Syrian Civil War: Rebels Still Fighting Muddled Battle Over Legitimacy

The month of March marks the second year of Syria’s unabated, turbulent conflict, which has taken the lives of an estimated 70,000 Syrians. This week, one million Syrian refugees will have officially registered with the United Nations Refugee Agency, described as "a milestone in human tragedy" by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

The lack of political will to put an end to the war has placed the region in a precarious situation that could further destabilize both Syria and the nations around it. But as the international community continues to debate over what course of action to take, the battle over establishing legitimacy inside the country rages on. The picture is no doubt bleak.

Bashar al-Assad and his Alawite-dominated Ba’athist regime continue to rule from Damascus. Assad, who fully controls the military and security apparatus of his government, depends on the loyalty of the Alawite minority sect in order to maintain his dominance over Syria. The Alawite sect makes up just 12% of Syria’s 22 million-strong population. Sunni Muslims make up 74%, Christians 10%, and Druze 3%. When Assad’s father Hafez staged a coup in 1970, he established a state of repression, placing his Alawite sect as Syria’s powerful elite and deepening resentment and suspicions within the Sunni majority.

The Free Syrian Army, a loose collection of local militias, army defectors, and civilian volunteers, is the opposition’s main armed group. From the onset of the war, the FSA continued to struggle to develop a cohesive structure and chain of command, at times even resorting to armed infighting. Late last year, in the largely Kurdish dominated north-east of the country, rebel groups clashed with Kurdish militias accused of cooperating with the government. However, the Kurds have also suffered under Assad’s oppressive rule and have taken up arms against him, defying the common view that the Kurds do not see the war as their fight. Hundreds of them have joined the FSA, fighting besides the Syrian Arabs.     

Bashar al-Assad continues to stay in power for a number of reasons. One is because of his reprehensible ability to command his fiercely loyal army to kill their fellow compatriots, having the advantage of a heavy artillery and air force. The other is the opposition’s lack of a unified front. For the most part, his supporters among Syria’s minorities see Assad as the better alternative to what could happen in a potentially bloody contest for power when he falls.  

The Syrian rebels continue to use guerrilla tactics to gain control over major parts in the north and east of the country, avoiding the full firepower of the regime’s army. As with any insurgency, the burden of proving its legitimacy and governance weighs heavily on them. The rebels grapple with the difficult problem of winning the support of the regime’s backers and the other ethnic minority groups that are trying to stay out of the conflict. Without a unified and credible voice, the rebels face the challenge of reassuring the Kurds, Christians, Druze, and Alawite sects that they will be safer without Assad.

Only a few Alawites have profited from Assad’s rule. Many still live in poverty in the central mountains of Syria. By reassuring the Alawite minority that there will be no reprisal against them in the wake of Assad’s downfall, the rebels would be able to assert more legitimacy but this has proven to be difficult. Without the needed support, which is vital to the stability of the country post-Assad, the situation is bound to ensue chaos like that of Afghanistan after the defeat of the Soviet Union.

Fears of sectarian violence following the downfall of Assad’s regime have prevented any major changes on the ground. The question on many people’s minds remain: will the region remain fragmented, with Assad banking on the unease of Syria’s minorities, or will the rebels be able prove themselves as a legitimate governing body for Syria? How will the country be able to bring back order from the chaos its currently undergoing? As the fabric of Syria’s society gets placed under pressure, the battle of governance and legitimacy continues.