Turkey Pulse

Turkey’s Syria Watchers Blinded by ‘Sectarian Spectacles’

Article Summary
For what is essentially a police state, last week’s defection of Syria’s prime minister is far from a mortal blow for the regime. However, as Cengiz Candar argues, the slow break-up of state institutions could mire Syria in a sectarian civil war — a reality officials in Ankara cannot seem to grasp.   

Recent developments in Syria are indicators of a faster advance towards an inter-sectarian civil war. First came the news that the Syrian Prime Minister Riad Hijab had been removed for his post, followed by reports Hijab and three government ministers had defected to Jordan.

Official Syrian media continued to report for several hours that Hijab was removed from his post. In a police state like Syria, a prime minister is not all that important.; intelligence chiefs and special forces commanders are much more prominent. Nevertheless, defection of a prime minister is a serious psychological blow to the regime. Does Riad Hijab’s defection with the help of the Free Syrian Army signal the wane of the Syrian regime?

In a way, yes. If nothing else, it signals the gradual vanishing of decorative Sunni accessories that nevertheless had important roles in sustaining the Alawite core the Assad dynasty depended on all these years.

This trend, which could be marking the end of the regime, attracted attention last month with the departure of Maj. Gen. Manaf Tlass. Tlass’s father, Mustafa, as the Defense Minister of Hafez al-Assad for 30 years, along with Vice President Abdulhalim Khaddam and Chief of Staff Hikmat Shehabi were the top Sunnis closest to the regime. He hailed from Rastan, near Homs, which became one of the centers of resistance against Bashar’s tyranny.

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This is why Manaf’s abandoning of Bashar was seen as the disbanding of the Sunni circle around the Alawite core.  Manaf’s departure was followed by the killing of four senior regime officials, clashes in Damascus and finally the expansion of the uprising to the biggest city of the country, Sunni-dominated Aleppo.

Hijab had been the Prime Minister for less then two months. Previously he was the Minister of Agriculture. Before that, immediately after the outbreak of the events in Syria, he was appointed as the Governor of Latakia. Earlier he was the governor of Kuneitra, the central town of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Should there be an Alawite mini-state, Latakia is slated to be its capital. The events that began in Deraa in March 2011 quickly expanded to Latakia and Riad Hijab was transferred from Kuneitra as the governor of Latakia.

In other words, he was a solid, trusted official of the Baath regime. He is from Deir al-Zour and he once served as the head of the Baath structure in that area. Now, will his defection with the help of the Free Syria Army and his anti-regime declaration be enough for him to be cleansed from all his Baathist transgressions?

This is a solid Baath soldier, who was trusted enough to be appointed as governor of Latakia, then promoted to be a minister, and, finally as the prime minister, served a regime that killed 20,000 people.

Just as the regime’s attack on Rastan prompted Tlass, a childhood friend of Bashar al-Assad, to walk away from the regime, Prime Minister Riad Hijab could not continue with Bashar Assad after the atrocities at Deir al-Zour. As it is happening now in Damascus, these were cracking of "Sunni prayer beads” that enabled the regime to survive and provided it with “sociological legitimacy.”

We should not be surprised if one of these days Vice President Farouk el-Sharaa who hails from Deraa also takes off.
All these are indicators of shortening of life of the regime as well as the increasing pace toward an inter-sectarian civil war. What was happening until now?

Until today, it was basically a clash between the Syrian army, which is the regime, and the Free Syrian Army, that is the Sunni rebels and Sunni soldiers who defected from the army. The Sunni-Alawite conflict was a subtext of that major clash.

If the inter-sectarian civil war becomes the main text, it is likely that the country will fragment as pieces that will not be under central control for a long time. In that context, the Syrian Kurds will also be more at ease.

Where will such a civil war take Syria? The “classical scenario” is already written. Bashar’s regime will withdraw to the shore region in the northwest with the idea of setting up a mini-Alawite state and govern a limited geographical space. This will mean dividing Syria into small ethnic and sectarian entities such as Kurds, Druze, Alawite, Sunni and Christian.

I don’t agree with this scenario. Palestinian thinker and writer Rami Khoury the other day wrote what I was thinking: “Although there may be some probability of such a division, I think such expectations are misplaced. There could well be third course in addition to options of a central police and welfare state and the disintegration of the state into ethnical mini-states. That could be a decentralized regional power that would confine such identities to upper levels of a national structure.”

Because they can’t read the situation in Syria properly and because they look at everything through their “sectarian spectacles,” Turkish rulers are unable to diagnose what is happening in Turkey. The wrong approach to the Kurdish issue in Turkey impedes a proper understanding of Syria.

Our government wants to see Syria as the power behind the military escalation at Hakkari that has been going on for two weeks. They resort to empty propagandist claims that it is the Baath Party that is guiding the PKK against Turkey. It is as if the Turkish army is about to march on Aleppo and the Syrian Baathists are initiating attacks to split the Turkish army.

Can you believe that the PKK is stupid enough to depend so much on crumbling Syrian regime or that a Baath regime that can’t even keep track of its prime minister and ministers, that has abandoned their borders, is strong and competent enough to have the PKK attack Turkey? Why are they so doubtful of the intelligence of the Turkish public?

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Found in: turkey, syria, latakia

Cengiz Candar is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse. A journalist since 1976, he is the author of seven books in the Turkish language, mainly on Middle East issues, including the best-seller Mesopotamia Express: A Journey in History. Currently, he is a Distinguished Visiting Scholar at Stockholm University Institute for Turkish Studies (SUITS) and a Senior Associate Fellow at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs (UI). On Twitter: @cengizcandar

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