The security situation in Syria looks complex because of the number of actors involved, but the real challenge for intelligence analysts and seasoned observers is in predicting the likely outcome.
Today's situation has its roots in the period since 1949 when Syrian democracy was overturned by a CIA-sponsored right-wing coup. Following a further coup in 1963, the Alawite-dominated Ba'ath Party came to power. Since then, the Ba'ath Party has been the dominant authority in Syria. The country remained politically unstable until 1970 when Alawite Defence Minister Hafez al-Assad seized power and declared himself president. Hafez al-Assad soon banned all opposition. In 1982, at the height of a six-year Islamist insurgency throughout the country, he ruthlessly put down a Sunni uprising at the city of Hama. This became known as the Hama massacre, which left at least 20,000 dead. Since then, other smaller uprisings involving members of the Muslim Brotherhood and other anti-regime elements have been brutally suppressed.
Hafez al-Assad died in 2000 and was succeeded by his son Bashar al-Assad. Initially there was a climate of reform – known as the Damascus Spring. It ended in August 2001 with the arrest and imprisonment of 10 leading activists who had called for democratic elections and a campaign of civil disobedience. Since then, promises to introduce reforms have not resulted in any significant changes.
The current uprising dates back to a public demonstration on January 26, 2011 linked to the Arab Spring, when Hasan Ali Akleh doused himself with petrol and self-immolated. Mass protests began at Daraa on March 15 and the security situation has deteriorated since then. As the situation increasingly got out of hand, the regime deployed its security forces to use all available means to crush the uprising.
From as early as March 2011, large crowds have rallied in the support of the Assad government, especially in the cities of Damascus, Aleppo, Tartous, and Lattakia, and have increased since the suspension of Syria from the Arab League. The regime's support has mainly come from the non-Sunni part of the population which is concerned about its prospects if radical Sunnis gain power. Support rallies have also occurred in Australia.
Syria's 22 million population is 74 per cent Sunni Muslim (which includes Turks and most Kurds), 12 per cent Alawite (a mystical Shia group centred in Syria), 10 per cent Christian, and 4 per cent other Muslim groups – mainly Shia and Druze. The majority of the 18 million Syrian diaspora are Christians of the Eastern Orthodox Churches and Eastern Rite Churches.
The Syrian armed forces number about 300,000 active duty personnel and about the same number of reservists. Of the 200,000 or so career soldiers in the Syrian army, 140,000 are Alawite, while 80 per cent of the officers are Alawite. The military's elite divisions, the Republican Guard and the 4th Mechanised Division, commanded by Bashar's brother, are exclusively Alawite. Most of Syria's 300,000 conscripts are Sunni. Syria's main arms suppliers have been Russia, Belarus, Iran, China and North Korea.
The armed forces were responsible for suppressing the Sunni uprising in Syria in the 1980s, mostly notably in Hama. Since last year they have been deployed with the security police to contain uprisings in many Syrian cities.
Turning now to the armed opposition; these are the "gangs of armed terrorists" the government often refers to. Syrians have been crossing the border to Lebanon and Turkey to buy weapons on the black market since the beginning of the uprising. The main Sunni Muslim centres of unrest – Daraa near Jordan, where the uprising began, Talkalakh, Homs, Talbiseh, and Al-Rastan near Lebanon, and Jisr ash-Shugur near Turkey, have engaged in cross-border arms smuggling for generations. The armed opposition operating in urban areas have been quite effective so far, with more than 1200 members of the Syrian security forces killed. In late July 2011, they were joined by defectors from the Syrian Army who proclaimed the formation of a "Free Syrian Army" (FSA). They called upon Syrian soldiers and officers to defect to their ranks, and said the purpose of the FSA was to defend protesters from violence by the state. The current conflict has seen many Syrian military personnel defect to the opposition – possibly as many as 25,000. As deserting soldiers abandoned their armoured vehicles and brought only light weaponry and munitions, the FSA has also adopted guerrilla-style tactics inside cities. There is also a range of international actors with a variety of interests.
Al-Qaeda in Iraq (a Sunni organisation) has had a support infrastructure in Syria since 2003, and has been told by new al-Qaeda leader Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri to become more involved in support of the Sunnis. It is probably responsible for the deadly vehicle bomb attacks targeting Syria's security forces.
Iran, being Shia, supports regional Shia groups, and has for many years supported the Assad regime and the Lebanese Hezbollah through Syria. It is not in Iran's interest for a Sunni-dominated regime to emerge in Syria. The Arab League is Sunni-dominated and would like to see a Sunni regime in Damascus – but is wary of the Arab Spring knock-on effects on vulnerable members like Bahrain. Qatar and Saudi Arabia are covertly manoeuvring to bring in a Wahhabi regime in Syria.
Russia has been constant in its support for the Assad regime – its closest ally in the Middle East. Russia is now Syria's largest supplier of arms, contributing 65 per cent of Syria's weapons. China has significant trade relations with Syria, worth nearly $2.2 billion a year according to figures from the International Monetary Fund.
Western European governments remain reluctant to become involved, hence their preference to work through sanctions and the largely ineffective Arab League and United Nations – which conveniently allows the blame for the rising death toll to be placed on Russia and China. Australia is part of this ensemble – large on rhetoric, but doing nothing substantive.
The US and Israel see regime change as a way of containing Iran and Hezbollah, and it would be surprising if they were not covertly arming the Syrian opposition groups – but as was the case with Iraq, Libya and Egypt, the reality of post-regime outcomes may prove much less attractive to their interests than what was there before.
Clive Williams is an Adjunct Professor at Macquarie University's Centre for Policing, Intelligence and Counter Terrorism, and a Visiting Professor at the ANU's Australian Centre for Military Law and Security.