Almost a century ago, imperial powers created the state of Syria by secretly concocting an arrangement of borders for yet another country to be carved from the dying Ottoman Empire. Independence came about early in the post-war era, in 1946, when the last French soldier left the Syrian Arab Republic’s territory. In the second part of the last century, Syria epitomized Middle Eastern repressive regimes, especially following the Ba’ath party’s rise to power in 1963. Despite its authoritarian nature, the regime proved to be resilient as the international community prioritized stability over democracy. Today, norms are changing and Syria is the most recent example of a Middle Eastern nation paying the price of transition.
The tragedy that begets Syrians can be traced back to the inability of the Assad regime to create a more representative structure of governance. The Syrian regime allocated almost all key positions in the government, and the security services in particular, to the minority Alawites. In a way, Assad even took his own coreligionists hostage. He governed by spreading an atmosphere of fear which caused the Alawites to unify around the regime for fear of persecution in a post-Assad environment.
Syria is now paying the price for this sectarian fracture. Most Alawites and the Christian minorities remain, in effect, wedded to the regime. The opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) remains dominated by the Sunnis and, in particular, by the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. Despite ongoing efforts, the SNC utterly failed to reflect the heterogeneity of the Syrian society. The Kurds, after having refused to join the SNC, setup their own opposition. And a few days ago, in a unilateral move, they decided to engage in a power grab of their own in the heavily Kurdish-populated regions of northeastern Syria. In short, Syria is sliding fast towards a sectarian strife reminiscent of the worst days of instability in neighboring Iraq.
The real question facing Syrians is whether a sense of unity and common destiny can be created among the various religious and social groups in the country after the tragedy of the Assad years. In other words, can a national identity and a sense of belonging re-emerge under these conditions or will the Syrians fall prey to the ancestral tendencies of tribe, family, and religion? To put it in historical perspective, the events in Syria are testing, a century down the road, the premise of democratically-governed, heterogeneous, multi-ethnic, multi-religious nation states in the Middle East. Some would argue that the previous test results were inconclusive given the prevailing uncertainties about Iraq’s integrity.
The fear in the region is to witness the gradual disintegration of Syria into ethnically and religiously purer mini-states, with a Kurdish entity in the North, an Alawite entity in the West, and a Sunni entity in the rest. Syria’s bigger neighbors—Turkey and Iran—have different and by now, possibly conflicting interests. Unlike Iran, Turkey has a significant vested interest, once Assad is gone, in ending instability and in ensuring the territorial integrity of Syria. For Iran, going forward, the objective is likely to be to prevent the emergence of a Sunni-dominated power structure.
This backdrop clearly calls for a recalibration of expectations regarding the post-Assad era in Syria. The international community should certainly review the mistakes that led to long years of strife, tragedy and instability in Iraq, and at the very least, do no harm in Syria.