Syria’s Future is Sectarian Division
James Van de Velde
As long as Syrian President Bashir al-Assad is allowed to stay, Syria’s future is sectarian division between Alawites/Shia and Sunni/Kurds. Christians will have no future in Syria. And once the division is de facto recognized by the warring factions (which is beginning to happen already), al Qaida and Sunni moderates (including the Kurds) will square off and start killing each other.
Syrian provinces in the north, currently under Sunni or Kurdish control and largely purged of Alawites, are unlikely ever to allow Alawite governors back, even if Assad prevails (meaning ‘survives’) militarily and diplomatically. Likewise, Alawite strongholds will likely never surrender their heavy weapons, air defenses, ballistic missiles or asymmetrical weapons to Sunni irregulars or allow themselves to be governed by Sunnis (for fear of retribution for decades of Alawite suppression of the Sunnis).
Both the Free Syrian Army -- along with al Qaida (AQ) and Salafist irregular forces -- and the Assad regime have long-war military strategies:
- The FSA/AQ/Salafists thinks that demography (their superior numbers) over time will allow the ‘plinking’ of the Assad military, which cannot re-constitute itself with enough new (Alawite) recruits over the long term, and therefore will someday fall (or turn on Assad);
- The Assad regime and Iran think that controlling the cities and the strategic ports and access to Lebanon will assure that the Kurds, Salafists, al Qaida and the Sunni-controlled areas of the countryside will collapse from their own mismanagement, exhaustion and the starvation of resources and access.
Either way, the West loses. And without Western involvement to pressure Assad to leave Syria, the Assad regime’s long-war strategy has today the upper hand.
Three civil war outcomes are now likely, all very bad for the United States, all likely to continue some form of sectarian/geographic division of Syria:
- Assad and Iran will continue and remain in de jure control of all of Syria (and de facto control of the more important southwestern third of Syria), maintaining a forward base/safe haven for Iran and Hezbollah, remaining a threat to Israel and an adversary of the West. Assad will likely squirrel away and hide at least some of his chemical weapons.
- The opposition will prevail, shove the Alawites into a geographic corner and feel nothing but ingratitude and hostility toward the West and the United States in particular for abandoning them, fueling the narrative that the West is at war with Islam and indifferent to Muslim suffering. Western influence with the new government will be small to nil.
- The civil war and division will continue for years.
We Can’t Just Vote ‘Present’
Syria has frozen this administration intellectually and strategically. The President’s passivity to date has helped Syrian dictator Bashir al-Assad survive a revolution he was going to lose to moderate Sunnis. The delay has allowed the rise of the religious fanatics.
Many US policymakers seem to assume that one side or the other is going to ‘win’ in Syria – and we’re not sure which side would be better (so it’s better to pass on choosing sides or worse: support both the opposition and Assad’s continuation). Yet a clear (and permanent) winner is unlikely. And whoever ‘wins’ in the short term will likely have only a brief period of recovery before more violence is likely.
Assad’s Syria is currently an Iranian client and totalitarian state and permits Lebanese Hezbollah and Iran to maintain a physical presence inside Syria. Syria has become so much of a client state that Assad’s sovereignty is empirically in question. Assad may technically be a proxy now for Iran. It is in US (and the Syrian people’s and everyone’s) interests for it to fall. But the President and his advisors seem arrested in confusion and uncertainty – unable to discern this, given what a nightmare Syria has become. The US press has not helped, simplistically mischaracterizing Syria as a fight between a dictator and al Qaida, with no attention to any of the nuisances.
The President and his aides seem to think that because the regime is fighting an opposition that is riddled with Salafist and al Qaida elements and supported by Iran, it is in US interests to allow the two sides to kill each other off – no winner is President Obama’s default objective now. But ‘no winner’ is not an objective, since it is inherently unstable and the absence of an end state. The President’s attitude demonstrates a lack of strategic clarity.
What the United States Ought to Seek
We should want the Assad regime to fall and any subsequent regime’s relationship with Iran to end (and the Sunni opposition would most certainly end it) – even if it means that the subsequent regime has to deal with numerous Salafists within the state and perhaps even within the government.
