With an explosion in the heart of Damascus last week, Syrian rebels managed to not only assassinate or injure a great number of top-level officials in the Assad regime but also create a crack in the mental bubble that regime insiders have wrapped themselves in ever since the original Arab Spring-inspired protests in Homs got underway. It was that shell of supposed protection that’s helped swing this conflict from simmering to boiling over the last 16 months, drawing the eyes of the Middle East and the rest of the world on what happens when the carefully managed racial and religious tensions of an autocratic government start to collapse. It’s a story that’s played out across the Middle East for the better part of the last decade and is still going strong, though the results have varied from hopeful (Egypt) to pessimistic (Iraq). The question now is what side Syria is going to fall on.
The first thing to note is that no one in the international community really believes anymore that President Assad is going to be able to “ride this out”. Even Russia, whose primary foreign policy objective regarding Syria has been to preserve their own influence in the county, has publically said that “it is difficult for him to remain after everything that has happened”, which is about as straightforward an admission that we’re likely to pry from them. But Assad is also the representative of the Alawite community in Syria.
Now, the Alawi sect is another branch of Islam, just like Sunni and Shiite Muslims, and their traditional powerbase is located in Syria, where, despite the fact they are a minority in the population, they hold most of the political, military, and economic power. This has naturally bred resentment from the other sects that have missed out on these opportunities due to nepotism, repression, and fear. It’s too early to tell if this resentment will turn into revenge violence. However, there is no sense of a current national ideal beyond deposing their dictatorial president amongst the unorganized Syrian rebel groups. Without a common vision binding them together, there is a much higher chance of Syrians organizing themselves along tribal and religious lines during the chaos.
A similar situation was seen in Iraq, where a dictator held onto power because of the absolute loyalty the minority group he represented had. That loyalty was based off the fear that, while Saddam Hussein might have been corrupt, the other majority groups would decimate the minority group if he lost power. After being overthrown, this sentiment came to pass, with the Sunni Muslims being the target of sectarian violence throughout the county, leading up to an in-all-but-name-only three-way division of Iraq by Sunni, Shiite, and Kurd, the three main groups who went after each other once Hussein’s control was gone.
Syria faces the same dilemma today that Iraq faced last decade, even discounting the effects our invasion of the latter had. Unlike Egypt or Tunisia, the chance of peaceful means throwing out Assad vanished as soon as the military crackdown swung into high gear. Instead, we’re faced with the chance of a destabilized nation that’s on the border of Turkey, a moderate Muslim ally, and only a few miles away from Israel as well. America’s support for the rights and dignity of all human beings tends to get us to get caught in struggles like this, where civilians fight for democracy, but this time we will have to confront the fact that, if our country becomes involved, we’ll also have to find a way to help Syria reunite itself once again once the dust has settled.