Editor’s Note: Professor Eyal Zisser is the head of the Department of Middle Eastern and African History and a senior research fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center, both at Tel Aviv University.
By Eyal Zisser - Special to CNN
In an interview that Bashar al-Assad gave to the Wall Street Journal in January 2011 before the Syrian protests broke out, he assured his interviewers that the Arab Spring would not reach Damascus. Al-Assad was mistaken, of course, for within a month of the interview protests broke out across the country. But al-Assad had a point, Syria is different from the other countries of the Arab Spring such as Egypt and Tunisia. Syria possesses qualities that protect it better from the storm.
Nearly 40% of Syria's population consists of members of minority communities. There are the Alawites (about 12%), from among whom come the ruling al-Assad family. In addition to this community, there are the Christians (12%), the Kurds (10%), and the Druze (5%). Many within minority communities worry that radical Islam will replace al-Assad and have been reluctant to join the protests against Bashar al-Assad.
In addition, the revolution in Syria is not driven by the “Facebook” youth - offspring of the big city middle and upper classes - as they were in Egypt and Tunisia. Syria's revolution is a peasants' revolution. It broke out in the rural periphery, away from Damascus.
The residents of Syria's big cities, including the members of the Sunni community, are still sitting on the fence. They see Iraq - Syria's neighbor to the east - as a possible scenario for post-al-Assad Syria. Iraq was liberated by the Americans from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein but instead of stability and prosperity, the dictator's fall brought on a bloody civil war between Iraq's different religious and ethnic communities. Indiscriminate terror resulted, along with the gradual disintegration of the country into its regional components - Kurds in the north, Sunnis in the center, and Shiites in the south.
What to watch
The Syrian regime is bleeding. Of this there is no doubt. The question is: Will it continue to bleed until it finally falls, or will Bashar al-Assad somehow be able to maintain power. To answer this question, one must look for the “game-changers” - those major developments that could bring about a dramatic and quick collapse of the al-Assad regime.
First, one must pay attention to the cohesion of the Syrian army and government apparatuses. These have so far maintained their cohesion, continuing to support the al-Assad regime. There have not been any major desertions from the army. No army unit or high-ranking general has deserted its ranks for the opposition.
Most of the Syrian Army's high-ranking officers come from the al-Assad family or the Alawite community. They know that - in contrast to their counterparts in Egypt - the end of the al-Assad regime also means their end. Even the Syrian state bureaucracy stands firmly behind Bashar al-Assad. Thus, for example, not one Syrian diplomat has defected even though there are hundreds of diplomats in the Syrian Foreign Service stationed in more than a hundred embassies around the world. This fact stands in complete contrast to Libya where most of the Libyan diplomatic corps defected to the opposition within days of the outbreak of the violence there.
Next, one must pay attention to the communities currently sitting on the fence - the residents of the big cities such as Damascus and Aleppo - along with members of the various minority groups such as the Druze and Christians. As long as the residents of the big cities, mostly Sunnis, refrain from joining the demonstrations against the regime, the opposition, which is in any case divided, will find it even more difficult to garner enough power to bring down the al-Assad regime. On the other hand, if the Druze on Jabal al-Druze (Druze Mountain) decide to join the demonstrations against the regime - something that has not yet happened - this will signal their belief that the Syrian regime has come to the end of the road.
Given this situation, it is no wonder that the world has been careful about intervening militarily in Syria. The Syrian army, which still stands behind al-Assad, could fight back. It is a strong and powerful army. It is most likely that the world will let the Syrian struggle continue until the regime weakens and collapses by itself, or until those who are sitting on the fence in Syria join the protests and thereby signal the nearing end of al-Assad. At most, other states will continue to supply the insurgents in Syria with money and weapons with the aim of bleeding the Syrian regime until it collapses.
The Syrian regime has enough strength to survive for some time absent a game-changing event such as defections of entire army units or high-ranking officers, a sudden change of heart in the international community followed by substantial intervention, or massive demonstrations in Damascus and Aleppo.
Absent these events, the struggle for Syria is likely to be long and bloody, without a decisive outcome on the horizon.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of Eyal Zisser.