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Syria: Reassertion or Disintegration

 29 April 2011

By Yisrael Ne'eman

Recent events in Syria point to escalating violence between the secular Ba'athist led government of Bashar Assad and popular protests throughout the country.  Over the past month and a half, over 500 demonstrators have been killed.  Many believe the 40 year Assad family control of the country is slipping.  There are several scenarios to the presently emerging civil conflict which could erupt into a civil war.  Libya serves as an example with an estimated 30,000 killed (according to the Arab satellite TV station AlJazeera) however the Syrian episode is far more complicated, containing sweeping implications for the Middle East.  The next week or so will prove critical and the possibility of events spinning out of control should not be ruled out.


Supposedly the regime is being challenged by "pro-democracy demonstrations" a term used loosely by anyone challenging the entrenched secular dictatorial regimes in the Arab World.  Established in 1920 as a French Mandate, Syria was an artificial entity comprising a Sunni majority and numerous minorities.  By the mid-20th century the only way to unify all into the Syrian state entity was to employ a radical secular nationalism cutting across ethnic and religious barriers and hence the rise of the Ba'ath portended a unified Syria despite its religious and ethnic factions.  To hold it all together a semi-Stalinist dictatorship was necessary and implemented by the Ba'ath regime for over four decades.  Such absolute power bred absolute corruption with some 1000 or so Ba'ath cronies are said to have stolen between $30-40 billion in state holdings while controlling the economy, engaging in drug smuggling, arms trade and holding command over the military (Israel Channel 10 TV).  It is thought all this may change.


Before delving into the ramifications of an overthrow one should consider a status quo resolution of the conflict whereby Assad and the Ba'ath crush the demonstrations and remain in power despite thousands of casualties and mass Western condemnation.  Or Assad may be overthrown but the Ba'ath would continue to retain power, embodying little change and leaving the situation not much different than it is today. It is not clear if the Syrians will manage to put down the uprising on their own or if their Iranian allies will be called upon to lend military and/or police assistance.  It is far from certain that China or Russia will condemn the Syrian regime.  Neither Beijing nor Moscow are particularly democratic nor do they have an interest in a democratized Syria.  Both oppose NATO involvement in Libya. Nor is democratic Turkey, Syria's powerful northern neighbor, lining up with the demonstrators but instead is urging reform.  Let it be clear that no outside force is urging Assad's removal or the overthrow of the Ba'ath regime.  Unlike other uprisings in the Arab world the Syrian regime stands a reasonable chance of weathering the storm.  The rebels and the average citizen will face the dire consequences of daring to request human rights.


But assuming the regime falls, all must ask "What comes next?"  If a Syrian national identity has formed over the past ninety years then the state will hold together either under a regrouped military structure or in a democratic mode.  The building of national identity appears unlikely as Syria is divided into numerous ethnic groups – an Arab Sunni sedentary majority and minorities comprising the ruling Assad led Alawites (13%), Druze (3%), Kurds (10%, most of whom are Sunni) and Christians (10%).  Only the Christians do not hold a specific region but are generally more concentrated in the big cities in particular Aleppo.  The Alawites are in the northwest mountain range along the coast wedged in between Lebanon and Turkey, the Druze live in the southwest and the Kurds in the northeast.  The large central and eastern desert regions stretching out to the Iraqi border are largely inhabited by Bedouin tribes (Sunnis for the most part), make up some 7% of the population as of the last tally in the 1980s and have now joined the rebellion.  Sedentary Arab Sunnis therefore make up somewhat over half of the population and are split between Islamists (Muslim Brotherhood) and pro-secular types, some of whom support the Ba'ath.  What is unclear is the overall weight of the pro-democracy movement.  The protests are anti-regime, but not necessarily pro-democracy.


An overthrow of Assad and the Ba'ath (unless the military holds together and gains control) could lead to the shattering of the artificial Syrian state entity.  The other unifying possibility is the rise of a democracy within the present Syrian nation state.  This is the least reasonable possibility when considering the ethnic and religious rivalries repressed by the Ba'ath over the past half century and the lack of a democratic heritage in Syria. 


No centralized victory by either the military or a democratic Syrian coalition could result in the emergence of several religious-ethnic mini-states, a Middle Eastern version of the recent Yugoslavian experience.  Not only could there be regional break-offs but attempts at unification with cross border minorities of similar identities might be attempted – in particular between the Kurds whose population spreads to northern Iraq, northwest Iran and southeast Turkey.  Kurdish secession has regional ramifications while tribal break offs would certainly influence the Iraqi tribal arrangements to the east, possibly destabilizing the entire region.  Such "national" disintegration sets a precedent for the unraveling of Iraq, Lebanon and possibly Jordan.  The 20th century Middle Eastern nation state experiment would come to an end. 


Interestingly the Muslim Brotherhood ideologues who base of support lies within sections of the Sunni majority have never strayed from predicting the nation state collapse outcome.  The Islamist endgame envisions the return of the Caliphate and the subjugation of minorities to Islamic Sharia law heralding the dhimma second class status for Jews and Christians where applicable.  Heretical groups such as the Druze and Alawites would once again face persecution and any thoughts of democracy will be punished severely.  The Brotherhood will seek unification but will only achieve success through massive bloodletting.


The Syrian experience, should the regime fall, will be the starting point for a re-emerging Middle East commencing with shattered states, ethnic-religious mini entities and the continuing conflict between secular and religious in the Sunni majority.  The Assad regime is aware of all these potentialities and will do whatever it takes to remain in power.  Although generally discounting such an outcome the international community knows such an option cannot be ruled out and hence will continue to work for a unified Syria.


To summarize, there are four options:  The democracy movement is much greater than thought, sweeps to power, elections are held and the previous repressive regime stands trial for its crimes.  Second, Syria shatters into fragments echoing much of the Yugoslavian example including secondary and tertiary wars between the mini successor states.  Third, the Islamists win out, bring everyone into line and we all revert to the Middle East of some centuries ago.  Assad prefers the final (and most probable) option of regaining full control and destroying his opposition.  Looking around the neighborhood he sees the Tunisian-Egyptian example to be avoided at all costs and the Libyan civil war certainly has no appeal.  The Bahraini endgame looks best even though the monarchy needed Saudi and Gulf state intervention.  Assad for sure prefers the Bahrain finale, but one he handles on his own.  However should he need Iranian intervention, he will take it even if reluctantly.  After all, he cannot consider the alternatives.


The Ba'ath regime will fight to the end knowing they have everything to lose should the revolt not be eradicated to the fullest, even if it entails killing thousands.  In the end even the West knows the democracy movement is negligible.  The options of an Islamist revival or the domino effect of a fragmented Middle East are anathema to their interests and cannot be considered.  Unlike Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, Western leaders are not calling for Assad's ouster and the overthrow of the Ba'ath regime.  The subliminal message is one of support even if at the moment regime policies are condemned.  Conclusion:  Win the internal struggle as fast a possible and mend fences in the aftermath of victory.