With Russia and China standing firmly behind Assad’s regime in Syria, it appears increasingly likely that continued violence, and potentially a prolonged civil war, will be the future condition of a country where the opposition is not strong enough to overcome the core elements of the regime’s security forces, and foreign parties lack the willpower or capacity to overthrow the rulers in Damascus.

As Tony Karon explains, civil war is an accurate way to describe the ongoing descent into violence in Syria. The country’s ethnic composition and the regime’s divide-and-rule political strategy makes the specter of civil war an effective engine of consolidation for the regime’s supporters:

… the Assad regime presents itself as the guarantor of the interests not only of Allawites [12% of the population], but also Syria’s Christians (10%), Kurds (10%) and smaller communities of Druze, Yazidis, Ismailis and Circassians — against the specter of a vengeful sectarian Sunni Muslim Brotherhood. No surprise, then, that the regime has, through its own violent strategy, encouraged the rebellion against Assad’s rule onto the path of sectarian civil war.

Two thirds of the Iraqi refugees in Syria are Sunni Arabs, and a further 10% are Christian. The lesson for Syria’s minorities is stark: One in seven Christians who lived in Iraq in 2003 is now a refugee in Syria; those left behind are an increasingly embattled community, while even in newly democratic Egypt, the Christian minority is feeling increasingly put-upon by the now dominant Sunni Islamists.

As Karon further notes, the defection of Sunni conscripts to the Free Syrian Army further reinforces the perception that Syria is careening towards large-scale ethnic bloodletting. The Assad regime, like Hussein’s and many others before it, deliberately ensured its top-tier units and the ones closest to political power were less dependent on conscripts from the hostile ethnic majority. It is far less likely that there will be sympathetic defections from such units, which means that they will, in all likelihood, need to be actually defeated on the ground.

Alas, there are no easy solutions.

Safe zone: Benghazi, Misrata or Ibril?

Propositions for “safe zones” have so far remarkably elided the question of how they will be made safe.

Despite the frequent invocations of Operation Provide Comfort as a model for intervention, very few of the plans for intervention in Syria actually describe the most essential prerequisite to Provide Comfort: the defeat and destruction of huge amounts of Iraqi military capability in the first Persian Gulf War.

Furthermore, as Micah Zenko recently explained in Foreign Affairs, the use of ground forces was important to the preservation of safe zones established in southern Iraq during the long containment of the country in the 1990s. Saddam’s ground forces largely ignored the no-fly zones imposed in Iraq, and the U.S. often had to conduct significant military mobilization just to reduce the intensity of his counterinsurgency campaigns. In Operation Vigilant Warrior, the U.S. was only able to dissuade Saddam from moving additional Republican Guard units to southern Iraq by mobilizing the logistical support element of I Marine Expeditionary Force (a clear sign of impending mobilizations to come) and the deployment of two brigades from the 24th Mechanized Infantry Division to Saudi Arabia (Britain, for its part, deployed two warships and brought its ground strength in Kuwait to 1,000 troops). Clinton understood that the only way to deter Saddam from accelerating his offensive against his own people was to threaten ground intervention – and even then, the Iraqi units in the south which predated the two Republican Guard divisions’ mobilization remained and continued to suppress their local population.

Essentially, even a vastly weakened Iraqi military still required a credible ground threat of thousands of soldiers and Marines just to dissuade Saddam from reinforcing his ongoing crackdown of the Iraqi Shia population. What reason do we have to think that Syria’s military, without a thorough shellacking such as the one Saddam’s military (already weakened by nearly a decade of war with Iran!) received in 1991, would fear a foreign-imposed safe zone enough not to challenge it?

While Srebrenica was supposed to be a mutual (albeit poorly or deliberately unenforced, in the case of the Bosniak forces) demilitarization, Serbian forces completely ignored Resolution 819 and surrounded the area with heavy weaponry, and later went on to overwhelm and massacre its inhabitants. While some of the proposed safe areas are in relatively mountainous terrain, it is quite probable that Syria would attempt to kettle or even assault the safe area. Who, exactly, would defend it? The Free Syrian Army? If they were actually capable of holding and defending such a safe zone on their own, there would be no need for a safe zone. The addition of foreign special forces would help, but not by much if the Syrian government chose to mount a sustained assault.

Concentrating FSA and Syrian opposition forces and infrastructure in a safe area would actually give the regime an enormous incentive to strike. Consolidating the FSA, which so far is an extremely loose network of commanders with no real chain of command, and SNC governing officials in a single area would tell Damascus exactly where to strike, and knowing such a location would be the heart of foreign support and nascent “Syrian Benghazi” would provide a huge incentive to destroy it or reduce it through sustained siege. Additionally, guerrilla units could be deployed to harass or destroy supply corridors even after the successful establishment of a safe zone and the suppression nearby of Syrian forces. Even with the addition of Turkish conventional troops, would they be willing to defend an area with their lives against a Syrian military assault or a sustained guerrilla campaign? Even with close air support and airstrikes, it is unlikely that without a sustained offensive that such a safe area could actually provide a viable base of support for an opposition movement. Defending a Syrian safe area would likely devolve into a massive aerial campaign and a significant ground campaign (consider that Turkey’s cross-border incursions just to rout out PKK fighters during the 1990s involved 15,000-35,000 troops), not a mere suppression of air defenses and local forces with a small training contingent of special forces. It is hard to see how a limited action to create a safe area could succeed without ground forces and air forces capable of resisting and repulsing a military with armored formations, artillery, and air support would fare – and it is hard to see how relieving this pressure would occur without an offensive, as in Operation Storm, to permanently secure a safe area.

A dangerous – and perhaps more likely – proposition would be a Syrian Misrata. It took nearly two months after NATO air strikes began for Misratans to finish recapturing their own city, and even then Gaddafi’s forces were able to temporarily deny use of the port through artillery fire. Jisr al-Shughur, the report’s suggested safe zone area, is even more isolated than Misrata. It is, of course, not a coastal city. There are not even significant roads to Turkey without winding through mountain passes that guerrilla groups would be able to harass and temporarily close. It took Misratan forces, with NATO air support and resupply opportunities from the sea and air, months to capture Zliten, just 40 miles away. There is no major airport in Jisr al-Shughur. Aerial reinforcement would have to come either through airborne drops or helicopters. Anyone who has ever read military history – let alone anyone who has had to deploy to a combat zone in such a manner – is probably feeling somewhat nervous right now. Leave aside man portable air defense missiles, even machine guns of sufficiently heavy caliber could make aerial reinforcement or resupply of such a safe zone a very risky prospect. In all likelihood, thousands of Turkish regular troops would probably be necessary just to secure Jisr al-Shughur. Even then, the possibility of Syrian counter-attacks from Latakia would probably require additional major military actions. Why mobilize thousands of troops and risk dozens or hundreds of casualties just to carve out a minor safe area which, if we look at its counterparts in Kurdistan during the 1990s, is probably not going to become a war-winning base of support?

NEXT: The Damning Merits of Invasion.

Daniel Trombly is writer on international affairs and strategy. This essay is based on a longer piece at his blog Slouching Towards Columbia.