After 22 months of civil war, in which an estimated 60,000 people have died, Syrian President Bashar Assad gave a defiant speech Sunday that ruled out negotiations with rebel fighters and made clear that he intends to remain in power as long as possible. Assad's words came as no great surprise. Seasoned diplomats, including former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, have tried and failed to broker a peace.
So why does the war drag on? One key reason is that neither side believes it is losing.
The opposition controls a significant amount of territory and has established a presence in large parts of Syria, especially the north and east. It has recently formed a unified political and military structure, winning the recognition of numerous countries. But Assad's government can take comfort in the rebels' failure so far to take any major cities, including the two most important ones, the business center, Aleppo, and the capital, Damascus. The insurgents have received arms and other support from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, which has further emboldened them, yet the regime retains an overwhelming advantage in firepower. With neither side convinced it will lose, neither is ready to stop fighting.
Another reason for the war's continuance has to do with the ambivalence of various Syrian minorities about a future government dominated by a Sunni Arab majority. The Kurds in the northeast, for example, have largely stayed out of the fight, focusing instead on carving out what they hope will be, at minimum, the sort of autonomous region their Iraqi brethren have acquired in the wake of Saddam's Hussein's ouster. It's not that the Kurds like Assad; it's that they assume that the opposition's victory will mean that minorities in the country will be further oppressed. Assad, a member of the Alawite minority — which makes up just 12% of the population — needs support from other groups among Syria's dozen or so minorities, who together constitute about a third of the country's population, to retain power, and so has treated them with some deference, something they fear a Sunni Arab-dominated government would not do.