In an article in the Independent Cockburn argues that Syria has already descended into the first stage of a sectarian civil war. Much of the opposition after being bombarded for demonstrating has opted for arming their supporters to fight back. Added to this one has members of the Syrian armed forces who have deserted are also fighting back. This is all happy times for Al Qaeda linked groups who side with the Sunni opposition and add terrorist acts to the mix of violence.
The Alawi the Shia sect of which Assad and much of the government are members are trying in vain to simply put down the majority Sunni opposition by force. The reaction of the opposition is to militarize the conflict which in Cockburn's eyes has the effect of increasing the bloodshed without defeating Assad. Cockburn points out that the rag tag group of militias and deserters is not up to stopping armored columns of the Syrian armed forces.
The tactic of the opposition seems to be to promote international intervention on their side as happened in Libya. This Cockburn says could take the form of a safe haven protected by NATO in north west Syria.
However, this time around Russia and China are not likely to give a pass to a UN resolution. Both countries feel that the no-fly resolution in Libya was used in a manner that went much beyond the UN mandate in Libya.
Cockburn thinks that much of the international community had an entirely wrong idea about the ability of Assad to stay in power. Last December the U.S. State Dept. claimed that Assad was a dead man walking. As with Libya solving the conflict has become secondary to regime change. Given this international support there is no strong motive for the opposition to seek a compromise with Assad. To be fair Assad has so far never kept any agreements in any event. However, he may be at the stage where the pressure is great enough that he would keep agreements at least in part.
Cockburn aptly describes the situation as having several aspects. At one level it is an uprising against Assad's corrupt, brutal police state with wide popular support. The brutality with which protests were met simply increased the level of protests.
The second level of the struggle is between Sunni and Shia within Syria and this in turn links to a battle between Shia Iran and its enemies. Cockburn notes that the sectarian aspect of the conflict is mostly ignored in the media and emphasis is upon the first aspect of the struggle. Power in Syria is distributed around sectarian lines as it was in Iraq under Hussein with the minority Sunni being in power. In Syria the situation is reversed with the Shia being in power and the Sunni the majority. In Bahrain the Sunni rule too as a minority over a majority Shia population but there the Sunnis are the good guys in Western eyes.
Cockburn notes that television reporting is very much skewed towards painting Assad as a government of almost pure evil fighting a heroic people. Assad is certainly brutal and criminally repressing his own people but as Cockburn notes this does not mean that one should ignore other forces at work. As Cockburn points out there have been brutal terrorist attacks by groups allied with the Sunni opposition that killed many innocent people. Some opposition spokespeople suggest that this is just part of the government operations to discredit the opposition. This strikes me as nonsense. Cockburn concludes that Syria is headed into a conflict that can only divide Sunni and Shia communities even further with little sign of any way of halting this slide into more conflict and bloodshed. For more see this article.