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By Barry Rubin
The only honest answer to the question of what will happen in Syria is: No one knows. After an eight-month-long battle in which more than 3500 people have been killed, there’s no telling who will be ruling Syria when the dust settles, or even when the dust will settle. A regime victory is quite possible—perhaps most likely—and its overthrow might–but not necessarily–bring an Islamist regime.
But what do we know about Syria? Here’s a guide.
1. Don’t overrate Iran’s role.
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Despite wild rumors, the Syrian regime doesn’t need Iranians to help it repress the people. Iran is important as a source of financing for the government, but this is President Bashar al-Asad’s battle to win or lose. Tehran is definitely going to be a secondary factor.
Syria’s other ally is Hizballah but the killing of so many Sunni Muslims, including Muslim Brotherhood people, has lost it Hamas. There is a sort of Sunni-Shia version of the Spanish Civil War going on now. But when it comes to the radical and Islamist forces on both sides there’s no good guy.
2. And Turkey isn’t the good guy
The Turkish Islamist regime isn’t motivated by some love of democracy in opposing the Syrian regime. The Ankara government wants a fellow Sunni Islamist dictatorship in Damascus, preferably under its influence. In this situation, Turkey is just as bad as Iran.
3. Will the two sides make a deal?
No, this is a war to the death. The regime cannot make a deal and yield power because the elite would lose everything it has. Moreover, the government elite would face death, exile, or long-term imprisonment if it loses. Similarly, the dominant Alawite community and large portions of the Christian one (together roughly 25 percent of the population) risks massacre if the government falls.
4. Will the army bring down the regime or change sides?
No, see point 3. While some are defecting (see below), the high command cannot survive a change of power. Unlike in Egypt and Tunisia, the armed forces cannot usher in a new regime under which it can hope to keep its privileges.
5. Is this now an inter-communal war?
Net yet. There are hints of small-scale communal killings but if and when such a blood bath begins you’ll know and it will be terrible indeed. This outcome might be avoidable but the situation is very dangerous.
6. Is Syria now in a civil war?
This is beginning. Defectors from the military have formed a Free Syrian Army. A nine-member Military Council has been formed including five colonels. Note the lack of generals (see Point Four) and all of them appear to be Sunni Muslim Arabs (see Point Five). They say they are going to fight the regime and defend the populace. But from where will they get arms?
7. Will economic collapse bring down the regime?
No. See Points 1, 3, and 5. Nobody is going to quit because they get hungry. This is a kill-or-be-killed situation.
8. Is Syria going to encourage a war against Israel?
No. Historically, Middle Eastern dictatorships have provoked war against Israel to distract attention from problems at home. The most likely scenario would be a Hizballah-Israel war, as happened in 2006. But we’re past that point for the Syrian regime (though a radical Egypt might try this tactic after 2013.) In addition, Hizballah is trying to consolidate power in Lebanon and a war would be very much against its interests.
9. Who is the opposition leadership?
Ah, that’s a very interesting question. The best-known group is the Syrian National Council (SNC). It has announced its 19-member leadership group which includes 15 Sunni Muslims, two Christians, and 2 Kurds. Note that there are no Alawites or Kurds. The SNC has an advantage because it was assembled by the United States using the Islamist regime in Turkey.
Given Western backing the SNC is surprisingly dominated by Islamists. Ten of the 19 are identifiable as such (both Muslim Brothers and independent—Salafist?—Islamists) and a couple of those who are nominally leftists are apparently Islamist puppets. The fact that U.S. policy is backing an Islamist-dominated group indicates the profound problems with Obama Administration policy.
It should be stressed, though, that the SNC’s popular support is totally untested. Many oppositionists—especially Kurds—are disgusted by the group’s Islamist coloration and refuse to participate.
The National Coordination Committee (NCC) is a leftist-dominated alternative. The Antalya Group is liberal. There is also a Salafist council organized by Adnan Arour, a popular religious figure; a Kurdish National Council and a Secular Democratic Coalition (both angry at the SNC’s Islamism);
It is hard to overestimate how disastrous Obama Administration policy has been. Not only has it promoted an Islamist-dominated leadership (which might be pushed into power by monopolizing Western aid) but this mistake has fractured the opposition, ensuring there would be several anti-SNC groups. This strategy has also angered the Kurds and Turkmen minorities who view the SNC as antagonistic to their hopes for some autonomy. As a result, these two groups have reduced their revolutionary activities
The best source on these events is the exiled democrat Ammar Abdulhamid whose daily Syrian Revolution Digest is indispensable to understand what’s going on in the country. He writes that, despite U.S. and Turkish support, nobody will recognize the SNC as the “legitimate representative of the Syrian people” because of its “overrepresentation of certain currents and underrepresentation of others, as well as lack of transparency in the selection and decision-making processes, not to mention lack of clear political vision and transitional plans.”
Again, it should be stressed that in terms of actually directing the rebellion, there is no leadership.
10. So who do we want to win?
Despite the threat of a Sunni Islamist regime, I hope that Asad will be overthrown. Why? If the regime survives we know it will continue to be a ferociously repressive dictatorship, allied with Iran, and dedicated to the destruction of U.S. and Western interests, the imperialist domination of Lebanon, wiping Israel off the map, and subverting Jordan.
With a revolution, there is a chance—especially if U.S. policy doesn’t mess it up—for a real democracy that is higher than in Egypt. In Syria only 60 percent of the population is Sunni Muslim and thus might be potential recruits to be Islamist. The minorities—Alawite, Christian, Druze, and Kurdish—don’t want an Arab Sunni Islamist regime.
As for the Sunnis themselves, they are proportionately more urban, more middle class, and more moderate than in Egypt. Islamists and the Muslim Brotherhood in particular have never been as strong in Syria as in Egypt. In Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia, the Islamists face what is largely a political vacuum; in Syria they have real, determined opposition.
Today, the Syrian people have two major enemies blocking the way to a moderate stable democracy. One is the regime itself; the other is the U.S.-Turkish policy that is determined—naively for the former; deviously deceitful from the latter—to force a new repressive Islamist regime on the Syrians.
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 book, Israel: An Introduction will be published by Yale University Press in January. Latest books include 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 website of the GLORIA Center is at http://www.gloria-center.org and of his blog, Rubin Reports, http://www.rubinreports.blogspot.com