorial continuity between the predominantly Alawi urban poles on one hand,
and between the Alawi region and Lebanon on the other. Besides, it is in this
region, composed of the Alawi Mountain and the coast running from Tartus
(hosting a Russian military base) to Latakia, that the ruling clan recruits most
of its officers. It is also where it keeps a large amount of heavy weapons.
Hitting the Alawi region thus aims at cutting the regime from its major
resupplying zone, and makes the separatist option impossible3.
The second objective consists of spreading the loyalist forces, drawing them
westward, whilst the Free Army strikes Damascus more intensely and extends its
control over a large part of Aleppo. If the regime were to abandon the Alawi
region, pretexting a concentration of its war effort on the defence of the
capital, it would be deemed as treason by a community whose form part of the
presidential family and high-ranking officers of the regular army and
intelligence. It is indeed thanks to this region, and more globally to a large
number of minorities, that the regime keeps resisting a largely Sunni and
increasingly fundamentalist insurrection4.
Threat of Chemical Weapons
Another aspect of this radicalised conflict lies in the regime’s tougher means
of repression: multiple Scud attacks, more intense air strikes, and the threat
of non-conventional weapons. Isolated and powerless as he is, Assad may very
well use the chemical weapons he has, just like Saddam did during the repression
of the 1988 Kurdish revolt in North of Iraq. The use of non-conventional weapons
by the Damascus regime would be an irrevocable threat to all countries in the
region and would lead to a foreign military intervention. Until now, a direct
international action has been put aside due to the Russo-Chinese veto at the UN
Security Council and the lack of consensus among NATO and Arab League members.
Turkey and Arab countries (Syria’s neighbours in particular) lament the growing
presence of Jihadists ideologically close to al-Qaeda in the Syrian rebellion5.
They fear the future Syrian government might be more of a menace for the
region’s stability than Bashar al-Assad. The activation and use of chemical
weapons would lead to an extreme situation that no neighbouring state or the
international community could handle. Several western states, including the
United States, the United Kingdom and France, have made it perfectly clear that
they would not let such a situation happen6.
Implications of Military Action
If a foreign military action is launched, there would be two possible scenarios.
The first would be to counter the use of chemical weapons with an intervention.
This would mean thousands of Syrians dying of suffocation in order to allow the
mobilisation of foreign troops on Syrian soil. The less risky yet more daring
second scenario would be preventive action. This would consist of sending
Special Forces to get hold of stocks of chemical weapons before their use, to
destroy them on the spot or to take them out of Syria. The option is currently
being studied by the United States and several European countries; special
Western forces have been mobilised in Jordan and are expecting the watchword.
The American president’s recognition of Syria’s National Coalition as the truly
legitimate representative of the Syrian people and his refusal to support the
Free Army militarily, amount to trapping the Assad regime politically. These
measures should help discourage the young ruler from giving up the idea of a
total war against the insurrection, at the cost of letting an unbearable
The radicalisation of the Syrian crisis also risks impacting neighbouring
countries7, for instance Iraq, where tensions between Shi’ates and Sunnis are
already simmering, and Lebanon, which is again on the verge of civil war.
Indeed, Lebanon is the most vulnerable of Syria’s neighbours, characterised by a
fragile power situation and raging inter-confessional tensions, not to mention
pro and anti-Assad political stances. Lebanon is now regularly prey to border
incidents, targeted killings, inter-community confrontations8 and massive
In addition, there is growing discontent among Sunni people and several
Christians with regard to Hezbollah’s hegemony and its particularly close ties
with the Assad regime. In reality, the Iran-friendly militia’s support to
Damascus is not just political. It is fully involved in the Syrian conflict as
highlighted by the development of a land-bridge across Lebanon to connect
Damascus to the Western part of Homs and to the Syrian coast (around Tartus)9.
Like the international Beirut-Damascus road ‒ Lebanese side of which is under
the close surveillance of Hezbollah ‒ this corridor could become particularly
strategic if Assad’s troops were to lose control over domestic main roads.
Finally, Hezbollah’s hegemony over Beirut and the Beqaa Valley and its influence
over Najib Mikati’s government are reassuring elements for Damascus; Lebanon’s
capital still remains the nearest port and can thus be used as a strategic
resupplying channel if the need arises.
If the Syrian crisis lasts long, Lebanon ‒ like other countries in the region ‒
might be faced with challenges of an unprecedented scale. Turkey could also be
affected. As it did in the 1990s, Damascus could be more than willing to use the
Kurdish issue as a lever over Ankara. Lastly, Golan Heights provocations to
press Israel into the conflict cannot be excluded. On the contrary, a collapse
of the Syrian regime now would clearly undermine Iran’s geopolitical positions,
weaken Hezbollah, and intensify tensions between Sunnis and Shi’ates in Lebanon
and Iraq. This would be a radical yet long-lasting disruption of all power
struggles in the Middle-East, with the need to redefine long established
1. Druze, Kurds, but mostly Christians.
2. The Syrian regime is not just the power of one man or one family, but that of
a religious community: the Alawis. It results from a history whose roots are to
be found in Syria’s confessional composition and in the social revenge of a
marginalized minority having reached the top through the army and through its
mixing up with the Ba’ath party. See: Masri Feki, “The Future of Syria: New Era
of Democracy or Rise of Sunni Fundamentalism”, Diplomatist Magazine (India),
Volume 4, No.7, Aug. 2012.
3. Nowadays, some fantasize about the creation of a small state in the “Alawi
recess,” as the French did when their mandate began, in the 1920s.
4.Christophe Ayad, « Syrie : les combats gagnent la région alaouite, bastion du
système Assad », Le Monde (France), 27 Dec. 2012.
5. This is in particular the case of the radical Salafi organization
6. Jabhat al-Nosra, having recently appeared on the US list of foreign terrorist
organizations. Jean Guisnel, “Syrie : la peur des armes chimiques”, Le
Télégramme (France), 5 Dec. 2012.
7. For further reading about the Syrian crisis’s regional outcome, see Jean-Sylvestre
Mongrenier, “La situation syrienne, ses impasses et ses développements”,
Institut Thomas More (France), Tribune N°36, Nov. 2012.
8. Especially in North Lebanon, between Sunnis and Alawis. For instance, on 22
August 2012, clashes between Sunnis opposed to Assad and Sunnis supporting the
Syrian regime resulted in five dead and dozens wounded in Tripoli.
9. Paul Salem, “Le Liban peut-il survivre à la crise syrienne ?”, L’Orient-Le
14 Dec. 2012.