The year-long government crackdown on pro-democracy activists in Syria will result in protracted civil war if it is allowed to continue. This will heighten sectarian tensions across the Middle East, threaten the stability of neighboring states and draw foreign Islamist fighters to the aid of the Syrian opposition. If the latest round of diplomacy fails to halt the bloodshed, international military intervention against the Syrian government will emerge as the only viable solution to the crisis.
The UN estimates that more than 9,000 people have been killed as a result of the violence so far and the vast majority by the hands of pro-government forces. Western states currently find diplomacy and sanctions to be the most politically tenable policy options available for dealing with this situation. From a strategic perspective, however, regional forces are likely to be increasingly drawn into the conflict precisely because the wider international community is staying out of it. This raises the possibility of a sectarian proxy war between Sunni and Shi’a Islam in the country.
Sunni Muslims are the religious majority in Syria, accounting for 74% of the population and the majority of those protesting against the government. The 12% minority Shi’a Alawi sect, on the other hand, effectively rules the country. Alawis make up most of the Syrian police, internal security services and staff key government and military positions. The conscripted Syrian army itself is predominantly Sunni Muslim. According to a Turkish Foreign Ministry official about 60,000 soldiers have defected or deserted during the crackdown.
Foreign Shi'a groups are reported to be assisting the government to suppress the uprising, according to activists. Leaked Stratfor intelligence emails offer some confirmation of this. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah are allegedly tasked with preventing defections among the ranks of the Syrian army, and to ensure that they follow orders to fire on civilians. These foreign paramilitaries are also rumored to be coordinating with loyalist Shi’a Alawi criminal gangs, or Shabiha, in the worst of the atrocities. Amnesty International has said that those who have been captured and detained by pro-government forces during the twelve month crackdown "have been thrust into a nightmarish world of systemic torture".
As Syrian activists put down their banners, take up arms and begin adjusting to the strategic realities of asymmetric warfare, a favorable environment is fostered for the entrance of foreign Sunni fighters into the conflict. Despite initially taking partial control of a large expanse of territory, the fragmented brigades of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) cannot hold ground against armored divisions on their own. Unable to compete in open battle, the rebels will increasingly have to resort to roadside bombs, kidnappings, assassinations and other insurgent tactics. None of these require much in the way of external support, but they also...