Syrian Crisis Is Primarily Political, not Sectarian

Article Summary
A secret trip to Syria undertaken by French researchers late in 2011 has resulted in the publication of a study analyzing the nature of the struggle between regime and opposition forces. Among the findings are likely scenarios for both the evolution on the crisis and its resolution, whether by force or negotiated settlement.

The “Friends of Syria” conference in Tunisia coincides with the one-year anniversary of the Arab Spring, whose winds have blown Damascus away. Practically, the conference is associated with an Arab/international initiative involving the appointment of former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan as a peace envoy. Annan was assigned again to shoulder the responsibility of stopping the violence, which seems an impossible task, particularly since it was preceded by attempts by Arab League Secretary General Nabil al-Arabi, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and even the UN Security Council. The question here lies in whether the Syrian crisis has become insurmountable compared to its predecessors in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt. What future awaits a country drowning in blood and in the midst of a deteriorating humanitarian situation, with the crisis of displaced people growing worse?

The assessment put forward by a French team at the initiative of the French Center for Intelligence Studies (CF2R) and the International Research Center on Terrorism (CIRET-ATV) answers some of these questions. In a secret visit to Damascus at the end of last year, the team held meetings with opposition figures, regime loyalists and other Arab and European diplomatic figures who have asked to remain anonymous. The results of this research were published in a 54-page report submitted to concerned parties last month. An-Nahar here publishes its most significant recommendations:

For the first time since its independence, Syria is witnessing a structural crisis. Like the social movements that changed the facts on the ground in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen in 2011, this trend quickly morphed into a form of political and sectarian confrontation which has expanded, becoming the center of a new regional and international crisis. This crisis has revived three pre-existing goals: to re-establish the authority of the oil monarchies over the rest of the Arab and Islamic world, to produce a Sunni leadership able to confront the Shiite crescent and to implement the US policy known as the "Greater Middle East" project in the region following the change of regime in Iraq in the spring of 2003. Contrary to what took place in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, it seems that the future of the Syrian crisis is not linked to the personal fate of President Bashar al-Assad, who not only represents a family, but also a sect. Although this sect is a minority, it has strong roots in Syria’s mountainous regions.

The disparate information on the fall of the regime and the reasons behind its endurance seem inaccurate. The Syrian regime is able to survive. It is strongly rooted throughout the country and especially in Aleppo and Damascus, the two biggest cities, which contain half of the country's population. That is why any foreign military intervention like the one that took place in Libya seems unrealistic — not just because of the Russian and Chinese positions at the Security Council, but also in light of the geopolitical map, which includes Iran.

The last option involves an Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear facilities. This option is still under discussion in political corridors and has not been implemented on the ground. Either one of the two aforementioned possibilities might lead to a comprehensive war that could expand into an international confrontation. Additionally, the chaotic development of the situation could result in one of several scenarios, primarily its morphing from a civil into a regional war that could involve Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey. Therefore the “limited Lebanonization” underway in Syria is likely to expand into a wider framework, and could even result in the “Balkanization” of the Near East, reaching even the oil monarchies of the Persian Gulf. Military experts are discussing the potential of 300,000 casualties resulting from such a conflict.

The second scenario is the possibility of containing the crisis within Syrian borders via a security administration. A third proposal similar to the Yemeni solution (a compromise transfer of power, whereby the leaders of the outgoing regime are granted immunity from prosecution) is being put forward via several initiatives that include either Russian or Iranian mediation. The primary causes of the Syrian crisis appear political, rather than sectarian.

The sectarian groups are not coherent blocks. The well-off Sunni and Alawite class in Damascus and Aleppo continue to support the regime at a time when some Alawites and Christians play an active role in the ranks of the opposition.

A large number of Syrian Christians and Alawites fear the unknown. They aspire to peace and want to strengthen personal and political freedoms. At the same time, the potential for the “Lebanonization” of Syria is likely, given the spread of sectarian strife between the Sunnis and the Alawite Shiites.

However, this catastrophic scenario is not inevitable. Syrian society is pluralistic, as 40 percent of the population is comprised of Christian (Latin and Orthodox) and Muslim minorities (Shiites, Druze, Ismaili), in addition to Kurds. None of these groups want an extremist Sunni Islamic rule.

All of the figures we spoke to stated one general observation, namely that Syria’s strength lies in its multi-sectarian system, and that this system — along with the authoritarian regime responsible for bringing it into being — will now undergo serious modifications that could result in one of three possible outcomes: ethnic partition and “purification” along the lines of the Dayton Accords for the former Yugoslavia, a Libyan-style solution (involving foreign intervention) that includes the displacement of non-Sunni minorities toward Lebanon and other countries or attempts to reform the regime and institutionalize it in such a way as to preserve the plurality of Syrian ethnic and religious communities. This method bears a strong resemblance to the Taif Accords which ended the Lebanese civil war.

Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria are engaged in transitional periods that could last for a long time. Despite similarities between these countries, no generalizations can be made. Syria seems more resistant to change, possibly due to its history, its social-religious model, and its regional environment. It is still too early to determine whether extremist Islam can be integrated within a democracy based on the electoral calendars of the revolutions.

Found in: un, syrian society, syrian politics, syrian crisis, syrian, security council, security, sectarianism, sectarian conflict, sectarian, political science, minorities, lebanonization, iranian nuclear program, iran, conflict resolution, bashar al-assad, balkanization, assad regime, arab league, arab, alawites

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