Should the Sunnis prevail and push the Alawites out of power, or at least into the Western corner of Syria -- Latakia Province, many fear that al Qaida and Salafist elements will dominate the new Syrian state. They very well might. (And this may happen even without the intervention of the West.) But as certain as al Qaida’s failure was in Iraq (Iraqi Muslims overwhelmingly rejected al Qaida), it is just as certain that Sunnis and the tribes in Syria will view al Qaida demands and violence in post-civil war Syria as totally unacceptable and will reject al Qaida – violently, if necessary. (The Syrian Kurds in the north are already cooperating with the Assad regime to oppose the al Qaida threat to their autonomy.)
Yes, like in Iraq, the post-Assad Sunni state will be a mess – car bombings, assassinations within ranks, political violence and sectarian, neighborhood division – along with the threat that some elements of the al Qaida affiliates in Syria will attempt to go abroad with the weapons they acquired in Syria and attack Western targets (they can now, of course). Thousands more will likely die horribly. But like in Iraq, the tribes of Syria and the majority moderate Sunni Syrians will reject al Qaida’s vision for the state.
How do we know this?
The Iraq War was a disaster for al Qaida. Whatever one’s analysis is of the US involvement in Iraq, one overarching conclusion of the experience there is that Iraq was even more of a disaster for al Qaida.
Al Qaida leadership made Iraq its new battlefield after 9/11. For a few months, al Qaida even ruled Fallujah; it was a political, strategic and narrative disaster. Al Qaida could not govern and could not inspire or keep the population. Wherever al Qaida appears, it fails to deliver as a political movement to improve the lives of Muslims, though it kills a lot of Muslims in the process. Having al Qaida fail once again in Syria is very much in US interests.
The center of gravity in our struggle with Islamist terrorism is al Qaida’s legitimacy in the eyes of Muslims. Al Qaida’s core narrative—that the West is waging war against Islam—was flipped on its head in Iraq. Al Qaida is the enemy of Muslims -- and will again be in Syria. Al Qaida also opposes tribalism everywhere as a threat to religious purity. It is al Qaida that is waging a war against Muslims. (Al Qaida leader, Ayman Zawahiri, calls Syria al Qaida’s new battleground.)
Contrary to the fear that Syria will turn into an al Qaida safe haven, the more likely scenario is that Syria will turn into a nightmare and then an al Qaida battleground – where al Qaida will have to cooperate with the new, more moderate Sunni government or once again kill countless Muslims, reveal themselves as visionless nihilists, undermine its core narrative, and lose – all very much in the interests of the West and the United States. The alternative to this ugly future is to allow Iran to maintain a client Alawite/Shia regime in Syria, a safe haven for its irregular forces and to threaten Israel *and* to permit al Qaida to remain in the Syrian countryside in safe havens where it will continue local violence and plot terrorist acts against the West.
The two anti-West groups – Alawites/Shi’a and al Qaida -- don’t cancel each other out (and allow the moderate center to survive) if we allow them to continue to fight each other. They will instead more likely both survive the civil war.
The Sunni-Al Qaida Fight that Needs to Happen
Post-Assad Syria will be an environment that will be awful, politically unstable and a general risk for the United States but ultimately one that the Muslim world needs to have over and over:
- Is al Qaida’s narrative fringe or mainstream?
- Is al Qaida’s narrative a vision for Muslims, or is it nihilistic, intolerant, a threat to tribalism, violent and in no one’s interest?
Not dumping Assad for fear that al Qaida elements will emerge is politically timid to a fault – not to mention the fact that *al Qaida is already there.* We can’t hope that by not dumping Assad al Qaida will somehow disappear. (If it did disappear, fighters would return to their home countries – including Europe and North America; is that in Western interests?) Further, the longer we keep our heads in the sand and avoid deposing Assad in Syria, the longer al Qaida in Syria has to plan attacks against the West from its current safe haven in Syria. Further still, if we were to support Assad, as some Americans officials now advocate, we would be supporting a dictator whose military priority would be to defeat the moderate Sunni irregulars (the Free Syria Army) and terrorize innocent Sunni civilians – not attack al Qaida elements.
