BY BARRY RUBIN—
The only honest answer to the question of what will happen in Syria is that nobody knows. The battle has gone on for eight months, killed more than 3,500 people, and could go on for many more months. There’s no telling who will be ruling Syria when the dust settles. A regime victory is quite possible – perhaps most likely – and its overthrow would not necessarily bring about an Islamist regime.
But what do we know about Syria? Here’s a guide.
1. Don’t overrate Iran’s role
Despite wild rumors, the Syrian regime doesn’t need the Iranians to tell it how to repress people. Iran is an important source of financing for the Damascus government, but this is President Bashar Assad’s battle to win or lose. Tehran is definitely going to be a secondary factor.
Syria’s other ally is Hizbullah, 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. Turkey isn’t the good guy here
The Islamist regime in Ankara isn’t opposing the Syrian regime out of its love for democracy. Erdogan’s government wants to have 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.
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) risk 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?
No, there are hints of communal massacres but this kind of thing hasn’t begun yet. If and when it begins you will know, and it will be terrible indeed.
6. Is Syria now in a civil war?
This is beginning. Defectors from the military have formed a Free Syrian Army. A ninemember Military Council has been formed including five colonels. Note the lack of generals (see Point Four) and that 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 killor- be-killed situation.
8. 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 two Kurds. Note that there are no Alawites. The SNC has an advantage because it was assembled by the United States using the Islamist regime in Turkey.
Given its 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 US 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 the Obama administration’s 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 US and Turkish support, nobody will recognize the SNC as the “legitimate representative of the Syrian people” because of its “over-representation of certain currents and under-representation 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.
9. So who do we want to win?
Despite the threat of a Sunni Islamist regime, I hope that Assad 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 US 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 US policy doesn’t mess it up – for a real democracy that is higher than in Egypt.
In Syria only 60% of the population is Sunni Muslim Islamist. The minorities – Alawite, Christian, Druse 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 US-Turkish policy that is determined – naively for the former; deviously deceitful from the latter – to force a new repressive Islamist regime on the Syrians.
The writer is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) and a featured columnist at Pajamas Media.