AP File Photo
A Free Syrian Army fighter runs for cover as another fires his weapon during heavy clashes with government forces in Aleppo, Syria, on Jan. 20.
Like so many countries in the Middle East, before the end of the First World War, Syria was ruled by foreigners. Canaanites, Phoenicians, Aramaens, Egyptians, Sumerians, Assyrians, Babylonians and Hittites prevailed in the pre-Christian era, to be followed later by the Persians, Macedonians, Greeks, Romans and Byzantines.
The spread of Islam in the 7th century brought Syria into the Islamic empire, only to be followed by Crusader, Mongol and Mamluk rulers. Some stability was finally achieved in the 16th century when Syria became a part of the Ottoman Empire, where it remained until World War I, whence it emerged under French Mandate.
The French granted Syria independence in 1946. However, this new Syria lacked political stability, undergoing a series of military coups during its early years. Coerced stability was finally provided in 1970 when Hafez al-Assad, a member of the minority Alawite sect, seized power in a coup.
Along with its fragmented history and lack of experience with self-government, Syria is afflicted with the three prevalent, negative imperatives of the Middle East: nationalism, sectarianism and tribalism.
Although tribal and nationality issues have always existed in Syria, they have generally been of lesser consequence. It is in the sectarian arena that Syrian stability has proven most vulnerable.
Sunni Muslims represent about 74 percent of the population of 22.5 million Syrians, with Alawites and Druze (both subgroupings of Shia Islam) at 16 percent and Christians at 10 percent.
The problem for Syrians is that the minority Alawites under the Assad family have ruled the majority Sunnis and the Christians with an iron fist, killing whenever they felt it necessary. In the Hama massacre of 1982, estimates of deaths run from 20,000 to 40,000, a figure only to be exceeded in today’s ongoing war of the Alawites against their Sunni enemies.
As the only Alawite (Shia) minority government in the Middle East, the Assad regime has had the full support of Iran. In fact, Iran has supported all Shia groups in the Middle East, in the Gulf States and Lebanon, for example. Interestingly, at a time when a majority Shia population was being repressively ruled by a minority Sunni government in Iraq, the exact opposite was taking place in Syria.
The significance of the friction between Shia and Sunni cannot be overstated. These two sects are in hot wars wherever the opportunity presents itself, as in Syria and Iraq. The primary supporters of Shia Islam (Iran) and Sunni Islam (Saudi Arabia) in the Gulf are both seeking regional hegemony at the other’s expense, and so an ongoing political war exists between them.
Because of demographic realities, the Syrians are in the unfortunate position of being the surrogates for this intra-Islamic conflict. Iran is most certainly providing broad support to Syria’s Alawite leadership, and Saudi Arabia is said to be providing the same to the anti-Assad Syrian rebels.
Perhaps this fact is not, in itself, sufficient cause for major long-term concern. The problem is that the Syrian conflict, aided and abetted by Iraq’s sectarian carnage, could very easily slip into a regional conflict pitting Iran and her Arab Shia allies against the region’s majority Sunnis.
Whether that happens or not, the major concern facing anyone who is truly concerned about the future of the region, and that should include America, is what will follow the Assad family’s Alawite regime into leadership in Syria. This is the question that dominates U.S. policymaking.
Every entity that serves the Assad regime today has, in doing so, forfeited any conceivable claim to acceptable governance in Syria. Their hands are too bloody and when they fall, which they most certainly will, they will be lucky to leave Syria on anything other than a slab. This observation would argue strongly that post-Assad Syria is likely to be chaotic and essentially ungovernable.
At this moment there are reports that myriad anti-Assad rebel forces are in conflict with one another over the considerable booty liberated during the course of the ongoing civil war. That sad reality offers no viable, desirable candidates for future Syrian governance.
It also opens the door for fundamentalist Muslim groups allegedly affiliated with al-Qaida if they are able to present themselves to the broader Syrian population as a more acceptable alternative to Assad on the one hand and the rebels on the other.
We don’t really know who these people are or what they stand for. That is almost certainly a contributing factor to the Obama administration’s completely understandable decision to opt for the lightest possible observable footprint in Syria. Any deeper, more specific commitment to rebel groups that are essentially not assessable could very well be to a group that will not be able to govern effectively, leaving their more heavily involved backers with a frightful mess on their hands.
Any bet in Syria is a bad bet.
Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief and director of counterterrorism. He lives in Williston.MORE IN Perspective
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