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Syria's Sunnis and Iraq's Shiites - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Before the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, advocates for removing the regime of Saddam Hussein argued that the war wouldn’t last longer than 90 days, and that the new Iraq would be able to conduct a transitional phase with a ruling council comprising all ethnic sects and components. Needless to say, the war came to an end in only 21 days, but the sectarian war is still raging until today, having cost, at a conservative estimate, the lives of around 60,000 civilians, in incidents related to terrorism and armed militias. Iraq was freed from the Baathist party’s tyranny, but it fell captive to heinous sectarian violence.

This week, Syria’s uprising will come to the end of its sixth month, without any sign on the horizon indicating that there is an end in sight. On the contrary, the uprising is gaining momentum and popularity by the hour. It is apparent that the Syrian state and its government apparatus, especially the security services, have become completely exhausted. By examining this scene, we can conclude two things: firstly, that all of the regime’s apparatus have failed to rein in civil disobedience. Secondly, it has become impossible for Syria, as a number of observers and writers have pointed out, to return to the state of affairs prior to 26 January, because a lot of blood has been shed since then.

Despite all this, the Syrian story seems far from over, or to be more accurate, it is still in its early chapters. The weary Syrian regime continues to stubbornly and ferociously fight for survival. It appears the security apparatus, with both its partisan and sectarian wings, has become more elusive and less confrontational towards the crowds of protesters than it was in the early days of the uprising. Yet casualties are still falling at the hands of the regime, and the number of detainees is well into the thousands. In spite of all this, and the unprecedented state of civil disobedience in Syria’s modern history, the regime still exists. Even though its regional and international relations have been considerably harmed, and even though a cloud of looming war and international sanctions now hang over its head, the current regime remains the only legitimate representative of the Syrian state in the eyes of the international community, and this is for one single reason: the absence of a (political) alternative that could fill the power vacuum and implement the necessary transitional phase.

In Syria’s case, the “alternative” has become a very sensitive issue. Decades of authoritarian rule by the Baathist party and the Alawite sect has weakened the chances of the emergence of political parties and civil apparatus capable of offsetting the political and security vacuum that would be caused by the collapse of the regime. In addition to this, there is the reluctance of regional and international powers to directly intervene in Syria, which in itself has created a difficult situation for the protesters demanding the overthrow of the regime. On one hand, the opposition on the ground is demanding the fall of the regime unaided and through peaceful means, that is, a mixture of protests and civil disobedience. On the other hand, the opposition is supposed to unite its ranks and coordinate its position. In other words, its position should be translated into a transitional council or government, which acts on the internal and external fronts, whilst the opposition continues to clash with the regime on a daily basis.

In this context, some have expressed surprise at the enormous enthusiasm shown by Western countries, and some Arab States, for direct intervention in Libya’s crisis under the pretext of protecting civilians. Right now Syria’s regime is using the army and Special Forces units to suppress civilians throughout Syria. Moreover, Syria’s behavior and policies under Bashar al-Assad have been no less radical and destructive than Gaddafi’s policies. Both regimes have openly carried out assassinations, and sought to threaten stability and peace in the region. But whilst it has been justifiable to assist the revolutionaries to remove the Libyan leader, those same countries have abstained from helping to overthrow the Levantine version of Gaddafi. Some argue that this is all to do with oil interests and Libya’s geographic proximity to Europe’s borders. Despite that, Syria is no less strategically important, with respect to stability in the region.

Whilst it is true that Turkey, the US, and the Europeans have openly declared that it is no longer necessary for al-Assad to remain in power, and that they would prefer his departure over the continuing deaths and protests. There are [also] reports of these countries coordinating with the opposition internally and externally, and about them providing aid with regards to communication technology and documentation. Yet it will require much more than this to remove the [Syrian] regime.

The bitter truth for both sides of the conflict – the regime and the people – is that the country is divided along sectarian lines. If one side emerges victorious, the entire internal formula will change. The Alawite regime, in its capacity as a guarantor for other minorities (the Christians and Druze), now stands in a fierce confrontation with a peaceful opposition that is dominated by members of the Sunni sect. Even though the regime presents itself in a non-partisan, pan-national, and secular manner, it ultimately depends heavily on the loyalty of the Alawite sect, and rallying the minorities around it. This is why the regime distances itself from the idea of sectarianism in times of strength, and summons it in times of weakness.

Today the opposition is trying to claim that the regime is the one attempting to incite sectarianism. That might be true, but it does not deny the fact that the country is in a state of sectarian turmoil verging on civil war. Attempts to downplay the sectarian question, and the assumption that the country is witnessing a state of democratic, revolutionary transformation through peaceful means, might postpone tackling this crisis, but the underlying issue will remain.

According to political and economic calculations, the Syrian regime should have fallen within the first three months, or within 90 days. Even Israel’s Ministry of Defense commissioned a study with the collaboration of international experts which reached the conclusion that the al-Assad regime would inevitably fall within three to six months, due to the cessation of the economy, production and services all across Syria, as a result of civil disobedience. However, the regime is still going strong and is still very active in suppressing protesters.

There are many explanations for this; some referring to Hezbollah and Iran’s role in supporting al-Assad economically and militarily. Without doubt, both Hezbollah and Iran are keen on al-Assad staying in power till the very end, but what could the Iranians – or indeed the Lebanese – do in the face of a popular uprising against a minority regime?

What some don’t want to openly admit is the fact that al-Assad remaining in power is primarily contingent on the rallying of his sect along with other minorities around him, in a battle which they view as a matter of “survival”. Alawites and Christians clearly saw how the US invasion of Iraq led to the exclusive possession of power by former opposition Iraqi Shiite parties, and how former Baathist party members, most of whom were Sunni, were exposed to debaathification or even murder at the hands of sectarian assassination cells. Likewise, religious minorities like Christians and Yazidis [in Iraq] have been systematically targeted with the purpose of forcing them to leave the country.

Syria could be another Iraq, and there is a justified fear of the bitter Iraqi experience repeating itself in Syria, but this time without foreign military intervention. Divisions and rifts which occurred at the opposition conferences held in Antalya, Brussels, and Paris prove that Syrian unity and nationalism are not evident in the ranks of the opposition. Some argue that it takes time for the formation of the opposition and the establishment of a transitional period, and this period is usually beset by differences and divisions. However, the Syrian case suggests deeper and more complicated divisions.

If the regime falls, which is a serious possibility, the Sunni majority would be required to offer guarantees to others that it would respect their shared coexistence, and that it wouldn’t resort to targeting other sects under the pretext of the debaathification of Syria’s Baathist party. Some might condemn the idea of demanding that the Sunni sect be responsible for creating concordance amongst the opposition ranks, whilst it is currently being targeted by the regime, but the Iraqi lesson tells us that overthrowing a despotic regime and replacing it with democratic elections does not mean the end of sectarianism. Rather, it continues to play a divisive and corrosive role through new means.

If the Syrian Kurds do not trust the Arab sincerity in backing their demands, and if Christians and Druze are worried about replacing the rule of a despotic minority with the rule of an elected majority, then there is a deep-rooted sectarian problem between the components of the [Syrian] people, which should not be ignored or downplayed with respect to its future impact on the course of events.

Adel Al Toraifi

Adel Al Toraifi

Adel Al Toraifi is the former Editor-in-Chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper and Al-Majalla magazine. As a specialist in Middle Eastern affairs, his research focuses on Saudi–Iranian relations, foreign policy decision-making in the Gulf, and IR theories on the Middle East. Dr. Al Toraifi holds a PhD in International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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