Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime has shown surprising staying power in the vicious civil war that's been grinding on for nearly two years. One reason for its endurance is the contrast between its overwhelming advantage in firepower -- which it has used with utter disregard for non-combatants' lives -- and numbers. By contrast, the disparate armed resistance groups nominally united as the Free Syrian Army (FSA) have many fewer fighters, and they are poorly armed and trained.
But the military imbalance is not the only explanation. Assad's government has also retained sufficient support in Syria's diverse society to prevent the crumbling of pivotal state institutions, above all the military and the intelligence services. Backing from Syria's minorities has been particularly important to Assad's survival. These groups include the ruling Alawites, to which Assad belongs, and Christians and Kurds, each of whom account for about 10-12 percent of the population, plus the Druze, who constitute approximately 5 percent.
Syria's non-Alawite minorities have stood with Assad not because they overwhelmingly approve of him but because they are apprehensive about what is largely a Sunni Muslim insurgency, some of whose most powerful militias contain radical Islamists. Added to this is their broader concern that the armed opposition's victory will yield a political order dominated by Sunni Arabs, who comprise about two-thirds of the population but have lived for decades in an Alawite-dominated state, which, for all of its faults, has been generally tolerant of other minorities.
But let's start with the Alawites. They hold leading positions in the army and security services and are plentiful in the shabiha, long standing criminal gangs that now serve as Assad's ruthless henchmen. Many Alawites therefore have bloody hands in a war in which some 40,000 people have been killed. Can they trust that victorious insurgents will make fine and generous distinctions between good and bad Alawites?
Syria's Kurds also have a lot to lose. They carved out an autonomous zone in their northeastern homeland after Assad pulled his forces out and do not relish the prospect of living under a government dominated by Sunni Arabs, which is bound to take back what they have gained.
Syria's Christians, drawn from about a dozen denominations, face a tough choice: Lie low and hope for the best even if the radical Islamists end up running the post-Assad show, or form their own self-defense units in anticipation of trouble? Amidst attacks by rebel forces against their churches in cities such as Aleppo and Homs, and efforts to drive them from their homes, many Christians have fled the country; others have begun forming militias to defend their neighborhoods.
The Druze minority also has grounds to be jittery. Like the Alawites, they belong to an offshoot of Shi'a Islam deemed heretical by Sunni purists, and many serve in the military. Some Druze, including soldiers, have joined the fight against Assad, and anti-government protests have occurred in Druze towns and villages; but most have not taken sides. The question for the latter is whether vengeful elements in the insurgency will punish neutrality. The Druze who choose to arm for self-protection will ensconce themselves in their home region, the southern highlands of the Jabal al-Druze.
Syria's minority groups face these hard choices because the House of Assad is now wobbly as never before and isolated internationally, while the resistance is steadily gaining international recognition. In November a constellation of political groups and militias formed the National Coalition for Syrian Opposition and Revolutionary Forces. The coalition has been recognized by Britain, France, Turkey, the Gulf Cooperation Council and, recently, by the United States. Its declared intention is to gain the cooperation of Syria's minority groups, something the Syrian National Council (SNC), formed in October 2011, was unable to do because it was seen as a Sunni-dominated organization.
By contrast, Assad's government is losing support. Iran remains a staunch ally. Russia and China still oppose regime change induced by the United States and its friends and allies (Qatar, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia) and insist on a negotiated settlement; but Russia has begun to recognize that Assad's days are numbered, and China has pointedly avoided embracing his regime.
On the ground, schooled by the rigors of war, the insurgents, while still outgunned, have become more effective and are likely to get more and better weaponry, even if the United States sticks to its current policy of not arming them.
Thus the question of what a post-Assad Syria will look like looms large now. A negotiated settlement featuring Assad's departure and a transitional power-sharing agreement between remnants of the regime and the opposition is unlikely. There's zero trust between the warring parties. Moreover, the resistance believes that the political and military momentum now favors it, and its leaders will interpret the regime's embrace of an externally proposed diplomatic deal as proof that it is desperate to salvage what it can while it still has leverage left.
The Alawite leadership has good reason to fear that a peace accord will prove but a brief interlude that will be followed by rounds of pitiless score settling. Alawite militias formed from the detritus of a crumbling military could regroup in the enclave framed by Latakia and Tartus on the Mediterranean coast and the An-Nusayriyah mountains to the east, which has a high concentration of Alawites.
Iran, Hezbollah, and Iraq's Shi'a-dominated government, already Assad's strongest backers, see Syria's civil war as part of a Shi'a-Sunni contest spanning the Middle East and Assad as an essential ally. Given their stake in preventing the consolidation of a Sunni Arab dominated Syrian state aligned with Saudi Arabia, there's a strong chance that they will continue supplying arms and sending fighters to bolster Alawite forces.
Syrian Kurds will see the Assad regime's collapse as a long-awaited opportunity to establish, at minimum, what their brethren in Iraq have, a state within a state; and the support they are receiving from the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq will provide them the wherewithal and confidence to go for broke. Turkey, which faces a larger and longstanding Kurdish rebellion, will feel threatened by the rise of another quasi-independent Kurdish entity on its southern flank; but it's not clear that it can prevent it without wading into a quagmire.
It's not just Syria's minorities who face big decisions. So do secular, professional Sunnis, especially those who hold visible positions in Assad's regime, whose values and lifestyles are ill-suited to life in an Islamic polity. Some will emigrate; others may join militias created by Alawites and other minorities, or create their own; most will try and adjust as best they can to a new, inhospitable Syria.
What makes the future of post-Assad Syria even more uncertain is that the opposition is itself fragmented. The National Council is not the only opposition coalition: aside from the SNC, there is the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change, which was formed in September 2011 and favors dialogue with the government and opposes foreign military involvement.
The anti-Assad militias are loyal to their commanders and localities and are not united by a shared vision of a new Syria. Ideological differences persist among militia commanders and political leaders and among the commanders themselves.
Those who have fought, putting their lives on the line, are suspicious of exiled leaders who have not, particularly recent defectors now seeking leadership positions in the opposition. A case in point is Manaf Tlass, a Sunni Brigadier General in Assad's Republican Guard and a member of the Central Committee of the Syrian Baath Party, whose father, Mustafa, served as Defense Minister for over 30 years, mainly under Bashar's father, Hafez al-Assad.
Arab and Western governments may induce the fragmented opposition to paper over their differences, but the divisions will likely reemerge once Assad, the common enemy, has been vanquished. And because post-Assad Syria will contain numerous armed groups who have lived by the law of the gun and believe that their enormous sacrifices entitle them to influence, leaders who have power but are also inclined to engage in compromise in the interest of post-war national harmony may be in short supply.
The United States is now working to shape post-Assad Syria. But as many insurgents see it, Washington, having stood by watching the carnage, now presumes that it can decide which Syrian groups are legitimate and which are not. The Obama administration wants to sideline groups such as Jabhat Al-Nusra, which it sees as an Al-Qaeda acolyte and has labeled a terrorist organization. Yet Al-Nusra's warriors have been among the most effective against Assad's army, and even Syrians who look askance at its agenda are chagrined that Washington, having done little to help them, now feels entitled to influence their country's post-war politics.
Amidst all of the uncertainty surrounding Syria's future two things are apparent. The end of Assad will not be the end of the war, but a segue to a new stage; and outsiders will have far less influence over its course than they imagine.