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Syria's President Bashar al-Assad attends the 23rd Arab League summit in Sirte, in this March 27, 2010 file picture. (REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra)

ZOHRA BENSEMRA/REUTERS

Syria is now at grave risk of descending into a prolonged civil war of attrition. The Arab League, most Arab states and Turkey have rightly denounced the violence against peaceful protests by many of the Syrian people, but their indignation may not be enough to cause the government of President Bashar al-Assad to change course in the short to medium term.

Only the Assad family itself or the Syrian armed forces have the power to cause the security forces to step back from their policy of brutality. Mr. al-Assad, who after his father's death seemed inclined to liberalize the regime, has formed a habit of making conciliatory noises, talking of reform and non-violence, but he is either unwilling or unable to control the repression. It is possible that the security forces make their own decisions, and that they are led less by the President than by his brother Maher, the commander of both the Republican Guard that controls Damascus, the capital, and an elite armoured division of the army.

This state of affairs makes it hard for the military to separate itself from Mr. al-Assad, as the Egyptian armed forces did earlier this year in detaching themselves from Hosni Mubarak, the former president, and in refusing to shoot demonstrators. But it is not impossible. Most ordinary Syrian soldiers are Sunnis, not members of the Alawite sect to which the Assads belong, and which is overrepresented in the upper ranks of the military.

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Notably, the Minister of Defence, and the former head of the army, Lieutenant-General Daoud Rajiha, is Greek Orthodox, having been appointed to replace an Alawite general in August.

If the armed forces do not distance themselves from vicious repression, there will be a slow but steady stream of deserters, such as a unit which, using heavy weaponry and machine guns, assaulted an air-force intelligence complex on the outskirts of Damascus on Wednesday.

Sporadic defections, tending toward the dissolution of the military, are more likely to lead to anarchy than to peace and freedom. The Assads and others in the Alawite elite cannot rule Syria alone. They must find a way, belatedly, to be more like the Egyptian military.

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