I wouldn’t be surprised if Bashar al-Assad falls sometime soon, but I also will not be surprised if the year 2020 rolls around and Syria has all but ceased to exist as a nation state and he’s still ruling fragments of the ex-country like a Somali-style warlord. Lebanon’s Levantine sectarian war lasted fifteen long years. That doesn’t mean Syria’s Levantine sectarian war will last as long, but it could.
Take a look at the new piece by Gary Brecher (the self-described War Nerd). His use of the Northern Ireland analogy is apt. I’ve used it myself to describe Lebanon’s war, and due to Lebanon’s lack of a sectarian majority, it’s the reason no one, not even Hezbollah, can ever win an offensive war in that country.
When you look at this war strictly as a military struggle, you notice something weird: over two years of fighting, the lines are almost totally static. The Alawites, Assad’s Shi’ia-ish people, have withdrawn from most of inland Syria — the flat, dry country where the Sunni dominate. But Assad’s troops and militias are still fighting for Aleppo, the biggest city in the Sunni inland region, and they’re holding on strong in their coastal home region. The Kurds have assumed control of their enclaves in the north and northeast with some help from their PKK friends in Turkey. Roughly speaking, the Alawites, who always looked like sure losers, have held their own and even pushed back, despite being only about 10% of the population, and having a tradition of being considered weird hicks by other Syrians.
If you look at a map of sectarian demographics in Syria, and superimpose it on a map showing areas of Assad control and rebel-held regions, you’ll see that the two maps are almost identical. And the front lines haven’t changed much since the Sunni grabbed control of their neighborhoods two years ago. Syria makes the Western Front of WWI look like the Paris-Dakar Rally by comparison. The lines held by the Sunni, Shi’ia and Kurds barely move.
And by the way, I’m going to talk about Sunni, Alawite, Shi’ia, and Kurds, because that’s what matters in Syria. This is a sectarian war, and pretending it isn’t is just pious nonsense. As long as you keep in mind that in the Levant, "sect" means an ethnic group as much as a religion. And if that seems weird, try thinking of a classic Levantine sectarian outpost you may have heard of, the one called "Israel." Are Israeli Jews a religion or an ethnic group, a people? Both, more or less -- a very sloppy, leaky Venn diagram. Religion works as an ethnic marker for most groups in the Levant, not just the Israelis. And the fact that there are always outliers, people too noble or crazy or sophisticated to be defined by their sect, doesn’t change the fact that for most people, the sect is what defines you.
Once you see how deeply this sectarian identity works, you can start to understand why this war is so static. In urban sectarian warfare, most fights are about the neighborhood, keeping the neighborhood in your sect’s hands, away from the heretics two streets over. You grow up fighting the kids from over there, first with words, then with rocks, then with whatever firearms you can borrow from your cousins. For Anglos, the paradigm for this kind of war is Belfast and Derry. The war there started with neighborhood defenders in places like the Short Strand trying to hold their little block of row houses against the other sect.
Americans have a hard time imagining how tiny this kind of war can be. In this country you can drive for 14 hours and pull over to the same intersection, with exactly the same McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Denny’s, Day’s Inn, Starbucks, Super 8 and Motel 6. The accents’d be the same, the burgers’d be the same, the price of gas’d might change by a penny or two.
In a place like Aleppo (or Belfast), every street takes a side. The name of the street tells you which side it’s on (which is why those whiny choir boys, U2, came up with the song about a wonderful place "where the streets have no name"). It’s not just the streets, either; the birds in Beirut or Belfast chirp "Death to heretics!" Blindfold somebody from a city like that, walk them around a few times, and when you let them look, they could tell you in a second which (sectarian) side of town they’re on.
This encourages people to "think local." Which means they’re very good when they fight to hold their neighborhoods, but useless in big offensives. Even raw irregulars can do very well fighting on their own turf. But they’re useless when you try to get them to organize into an offensive army. Why risk the neighborhood’s crop of young men on somebody else’s neighborhood? Not only could you lose half your cousins, but while you and the cuzzies are out there grandstanding, somebody could be invading your neighborhood. You just don’t leave your neighborhood unmanned in a sectarian war, ever. Not if you have living female relatives. In ugly wars like this, you’re not afraid of what the enemy will do to you but to your kin —the really sick people are encouraged to get creative in horrible ways; merely murdering your neighbor gets old fast.