Sometime in 2013 there will be big choices for each side. For the current regime: will it retreat when necessary to a redoubt in the predominantly Alawite sector of the northeast? How quickly will the rebels assault that center, as compared to the work of consolidating their control over the rest of the country?
And finally, how many ethnic massacres will there be of Christians and Alawites in rebel-held territory, and of Sunni Muslims in regime-held territory? There is no doubt that such murders will take place by the Salafis even if the better-disciplined Muslim Brotherhood refrains from revenge killings. But will they reach the level that will shake up Western thinking and perhaps force a reluctant Obama administration to do something serious about them?
Why will the Obama administration be reluctant to act, and the Western media at least a little slow to recognize what’s happening? Because both are wedded to the rebels and the proposition that Islamists are ready to moderate. The way out is to blame the killings on the Salafis — probably true — and on al-Qaeda, the all-purpose scapegoat for everything bad that Islamists say and do. Remember the notion of “responsibility to protect”?
But once the rebels start consolidating rule, as happened in Egypt, there will be increasing examples to be ignored of radical Islamist control, repression, the defeat of the moderates, the persecution of Christians, and the reduction of women’s status.
It is a waste of time to discuss which side is better, or who one wants to win. The answer is simple: the best thing would be for moderates on the rebel side to win and to create some semblance of democracy and human rights. That possibility is still open, but things are looking grim. And here is where Western responsibility comes in. Helping the Islamists, and the Brotherhood in particular, makes Western governments complicit in their future crimes — not only against real regime supporters, but also against communities identified with the regime (Alawites and Christians), against moderates on the rebel side, and perhaps one day in attempts to crush the emerging Kurdish autonomy in the northeast.
So Assad won’t give in. The war will go on. And just as Egypt was the big continuing story of 2011-2012, the agony of Syria is likely to be the big story of 2013.
Bear with me while I quote the introduction of my book, The Truth About Syria, written six years ago:
Syria … provides the best case study of what has happened in the Arab world, and thus in the Middle East, during the last half-century. When it gained independence, Syria was a democratic country with a seemingly bright future. Blessed with fertile land and ample resources, Syria boasted good relations with the West as well as an energetic, entrepreneurial middle class. Yet a combination of radical intellectuals, militant ideologies, and ambitiously politicized military officers pushed Syria down a different path which has led to turmoil and disaster.
A professed republic, it has been long ruled by one family, passed down like a hereditary sinecure. A self-described progressive state, it is largely controlled by a small group that enriches itself at the expense of the great majority of its people. A supposed secular regime, it avidly courts radical Islamists abroad and has become increasingly Islamized at home.
No other country in the Middle East is as much of a cauldron of religious and ethnic groups — Muslims, Alawites, Druze, Christians, and Kurds — which compete for power. No place in the region has seen such a collision of contending ideologies — Arab nationalism, Syrian nationalism, Islamism, Communism, reformist liberalism, and more — which have battled it out for decades
Once the archetypal leftist, Arab nationalist regime, Syria is now the test case for the battle — whose outcome has the most serious implications for America — between Arab nationalist dictators, radical Islamist revolutionaries, and liberal reformers over the fate of the Arab and Muslim worlds. In our era, this contest is the most important struggle determining the direction of the entire world.