Five years ago, after Friday prayers on March 18, 2011, several hundred demonstrators gathered in the city of Daraa in southern Syria to protest against the abuses of local security chiefs and raise a host of other demands. Inspired by the recent uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, their slogans were simple but telling: Hurriya (“Freedom”) and Baad al-yawm, ma fi khouf (“After today, no more fear”). At some point, the police opened fire. Three young men were reportedly killed, their names given as Mahmoud al-Jawabreh, Hossam Ayyash, and Ayham al-Hariri. They were the first three victims of a war that has now cost the lives of 300,000 people.
The following day, government forces intervened against their funeral processions, provoking new clashes. As the unrest escalated, Damascus sent military units to break up protests with extreme force. Soon, the surrounding countryside was rising up against the government and solidarity demonstrations were taking place across Syria. Everywhere they were put down with force, but the protests kept coming. Months later, a broad civil rebellion many tens of thousands strong had taken shape in spite of this furious repression. But the innocence of early revolutionary fervor had been lost, and Syria was by then a country in crisis, staring into the abyss of sectarian war.
Despite the best efforts of many brave Syrians on all sides of the war, the conflict by mid-2011 was already taking on a religious character. Perhaps it could not have been otherwise. The upper echelons of the regime had long been dominated by Alawites, the Shia-linked minority from which the ruling family hails, while resistance to this regime and the Baathist political order had been particularly strong within conservative segments of the Sunni-Muslim-majority population. With no organized opposition leadership to steer the protest movement and little in the way of secular civil society, Sunni identity politics emerged as a guiding framework of the rebellion. In this way, even though the uprising had not been triggered by religious radicalism, it created an environment in which it thrived.
Although overshadowed by the wider protest movement, flickers of violent resistance soon began to coalesce into militant cells. Sergeants Saer Merhaj and Khaldoun Othman were killed on March 23 in Daraa, the first two casualties on the regime side. But throughout the spring and early summer of 2011, antigovernment violence remained sporadic and disorganized, typically the result of rural families or clans retaliating for the deaths of relatives. There was no trace of an organized and politicized guerrilla movement.
By June 2011, this was changing. Islamist radicals, many of whom had been released in presidential amnesties, began to organize into small militias conducting hit-and-run attacks on the army. Now thoroughly disabused of the notion that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government could be swayed by peaceful protest, many former demonstrators and military defectors also took up arms. Checkpoints sprang up across the Sunni countryside, ambushes and roadside bombs proliferated, and there were bouts of brutal street fighting. In July, Turkey supported the creation of a leadership-in-exile for the armed movement, known as the Free Syrian Army, which helped mainstream the idea of armed resistance.
Although peaceful protests continued in many cities, and the exiled opposition would not fully embrace the guerrilla movement until later, violence now slowly displaced the demonstrations. In October and November 2011, the Homs region suffered several rounds of sectarian bloodshed between Alawites and Sunnis. By the end of the year, entire neighborhoods in the city had been taken over by rebel forces. Parts of the northern countryside were also sliding out of Assad’s control, and army discipline was fraying, with Sunni soldiers and officers defecting in the thousands. The machinery of power once painstakingly constructed by the president’s father and predecessor, Hafez al-Assad, had thus been broken—and Syria was at war.
Five years later, Syria is a country torn apart. Its territory has fractured into ethno-sectarian enclaves and fiefdoms where violent extremist gangs and warlords prey on the population.
Most of the population remains under the authority of Assad’s central government, which controls the army and its militia appendages as well as a skeletal, albeit crucial, web of institutions. Some 2 million people and their families are directly dependent on government salaries or pensions and millions of others depend on state subsidies, services, protection, or permits—including many who live outside Assad’s domain. In areas under army control, the political orthodoxy is ruthlessly enforced and thousands of civilians have been killed or disappeared for voicing dissident opinions.
Other armed actors rule much smaller populations, but their areas of control are nevertheless significant. There is a Kurdish federal project in northern Syria, while the self-proclaimed Islamic State holds sway in the east, and a number of Sunni Islamist councils and judiciaries are spread over patches of rebel territory in the north, the south, and around Damascus and Aleppo. In addition, there is a Western-, Turkish-, and Arab-backed government-in-exile in Gaziantep, Turkey, but its influence does not extend into Syria itself.
In other words, there is no real alternative to the Damascus government. The rival state-building projects offered by the Islamic State and the Kurds show the ability to administer territory and impose a monopoly on force, but they cannot hope to contend with Assad for national preeminence. Each is too narrowly based and has too many domestic and regional enemies to expand and succeed on a nationwide scale.
The rest of the opposition remains too divided to function at the national level. While Syria’s Sunni Arab rebels share many goals and allies, and infighting among them remains relatively rare, these factions have never managed to find a center of gravity around which to unify. Forceful international support is often portrayed as the means to change this, but in fact, it has had the opposite effect. The West and its allies have intervened to empower rivals to the jihadi bloc that would otherwise dominate, thus cementing the insurgency’s fragmentation instead of ending it. This dynamic is unlikely to go away. The large Islamist rebel factions that could tip the scales in a non-jihadi direction, such as Ahrar al-Sham, seem unwilling and unable to disentangle themselves from the Nusra Front. This leaves the Sunni Arab insurgency stuck in a position from which it cannot win.
That leaves Bashar al-Assad. While he has so far succeeded in preventing the emergence of a credible competitor and blocking all proposals for a political transition, the president has not yet offered a positive plan for how to reunify and stabilize Syria. At this point, his regime seems at once inevitable and unviable.
Even with strong Russian and Iranian support, Assad’s government seems too weak to reconquer the country by force. The president could theoretically compensate for this weakness by engaging in effective diplomacy or striking deals with his opponents, but he has so far shown neither the inclination nor the ability to do so. Indeed, the resistance to a full-blown Assad restoration would be massive; hatred of Assad and his family is a main motivating cause of the insurgency as well as its international support networks.
Assad might, however, be able to engineer international acquiescence to his continued dominance of a fractured country. If things continue to go the government’s way militarily, as they have since Russia intervened on September 30, and if international resistance to him subsides, Assad could potentially lock down the core regions of what has become known as “useful Syria.” This could include Damascus, Homs, Hama, Tartous, Latakia, and Aleppo, plus parts or all of Deir Ezzor, Daraa, and Raqqa. International economic and military support channeled through the central government could then sustain, and to some extent revive, the state apparatus. In so doing, it would help to reconnect some, though not all, of the peripheral areas to Damascus.
But even in this scenario, the bloodshed would not be over. There would certainly be flare-ups between Assad and other actors. In some areas, notably those now controlled by jihadists, the war would be likely to last for a long, long time. Human rights abuses in government-held territory would of course continue unabated and Syrians would be doomed to kiss the boot of the Assad family for another generation. Even beyond that, political stability would be of only a relative nature. Over time, the government would struggle to re-create a functioning economy, survive internal challenges, and retain basic cohesion. Still, this is probably the direction in which Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to nudge the Geneva peace process, arguing that it is the only way of avoiding a permanent state collapse. And no other major actor has offered a credible way forward. It is entirely possible that such a victory for Assad, if it can be called that, would only postpone rather than prevent complete state failure.
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