Not involving ourselves in Syria plays into the al Qaida narrative that the West (and the United States in particular) is indifferent to the plight of Muslims worldwide. It is imperative that the United States not be branded as uncaring generally and uncaring to Sunnis in Syria. Although some aid would likely have leaked to al Qaida elements, Western aid to the opposition would have undermined al Qaida’s claim that the United States supports dictators and is hypocritical when it calls for freedom and democracy. Military action would have sent the strongest signal in defense of Muslims. The President’s retreat from his threat of military involvement against the dictator played into al Qaida claims that it is al-Qaida – not the West-- that is the vanguard of Muslims.
We should not fear an opposition victory in Syria, though no one should be under the illusion that such a victory will lead quickly and peacefully toward a viable, secular democracy.
What the United States ought to want:
- Assad out of power.
- Syria free from Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah hegemony.
- A Sunni takeover of the Damascus Government (with power sharing guaranteed to the Alawite/Shia minority) and an end to Assad’s rule – even if the new Sunni government at first involved Salafists (though hopefully the new regime will be as secular as possible).
- A conclusion to the fighting; an end to the ethic/religious slaughter; Iran and Hezbollah on the defensive.
What will then come next in the new, first ‘post-Assad’ Sunni-dominated state:
- Violence, intra-sectarian competition and assassinations, alienation, disillusion and al Qaida disaffection.
- Al Qaida ultimately exposed as nihilists who have nothing to offer Syrians.
- Al Qaida focused on the ‘near enemy’ (the local government) rather than the ‘far enemy’ (the West and the United States).
- Al Qaida’s core narrative – that the ‘West is at war with Islam’ -- revealed once again as a fraud.
- Al Qaida’s legitimacy undermined.
- Al Qaida subsequently defeated in Syria by the Sunni tribes and moderates that dominate all Muslim communities.
What Iran Wants
Iran views Assad’s Syria as a permissive environment, which allows Iran to support Hezbollah and threaten Israel from the north. Neither Iran nor Hezbollah likely particularly care about ruling over the Sunnis in the north of Syria; they likely want, instead, simply to maintain some state in Syria from which it can continue to function as before (and, in particular, supply and protect Hezbollah).
Iran is fighting an asymmetrical war against the United States worldwide. Iran believes the Obama administration is weak, feckless, indecisive and directionless. Iran is encircling the United States with as many allies and asymmetrical weapons as possible. Syria is a staging area, a platform from which to threaten Israel, a safe haven for Lebanese Hezbollah and a testing area for the development of more advanced weapons with which to threaten the West.
Iran will have no compunction from pitting (and thereby forcing the death of) Syrian Alawite fighters on behalf of its aims. Iran is able to convince so many Alawite fighters to continue fighting by claiming that Iran is helping them save themselves from slaughter by Sunni terrorists. As long as the 2 million Alawites believe this, Iran will continue its successful presence in Syria and manipulation of the Alawites.
At least the professed goal of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (SNC) is to include the Alawites in the new Syria. Here is another angle the West has not discerned: convince Alawite fighters that they have no future if they become foot soldiers for Iran – they are mere fodder. They ought to dump Assad, who is a puppet now for Iran, and fight for greater Syria. If not, they risk retribution and persecution from victorious Sunnis.
Given that Iran’s goal is to continue a client regime in Syria, it may not care if much of Syria proper is lost to a separate, Sunni government – as long as it does not harass the Alawite/Shi’a Syrian state. Should Assad prevail (meaning defeat the attempts to overthrow him militarily), he and the Alawite military will likely have little stomach to attempt to re-take the Sunni areas of northern Syria militarily; they will likely just let it fail.
The Administration seems to think that it’s in a great position: Salafists and Assad regime elements are killing each other. But beyond the dangers of passivity, there is a major flaw with this attitude and perspective: Assad and Iran may very easily just declare victory by controlling the western third of Syria, the major cities and allowing the countryside to be in chaotic control of Salafists, al Qaida and the Kurds. Over time, the Salafists and al Qaida will likely demonstrate that they are incapable of governing; their states will fail. So Iran and Assad will de facto prevail.
