Syrians who value freedom and are willing to die for it are going to be bitterly disappointed. Even if the Alawite-dominated Baathist regime of President Bashar al-Assad collapses and the opposition takes power, the challenges will be overwhelming.
Syria is no Egypt or Tunisia, with their relatively homogeneous societies and militaries able to act independently. Nor is it the tribal wasteland of Yemen. The considerable obstacles to political reform in Cairo and Tunis pale beside the dilemmas that would confront new and contending Syrian leaderships, however progressive many might be.
There are three possible outcomes to the current struggle for power, none of them comforting: The regime may suppress the rebellion; the “opposition” may take over; or Syria may break into a series of contesting micro-states. All possibilities have profound implications not only for Syrians but for the Arab revolt writ large, for the region’s fragile state system and for the international community, including Western interests.
Most likely, the Assad regime will survive, despite sanctions, diplomatic isolation and economic dislocation. Syria has been through this before, with the Americans alternating between labelling the regime a pariah and making overtures aimed at drawing Damascus into dialogue. Neither has worked.
Syria’s leadership is now subject to intense worldwide scrutiny and criticism, from Washington to Riyadh to Moscow. The language of human rights, however defined, may be pervasive, but the reality is different. It’s quite possible that many in the international community view a reassertion of Mr. al-Assad’s power, as distasteful as it is, as the lesser of evils, in a situation where chaos seems the most likely alternative.
In Syria, the existing elite, the military command and the intelligence services are so intertwined as to be indistinguishable. While there are differences at the top, these focus on the tactics of repression, not its substance – in 1982, between 10,000 and 20,000 people were killed during the Sunni-dominated Muslim Brotherhood revolt in the city of Hama. And Mr. al-Assad can’t move against corruption, because he’s now dependent for his own survival on members of the decadent elite, which his long-ruling father had empowered.
Syria’s population is highly fragmented along ethno-religious lines. Sunnis represent the traditionally privileged majority. Alawis and Druze, breakaway sects of Shia Islam, as well as Christians, constitute significant minorities that, during the interwar French mandate, were recruited into the security services to contain Sunni nationalism. It’s these groups that supported the now ruling Baath Party, which put heavy emphasis on secular values. And it’s these groups that fear majority Sunni rule will put them at risk.
If the current opposition took power, its greatest challenges would be its own heterogeneity, even among Sunnis, its lack of cohesiveness and leadership and its consequent inability to assert itself in any concerted manner. The resulting internecine impasse, in the absence of any institutional base or developed civil society, would result in a fierce internal struggle. The demise of the current Baathist regime in Syria would be a severe blow to Iran and Hezbollah, Israel’s bêtes noires. A Sunni-based Islamist takeover, however, would be a real possibility. Think Hama, 1982.
The third scenario might be the most unstable: a division of the country into sovereign ethnic enclaves with the Alawis grabbing their demographic littoral (as rumoured in the Lebanese press). While it would be simplistic to argue that ethnicity rules all and that the quest for freedom has little resonance beyond tribe, the power of identity and narrative should never be underestimated in the Middle East.
Michael Bell, a former Canadian ambassador to Egypt, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories, is the Paul Martin (Sr.) Scholar in International Diplomacy at the University of Windsor.