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By Barry Rubin

There’s a bit of a mystery regarding Syria. First, who is the opposition? Second, what will happen?

Having been the first to warn about the threat and power of Islamists in Egypt, I think that’s earned me some credibility to say that Syria may well be a different case. There is a possibility of an Islamist takeover and of an ethnic conflict in Syria, make no mistake, but a number of factors suggest that those things might not happen.

First, ironically, in Syria as in Tunisia the tough repression against radical Islamists by the regime has weakened those forces. It is easy to forget that Mubarak’s Egypt was a relatively tolerant country. The Muslim Brotherhood was allowed to operate, spread its propaganda, build a large membership, and control institutions. In Syria, there was a bloody suppression of the Brotherhood in the 1980s. Islamists are a lot less organized.

Second, while this might seem a paradox, while Islamists opposed the Egyptian regime they largely have supported the Syrian one. While the dictatorship in Syria is nominally secular—and was strongly so in earlier decades—President Bashar al-Assad courted Islamists with his foreign policy. After all, his government has been strongly anti-American (though a lot of American officials, journalists, and analysts did not seem to notice), anti-Israel, allied with Iran, supported Hamas and Hizballah, and backed the terrorist insurgents in Iraq.

What’s there for an Islamist not to like? Indeed, the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood declared a few years ago that it was not permissible to oppose the Assad regime because of these policies.

At home, the regime promoted an Islamism that it hoped would support the status quo. While some of these post-Brotherhood preachers might be itching to go for an Islamist revolution, they seem to be hesitating both because they are suspicious of the anti-regime opposition, like many current policies, and think Assad might well win.

No doubt, there are people in the protests who want to fight Israel and battle America. But if that’s your view, why not just support the continuation of the Assad regime? In fact, why not denounce the protestors as CIA and Mossad agents trying to subvert the revolutionary Islamists’ best friend in the Arabic-speaking world? The government does this and the Islamists can join in.

Third, Syria is a very diverse country. While Egypt is about 90 percent Sunni Muslim Arab, the figure for Syria is about 60 percent. There are Alawites, Christians, Druze, and Kurds, too, of which only the Kurds are Sunnis and they have a lot of nationalist feeling against the regime.

Fourth, the Sunni Muslim Arabs, the constituency for revolutionary Islamism, also provide a large part of the middle class, secular-oriented, pro-democracy movement, thus providing a strong alternative leadership. Consider that Islamism has never made big inroads within the Sunni Muslim community of Lebanon. The parallel is far from exact but gives a sense of that situation.

Fifth, my sense is that in Syria there is a stronger pro-democratic middle class and a relatively more urbanized population. Having lived under a dictatorship that used Islamism to stay in power—like Iran but the opposite of Egypt—people are more skeptical about that doctrine.

I don’t mean to suggest that Islamists are unimportant and might not emerge as leading forces, but roughly speaking I would bet that while the level of support for Islamism in Egypt is at around 30 percent—and has a tremendous capacity for growth—the equivalent number for Syria is about 15 percent and is naturally limited by the size of the community.

Again, there are a lot of Islamists and potential Islamists in Syria. They are among the demonstrators. Some fire and brimstone speeches have been made and the slogan of “We only want to live under Islam” has been raised. The content may seem ambiguous but everyone in Syria knows what that means. It would be a disaster for the Christians and the Alawites who collective form more than one-quarter of the population.

As to what will happen, there will come a moment of truth and I believe this period has now begun. One sign of that was the eruption of serious demonstrations in Damascus. Another would be if inter-communal strife began or if there was any real sign of a split in the army.

Remember that all the Arab regimes have a three-level priority of response.

Level 1: Hope that the protests will go away and can be waited out.

Level 2: Respond with a mixture of repression and promises.

Level 3: Go to heavy repression and killing people in order to destroy the protests and intimidate people from participation.

The shah’s Iran in 1978, as well as Egypt and Tunisia in 2011, did not go from Level 2 to Level 3 because large elements in the elite did not want to do so. In contrast, in Iran, everyone knew that the regime would not hesitate to go to Level 3.

The moment of truth on this point—the transition from Level 2 to Level 3 has apparently begun in Syria. When it is in full motion the regime will either respond ruthlessly, indifferent to international reaction, or will lose its nerve. All of the nonsense about Bashar as a reformer or about the existence of an alleged “old guard” will disintegrate fast. 

(You notice that people babbling about Bashar being a liberal restrained by the “old guard” never give specific names. That’s because such people don’t exist. Bashar is the old guard.)

Does Bashar have the killer instinct like dear old dad, or is he just a wimpy eye doctor? Assad means lion in Arabic, and Bashar will either have to bite and scratch or be quickly perceived as a cowardly lion. And that would be fatal.

There’s no third alternative. If he falters, the demonstrations will grow much bigger very fast. Would the army, and especially the elite Alawite-dominated units, step in for him and take over? Possibly.

For the moment, though, the case for cheering on and helping the Syrian revolution is stronger than that of Libya by far. But by the same token, its prospects are poorer than in Egypt or Tunisia precisely because those states were more moderate than the ruthless, radical Syrian regime.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The GLORIA Center’s webside is: His blog is on PajamasMedia: 

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