For two and a half years, civil war has wrought tremendous death and destruction upon Syria and her people. The destruction of the minaret of the Umayaad mosque in Aleppo gave a truly terrifying representation of the extent of the damage the war has brought to the country. Perhaps the gravest casualty of the Syrian civil war, however, is the Syrian state itself. With the sectarian fabric of Syria’s rebel coalition threatening to finally unravel, a recently announced peace conference in Geneva might be the last — and best — hope for the Syrian state to stay in one piece.
Syria, like neighboring Lebanon, is a complex fabric of ethnicities and religious groups. While the country is majority Sunni Muslim, the regime is lead by Bashar al-Assad and his associates, all Alawites — an offshoot of Shiite Islam. With a large population of Druse in the south, Syria’s ethnic quilt is challenged by the sectarian tensions stoked by the regime in their effort to undo the rebellion.
To the casual observer, the Syrian conflict looks no different than many of the other so-called “Arab Spring” revolutions: an autocratic leader fails to respond appropriately to small-scale demonstrations, leading to a significant challenge to his legitimacy either in the form of powerful street riots or a full-on rebellion. While this may be true, there remains one crucial difference. While the other rebellions fully maintained the existence of the nation-states they fought to retake, the Syrian civil war threatens the very concept of a “Syria” itself. Indeed, the various enclaves carved out by the rebellion (mostly Sunni) and regime (Alawite) have pushed other smaller ethnic groups into exile, or angered others (most notably Palestinians).
The coming peace conference, then, is absolutely crucial. No faction wishes for the dissolution of the Syrian state, but given the tenacity of the rebels and the brutality of the regime, such a reality may come to pass. Were the Syrian state to break up, Israel would face the uncertainty posed by yet another predictable enemy falling victim to populist revolt, and both they and the United States would share the mutual concern of territory under Sunni rebel control becoming a breeding ground for extremists. Russia would lose its major regional ally, and Iran and Hezbollah would lose their weapons' transit artery.
The Syrian question has proven to be utterly intractable for nearly two and a half years now. With one United Nations envoy having quit in frustration, international efforts to bring both major factions into the negotiating room have not borne fruit until now. Given Hezbollah’s recent overt declaration of support for the Assad regime, this might be the last opportunity for the rebels and their Western backers to set in place an armistice before the regime feels that it has the momentum to see the fight through on its own terms.