How the United States Could Shape the War
First, become involved, which means the US Chief Executive must start talking often about the conflict, why it is important to the West and to Muslims worldwide, and what the United States envisions for a post-war Syria. Have Democrats taken from the Iraq experience the lesson that any and all involvement with foreign affairs – even articulating a post-war vision – is fraught with costs and counterproductive ramifications – and so ought to be avoided?
Second, the United States ought to create a coalition of the like-minded – involving, especially, Turkey and the Gulf States to demand from the Syrian opposition that it guarantee the lives of the religious minorities in post-Assad Syria (i.e., the Alawites and Shi’a – minus, of course, war criminals). (We shouldn’t be naïve, however, to think that such a pledge will be respected by all Sunnis – especially those hurt by the Alawites in the past and those al Qaida who view the Alawites as apostates.)
Third, the coalition should demand that Assad flee to Iran or Russia (he cannot stay in Syria). Ballistic missiles ought to be destroyed in place (or launched into the desert). Syrian chemical and biological weapons ought to be destroyed in place, so that al-Qaida elements of the Sunni opposition cannot get them.
Fourth, Sunnis in Latakia Province ought to be allowed to live unmolested or be free to leave the Province to Sunni-controlled Syria.
Fifth, those Alawite clans who do not support the Assad regime ought to be messaged that they have a future in post-war Syria only if they work to oust the regime and supplant Assad. Over the long term, the coalition ought to support moderate Alawite clans (not previously part of the regime) and, if necessary, pit Alawite clans against each other to encourage integration of the Alawite state into greater Syria without the genocide of any sectarian group.
Sixth, Alawite fighters in regime-dominated areas of Syria today ought to be messaged that they currently work not for greater Syria but for Iran and will be used and discarded by Teheran for Iran’s geo-political goals. If they continue to believe that they are fighting only al Qaida terrorists, then they can expect no role in any post-war Syria. Now is their only chance to cease fighting on behalf of Iran and allow a multi-sectarian, post-war Syria.
Should the Alawite/Shi’a axis resist such a vision for resolution to the conflict, the coalition would make Syria an economic and physical disaster:
- block Alawite oil exports;
- re-direct Syrian oil in control of the opposition north into Turkey or west into Iraq (and bypass Latakia province altogether);
- turn the Assad-state into a political and financial liability for Iran and an isolated, pariah state;
- allow the state no political legitimacy; treat it as a proxy.
Most Think Syria is Libya -- It Isn’t
Prescriptions for Syria have eluded most analysts because they don’t see Syria for what it is: Syria isn’t Libya, Tunisia or Egypt. If the opposition ‘wins’ in Syria, the career military won’t go home and wait for the new government to re-assemble and ask for its allegiance. Nor will the country turn into one huge failed state with al Qaida safe in the countryside, like in Libya. Syria is more like Yugoslavia – the regime is one religious group; the opposition is another. At best, Assad and his inner circle will flee the country, but the 2 million Alawites who cannot flee will not likely trust the new Sunni government to respect their lives and property. Most of the two million Alawites will likely want their own mini-state. Most won’t likely drop their weapons and invite the Sunnis to rule them benevolently
- Of the 26 million Syrians, 75 percent are Sunni (20 million); 15 percent are Alawite (a Shi’a sect), Shi’a or Druze.
- Over 100,000 have been killed in the war; over 4.25 million have been displaced from their homes; over 2 million are refugees abroad; Syria is a humanitarian disaster.
- Assad and his supporters are almost all Alawite, though the Alawites also divide themselves into clans, which do not necessarily all get along. These Alawite clans control most of Syria’s money.
- Many Sunni members of the Syrian military have defected to the opposition. The military is led mostly by Alawites who are likely told that surrender to the Sunni opposition is equivalent to suicide.
- Alawites en mass cannot flee to any country. There are too many and no country would take them.
- The ruling Alawites currently have all the heavy and air weapons, air defense, ballistic missiles and chemical and biological weapons. The opposition has light weapons only but they outnumber the Alawites 5:1.
- The regime is receiving support from Iran, Lebanese Hezbollah and Russia – all of whom wish to see Assad (or at least a sympathetic Syrian government) somehow continue, because they believe that a Sunni government would kick them out, should Damascus fall.
- The opposition is armed by the Gulf States and perhaps Turkey. They want to see a Sunni-dominated Syrian Government, but not necessarily a country ruled by strict Sharia.
- Unless Assad kills hundreds of thousands more, he will never regain the territory in northern Syria lost already to the opposition. More than 50 percent of Syria has been ceded to the opposition (or simply abandoned); the opposition groups (and the Kurds near the border with Turkey) are now attempting to set up local governments in geographic areas they now control.
- The war began as a liberation movement; it is now much more of a sectarian zero-sum fight. At present, neither side is taking many prisoners.
- Liberal and secular movements have largely gone into exile, leaving a vacuum that extremists are exploiting. The longer the fighting continues, the more sectarian it becomes.
Syria’s Likely Future: Division
Syria’s civil war outcome is now likely geographic, sectarian division and relocation of Syria’s chemical and biological weapons, heavy armor and ballistic missiles to some sort of Alawite-Hezbollah-Iranian stronghold. With Iranian support and Russian hardware and continued air and heavy weapons dominance, regime forces will likely continue to fight those Sunni irregulars who outnumber the regime forces and will attempt to force some accepted, de facto division.
Syrian sectarian geography foreshadows Syria’s Balkanization.
The Middle East and Iran (blog).
Liz Sly, Syrian War Shaping the Middle East, YaLibnan, December 27, 2013. http://www.yalibnan.com/2013/12/27/syrian-war-reshaping-the-mideast-map/
Some Syrian chemical and biological weapons (CBW) will likely survive the civil war and be withdrawn and housed in new facilities deep inside the Alawite-Hezbollah-Iranian stronghold that cover northern Lebanon. Likewise, Syrian unconventional and heavy weapons – all under the control of the Alawite military – will survive but will belong to the new Alawite-Hezbollah-Iranian stronghold. These weapons will emerge as deterrents against Sunni and al Qaida threats to this Alawite-Shi’a enclave. And these Syrian weapons – including Syrian CBW -- may very well be managed in this stronghold by Iranians and Hezbollah custodians.
Although the outbreak of the civil war in Syria may have been an Arab-spring-like quest for political freedom from the oppressive dictatorship of the Assad dynasty, over the past 12 months the conflict has grown so sectarian in nature that neither side is likely to ‘win’ and preside over the entire country. Geographic division is even more likely if the sides agree to some sort of international brokered agreement. The conflict has worked to separate the Syrian people and create pockets of Sunni-dominated or Alawite/Shi’a-dominated areas – both of which are unlikely ever to allow members of the other religion to govern them. Considered heretics, both Alawite and Shi’a (not to mention the Druze) communities have long been despised by the Sunnis.
As the fighting continues, we can see the future emerging in slow motion: the Alawites, along with Lebanese Hezbollah with Iranian support, are creating a rump state linking Shi’a and Alawite pockets that overlap northern Lebanon, southwestern Syria west of Damascus, and most of Latakia Province. In short, the Alawites are likely willing to give up on the north and northeastern part of Syria and sit on the more developed areas, the coastal access points for Syrian oil, and the high grounds of Latakia Province, the ancestral home of the Alawites. The Alawites are likely to purge its new rump state of all Sunnis. Those pockets of Alawites in Sunni-Syria will be defended, until the opposition gives up on taking those areas, or the Alawites there are allowed to flee.
The ancestral homeland of the Alawites also happens to be the western coast of Syria, where it can be resupplied by sea and is protected by a mountain range. It is also the coastal access points for Syrian oil.
The opposition, likewise, may accept a separated outcome, knowing that it would have time and the demographics (and the financial support of the Gulf States) to address the Alawite rump state in the future. Further, it could starve Latakia Province of oil if it re-directs reserves north into Turkey and away from the Western coast.
Foreign policymaking is often the choice between competing evils and comparatively lousy outcomes. (Which is ‘least bad?’) But the US chief executive always has to choose and then explain to the American people why calculated involvement is necessary. If indecision rules, one can be sure that the outcome this conflict will be worse than expected.