Indeed, the pace of defections of Sunni soldiers and officers from the army has been greatly exaggerated. Yes, the very best of the elite divisions — namely, the Republican Guard and the Fourth Armored Division — are dominated by Alawites, but one cannot agree with Joshua Landis, a scholar of Syria quoted by the New York Times, when he describes the current Syrian security forces as an “Alawite army.”
In Aleppo, where it has often been noted that the regime enjoys the support of much of the Sunni urban middle class, the battle between rebel fighters and the Syrian army has only stirred up local resentment against the former, such that even pro-revolution activists like Edward Dark have become disillusioned.
Likewise, in the wider Muslim world, it would be wrong to generalize about attitudes toward the Syrian civil war on a sectarian basis. Pakistan, a predominantly Sunni country, is a case in point. According to a contact in Peshawar with whom I spoke, there is at the popular level sympathy for Assad as the victim of a foreign conspiracy, just as there was sympathy for Qaddafi during the Libyan civil war. This should not come as a surprise. After all, the Pakistani population (unlike the Arab world) is not exposed to the intense coverage of the conflict by al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya, and — given the West’s current stance against Assad — it will have only a vague perception of Syria as just another Muslim country under threat from foreigners. Indeed, the only evidence of protests in Pakistan against Assad’s rule has been video footage of Syrian exiles in Pakistan holding their own demonstrations; this contrasts strongly with the solidarity with the Syrian opposition shown by many Egyptians, for example.
At the level of government, it is worth noting that while Pakistan, out of deference to the Gulf Arab states, voted in favor of a U.N. General Assembly resolution back in February condemning the Syrian regime, it chose to abstain from a similar Saudi-sponsored resolution this summer condemning the regime and deploring the lack of action on the part of the U.N. Security Council, even as Afghanistan and Bangladesh voted in favor of the resolution.
While one can rightly draw attention to Pakistan’s economic ties to Iran and China as reasons for abstention, it is also worth noting what government sources told the Pakistani newspaper The Nation at the time: namely, that the efforts to oust Assad and install a new government in Syria would lead to “further instability in the entire region,” in which other Muslim countries “might face the same fate.” This illustrates that sympathy with Assad as the victim of a foreign conspiracy permeates the Pakistani government as well as the general population.
In short, the sectarian paradigm does have its role in assessing the nature of the conflict in Syria and determining how outsiders view the civil war, but one should also recognize that other interests and considerations are in play here, including friendly relations with countries either actively supporting the regime (e.g., Iran) or opposed to any outside interference (e.g., China), along with general anti-American sentiments.
For the U.S., the best policy to pursue in the event of the downfall of the regime and the establishment of some kind of stable transitional government (NB: I am skeptical of the possibility of the latter development) is to emphasize national unity rather than notions of sectarian quotas and identity politics, as happened in Iraq post-2003. This may help to counter the influence of foreign powers like Qatar, which has an interest in promoting the Muslim Brotherhood and by implication a sectarian outlook.