by Rhodri C. Williams
Two interesting Foreign Affairs pieces on Syria raise the significance of the ethnic/sectarian dynamic in the conflict. Both articles raise many of the concerns related to the possibility of state collapse and sectarian conflict discussed on these pages earlier. However, both also present modulated views that give some rise to optimism.
First, Leon Goldsmith discusses the role of the Alawite minority that has come to be perceived as dominating Syria through its association with the Alawite Assad dynasty, as well as its overrepresentation in the security forces. He begins with the observation that the Alawites made a conscious decision to integrate into the emerging Syrian state in the 1930s, despite the demonstrated historical threat posed by the Sunni majority. For a time, this audacious decision seemed to pay off as both the Sunni and the Alawites supported the 1963 Baathist coup.
The significance of Hafez al Assad’s massacre of Sunnis in Hama in 1982 is therefore seen as a pivotal moment with high current significance. As tensions had grown after Mr. Assad’s 1970 coup, Sunnis had revived historical accusations of heresy against Alawites and the regime responded by a classic ‘compromising the villages’ strategy:
Even liberal Alawites, who criticized Assad’s aggressiveness at the outset of the revolt, remained silent in the aftermath of the Hama massacre. They had been transformed from victims into perpetrators.
However, Goldsmith evokes the continuing economic disparities within the Alawite community as one of a number of reasons that the current regime may not be able to indefinitely rely on the unconditional support of its base. In an interesting – and no less brave – echo of the 1930s, a small but significant number of Alawites have sought to integrate themselves into the Sunni-led uprising against the Assad regime. Just like the earlier decision to integrate with the state of Syria, the terms of such decisions reflect the existential choices facing minorities in such circumstances:
The fall of Assad presents several possible scenarios for the Alawites. It could launch a comprehensive reconciliation process, drive them back to their mountain refuge in northwestern Syria, or lead to open conflict with the Sunnis. No matter what, the Alawites face a dilemma. If Assad collapses, the community will have to fend off the criticisms of supporting the regime for this long.
In a second piece, former Syrian General Akil Hashem argues that the Syrian uprising has settled into a stalemate in which attrition remains a long way off and both sides will continue killing until they are physically stopped. He implicitly promotes a Western intervention that he asserts would rapidly overcome Syrian defences weakened by pervasive corruption. However, he provides a chilling account of the Assad regime’s mathematics of staving off intervention:
According to my sources, the regime actually regulates how many should be killed per day. At the beginning of the armed uprising, the number was about 50; after the assault on the Baba Amr neighborhood of Homs, the number increased to 100. Assad knows that if he commits a large-scale massacre, he will trigger intervention. So if the numbers climb to 30,000 or 40,000 dead, or many thousands are killed at once, then you may see the international community act.
With regard to the Alawites, the General does not take sectarian loyalty for granted. One possibility that he foresees for an end to the conflict would be “mass defection among the Alawite sect itself.” Meanwhile, he is sanguine – under the circumstances – about the possibity for the Alawite and other minorities to eventually be incorporated in a post-Assad Syria:
There will be chaos. It will be like Iraq — a totalitarian regime that controlled everything suddenly collapsing, opening the door for all kinds of problems, even sectarian violence. But anything that comes after the regime would be a million times better than what we currently have. The doomsday scenarios of the Muslim Brotherhood or al Qaeda taking over Syria are ridiculous. Eventually, the opposition forces in the diaspora and within the country will find a way to unite to establish a free, democratic country.
Given the current departure point and the precedents in the region, this sounds almost pie-in-the-sky. Then again, Mr. Hashem really may not have so much to lose either way – if he is Sunni.