Monday, February 6, 2012

Where will Syria be one year from now?

The way non-fans will often watch a major sporting event on TV, I am following the anti-Assad uprising in Syria: at a distance, not really paying attention to the plays as they take place on the field, but tuning in now and then for the occassional highlight on replay.

Due to the fact that the Alawite dominated dictatorship in Damascus brutalized its people from 1970-2000, when Hafez al-Assad was in charge, and it has continued to do so since Bashar al-Assad replaced his father 12 years ago, I am rooting for the rebels.

But there is reason to think that if the Alawites, who are a minority religious sect related to the Shiites, fall, the replacement government will be dominated by Sunni radical Islamists with views in line with Al-Qaeda and Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood. They might prove a greater danger to the outside world than the murderous man now on the throne.

Part of the reason why Sunni Islamists are likely to win power with the fall of the Alawites is that this rebellion, which came in the wake of the Arab Spring, is not so much one about liberation or economic freedom or civil rights for the oppressed or women's rights or a generation of young people raised on Twitter and Facebook who want the material goods they see that youths have in foreign lands. This conflict, war if you will, is sectarian. It is Sunni versus Shiite (albeit the Alawite version of Shi'a Islam).

The Sunnis make up 74 percent of the Syrian population. The Alawites, who have lorded over the Sunnis for more than 40 years, are less than 10 percent of Syria's people. In a sectarian sense, Ba'athist Syria is a reverse of Ba'athist Iraq, where Saddam Hussein's Sunni clan was a small relgious minority that dominated the much large Shiite majority. When Iraq finally had free elections after the United States ousted Saddam, the minority Sunni Arabs of Iraq came to realize that their country had a lot more Shiites than they had thought, and they learned what it was like to be an oppressed minority.

The traditional leadership of the Syrian Sunnis has been its religious clerics, the imams and the mullahs. They were the people who directed the uprising in 1982. Most of them pine for a theocratic government.

Hafez al-Assad ordered the murder of tens of thousands of Sunnis in the Hama Massacre, because he knew that his personal power could not last if the Sunnis across Syria, organized by religious leaders, stood as one against him and his fellow Alawites.

The question now on my mind is this: Where will Syria be one year from now?

Every day there are stories in the news about mass protests. Every day there are stories in the news about the rebellion forming its own army. Every day there are stories in the news about the geographic growth of the anti-Assad movement. Yet every day there are stories in the news about dozens or hundreds of "protesters" being shot and killed.

The LA Times, for example, is reporting that Mr. Assad bombed a medical clinic today in the city of Homs, killing 24 or more:

REPORTING FROM BEIRUT -- Opposition activists said Monday that the Syrian military bombarded the central city of Homs, hitting a makeshift clinic and killing at least two dozen people.

Amateur video from Homs purported to show a field clinic overwhelmed with wounded and dead, while an irate doctor blamed Russia and China for the shelling. The comment was a reference to the two superpowers' veto Saturday of a U.N. Security Council resolution that would have backed an Arab League plan calling for Syrian President Bashar Assad to relinquish power.

"The situation is dramatic: We are escaping from one side of the neighborhood to the other," said an opposition activist reached in Homs, adding that casualties included staff at the makeshift clinic in the Baba Amro district. "We are just putting the wounded in homes and just trying, without success, to stop the bleeding. We cannot put in stitches or do operations." ...

The opposition reported more than 200 killed in Homs during a weekend military bombardment of the Khaldiya neighborhood. The government denied the charges, accusing the opposition of fabricating the report and declaring that terrorists were attacking the city.

This chaos cannot last forever. At some point the government falls or Assad takes away the will of anyone to stand up against him. At some point there is a key battle or a key defection. At some point things become stable again.

My best guess is that Bashar al-Assad will still be in power come February, 2012, though I don't think the rebellion will have lost its will yet. Here is the basis for my calculus:

Assad has powerful friends outside of Syria who will sustain him. It's not just the Russians, who are supplying him with arms, or the Chinese, who are feeding him cash, it is his strong alliance with the Shiite crazies in Iran, who will back him to the last man. Assad also has a strong external alliances with Hezbollah, Hamas and other terrorist groups, which never lack the will to do evil. The government of Syria has no compunction to not murder and torture the people of Syria--in the name of staying in power.

With the money and material Assad is getting from the outside to bolster his regime, his Alawite faithful have nowhere else to go. If Bashar falls from power, ordinary Alawites know they will lose everything: their positions, their homes, their freedom, their lives. The average Alawite has very good reason to fear a Sunni Islamist takeover. They do not expect Assad's fall will result in free elections. They expect that will result in a reign of terror directed against them, even worse than the terror they have imposed on their countrymen.

The two wild cards, which could prove my guess about Syria's future wrong, are these:

1. Perhaps the Sunni rebels will get more outside support of their own. (I am not sure if they are getting much, now. Egypt might just have a Sunni Islamist government before too long. Egyptian Sunnis could sends guns and money. Maybe the Saudis will send material support to their Sunni brethren. Maybe al-Qaeda forces will join the fight. If the 74 percent majority of Syrians are well financed, armed, trained and organized, they could oust Assad; and

2. If more and more members of the Syrian armed forces switch sides, Assad might fall from within. While it is true that almost all of Assad's top generals are Alawites, as are his top political allies, there are secular Sunnis (including Kurds) in his army leadership, and a few of them have defected to what is now called the Free Syrian Army. If this trickle becomes a deluge, Assad will fall.

Time Magazine is reporting today that the regime's defectors have some advantages already:

The military breakaways tend to return to their hometowns, enabling even a small group to tap into a much wider social and clan-based network. In the early days of what was a predominantly peaceful uprising, bands of army defectors across the country were turning away the civilians volunteering to join their ranks, in a bid to maintain some semblance of military hierarchy and discipline. Now, in amateur videos posted on YouTube, some units are openly calling for civilian volunteers.

One thing I am sure won't happen: there will not be another Libya; the NATO powers will stay on the sidelines. The reason for this is not just the lack of oil, though that may play a role. The reason is that Bashar Assad is not Moammar Ghadaffi. He has not built up so much ill will in the West. And I presume the major Western powers understand that the Sunni forces fighting Assad will never be our friends.

No comments: