Population: ~22,000,000; 70% Sunni Arab, large minorities of Kurds, Christians, Druze and Alawite Muslims
The revolutions that started in North Africa are creeping into Israel’s domain. The Levant – the eastern coastline of the Mediterranean Ocean that is home to Israel, the Palestinian territories, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan – is reacting differently to the wave of uprisings than have countries like Egypt and Tunisia.
What separates this area from those two countries is something subtle – diversity. Jordan’s politics are plagued by the division between ethnic bedouin tribes and descendants of Palestinian refugees and immigrants. Lebanon’s divisions are accentuated by the domination of Shiite Hezbollah, plus Christian and Druze communities. Israel wonders what directions things could go with its own Druze, Bedouin and Palestinian sectors. Palestinians are divided politically and have struggled to find a reason to protest – the involvement of the Israeli army, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas has complicated Palestinians’ thinking regarding against they should direct their protests.
But the protests in the West Bank, Gaza and Jordan are mildly jarring. The uprising in Syria is most serious. The last time anything approaching these type of protests was in 1982, in Hama. The current Syrian president’s father massacred 10,000 people by shelling the town. Since then, the country has not had any significant opposition.
But 1982 was very different – a climax to a six-year-long insurgency by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. Additionally, the struggle between the state and the Islamists was sectarian. The Syrian regime is dominated by one ethnoreligious group in particular, the Alawites. This offshoot of Shiite Islam has classically been considered beyond the pale by most Sunni and Shiite Muslims, and outright heresy among today’s many fundamentalist groups.
Alawites had long been oppressed by the Sunni majority in Syria, which made the rise of Hafez al-Assad a dramatic turn of fortunes. He saturated his regime with Alawite officials, essentially guaranteeing a loyal support system of fellow Alawites eager to avoid letting militant Sunnis take control of the government. The Muslim Brotherhood’s tactics against the regime included assassinating major Alawite politicians and Alawite recruits to the Syrian army. This added to the urgency for the Syrian government: deciding to devastate Hama despite heavy civilian casualties was much easier when considering the danger the Alawite community could face if the Muslim Brotherhood took over the country.
The Alawites and Shiites
The Alawite identity of the Syrian elite still plays significantly in the way it makes decisions.
Hafez al-Assad’s rise to power in 1970 clashed openly with the Syrian constitution that required the president to be a Muslim. But a 1974 declaration by the late Shiite authority living in Lebanon, Musa al-Sadr, recognized the group as members of his sect. The regime in Iran, including Ayatollah Khomeini, have continued to support that understanding. Despite the clash between Sunnis and Shiites in today’s antagonistic Muslim world, this status is enough to keep political opponents at bay.
When Syria reached out to the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979, it both broke its isolation in the Arab world and reinforced its attachment to Shiite Islam.
American Strategy: Break the Alliance
Over the past several years, American strategists have talked openly of pulling the Syrian government away from its alliance with Iran. The idea has been to make a peace deal with Israel conditional on Syria severing diplomatic relations with the Iranians, whereby they would receive the Golan Heights and the United States would end sanctions against Damascus.
This approach is incredibly naive. The Syrian government is too well-entrenched with the Iranian government to ever sever that alliance. Just as much as Iran has seen Syria as a gateway to the Arab world whenever it is isolated, Syria has used its relationship with Iran as leverage to keep that bridge open – ending its own isolation in the Arab world.
The religion issue makes that alliance all the more important. Breaking ties with Tehran would endanger the regime. Iran would openly denounce any attempt to associate Alawites with Shiite Islam, ending the protection provided by al-Sadr in 1974. Just as severe, Damascus would lose its alliance with Hezbollah in Lebanon, reducing Syrian influence there.
Latakia and the regime Splitting
Alawites historically have centered along the Syrian coast near the city and within the province of Latakia. I have heard the idea in the past from professors that if the regime lost its grip on power, it could relocate to this city and consolidate its power there. That could effectively split Syria, into at least two pieces, and instigate a civil war between the much better armed, Alawite-led Syrian army and whatever rebels were fighting it.
This scenario seems more feasible considering it is what just happened in Libya, but there is of yet no indication there would be mass splits in the Syrian army and mass defections of units or government ministers.
All of this is background to however events in Syria develop.
In Relation to Israel
It seems this will undermine the confidence of any American advisor or politician who wants Israel and Syria to sign a treaty. If the regime is not popular and especially if it is weaker, there will be less pressure on Israel to trade back the Golan Heights. That is, at least for now.
But I would suggest another point: If the regime in Syria falls, a peace treaty could become more likely if there is a strategic calculation on the part of Israel it could make peace with a new government in Syria that is enjoying popularity and would otherwise be more aggressive toward Israel. That is not guaranteed, but a possibility.
That contrasts with the impossibility that Israel would sign a treaty with a weakened Syrian government under Bashar al-Assad. If he remains in power, he will either have crushed a rebellion in a way similar to his father and become more isolated (allowing Israel to avoid American pressure to reenter negotiations), or he will have a weaker grip on power and Israel’s entire political establishment will feel uncomfortable making an agreement with a weak government.