In war, moral power is to physical as three parts out of four, said Napoleon, and the past few days have seen a sudden and drastic shift in the balance of moral power in Syria. The bomb that killed the three most senior members of the security establishment last Wednesday may just have been a lucky fluke for the rebels, and the street fighting in Damascus may end with a (temporary) regime victory. But everything has changed in terms of expectations.
Until last week, the regime seemed secure in the short term, although potentially doomed in the long term. President Bashar al-Assad’s army was well armed and apparently loyal, and he still had the support of much of the population. The opposition was poorly armed and only loosely organised — and as Napoleon also remarked, God is on the side with the best artillery. (If you want to be thought wise, contradict yourself frequently.)
Perhaps “morale” is a better word than “moral.” The reason the regime seemed secure until last week was not its weapons, but the confidence of its supporters that their side was still able to win. That confidence has now been profoundly shaken. The fighting has reached the heart of the big cities, and the rebels have struck even at the core of the regime, the national security building, to kill key members of Assad’s innermost circle.
So it is suddenly occurring to a lot of people who formerly saw the regime as the protector of their privileges that these guys could actually lose. If they are going to lose, you do not want to be in the last ditch with them. Maybe it’s time to change sides.
About ten minutes later, it will also occur to the same people that many others are undoubtedly having the same thoughts — and that means the collapse could come quite quickly. This kind of thinking operates as a self-fulfilling prophecy, so the regime’s final slide into defeat could be coming within days or weeks.
That is by no means guaranteed, of course. In material terms the regime is still vastly superior, and morale is a volatile thing. If the uprisings in parts of Damascus and Aleppo are crushed quickly and decisively, the morale of the regime’s supporters could recover, and the civil war might continue for months or years more. But Syrians must now reckon with the possibility of an early collapse of the Baath Party’s 49-year-old monopoly of power.
So the question is: what would happen then? The great fear is that it could go the same way as Iraq and Lebanon, two neighbouring countries that share about the same mix of ethnic and religious groups (in differing proportions) as Syria itself.
Lebanon tore itself apart in a civil war among those groups in 1975-90, and a quarter-million Lebanese died. Iraq tore itself apart in 2005-2009, and at least half a million Iraqis died. Two million people fled the country permanently, including almost all of Iraq’s Christian minority, and the Sunni Muslims have almost all been driven out of mixed and Shia-majority areas.
Any thinking Syrian, aware of these dreadful precedents, will be frightened by regime change no matter how much he or she loathes the existing regime. Indeed, the Assad regime’s principal means of garnering support has been to insist that only its tyrannical rule can “protect” the Shia, Druze, Alawite and Christian minorities from the 70 percent Sunni Muslim majority.
It could easily go wrong. The original pro-democracy movement was nonviolent and emphatically nonsectarian. It was mostly Sunni Muslim, but it deliberately sought to attract the support of the various minorities as well. All the leaders understood that only a nonsectarian revolution could produce a democratic Syria.
Unfortunately, the Assad regime drowned that nonviolent movement in blood, and instead Syria wound up with a violent revolt that has grown into a veritable civil war. What the rebels must do now is to end it without a massacre of the minorities. The price of failure is that the civil war won’t end at all.
The most exposed minority is the Alawites, because they have been the mainstay of the regime. The Assad family is Alawite, as are most senior figures in the military, intelligence and Baath Party elites. Their dominance has been based on close clan ties, not on their religion (they are a “heretical” Shia sect), and most Alawites have not benefited much from the regime, but they could easily be held responsible for its crimes — and massacred.
If they think they face that sort of future, they will withdraw to their mountainous stronghold along the Syrian coast (and effectively cut Syria off from the sea). Other minorities will also take fright and arm themselves, and the country will be trapped in a long, cruel war of massacre and ethnic cleansing.
So if the Baath regime goes down soon, the rest of the world should be ready to go in fast with economic help for the post-revolutionary regime, and with multitudes of observers to document what is actually happening to the minorities and dispel false rumours. The rest of the world can do nothing to help now, but it will be sorely needed then.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose commentary is published in 45 countries.