Syria and the Power of Sectarian Strife

Saturday's meeting in Geneva won't overcome Syria's internal divisions. Meanwhile, the world watches the end of the beginning of a civil war.

Major world powers, meeting in Geneva over the weekend in an effort to strike a meaningful pose on the ongoing crisis in Syria, failed to do so. There was no consensus on calling for the removal of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad from power, and the ultimate agreement favoring a political transition lacked any real meaning. Russia and China, as expected, blocked the other seven nations from issuing a statement calling for Assad’s removal. Meanwhile, Syria experienced a particularly bloody spurt of violence, with more than 100 people killed.

Thus will the Syrian crisis continue along the lines of what the UN undersecretary general for peacekeeping operations, Herve Ladsou, has tacitly called a civil war. Both the Syrian government and the opposition forces resist acknowledging this reality, but it is reality nonetheless. The nation faces the danger of being overtaken by sectarian cleansing.

Indeed, the contours of the Syrian conflict bear hallmarks of the 1975-1990 civil war in Lebanon, which imposed a staggering casualty toll on that small Mediterranean state. Thus, the international community should not be surprised or shocked by what comes next in Syria. The past sectarian cantonization of Lebanon and more or less of Iraq, coupled with literally irrefutable precursors of sectarian cleansing in Houla, Qubeir and other mixed areas in Syria, confirm the trend: the battle in Syria now is over consolidating sectarian cantonization, or the creation of sub-national units, each of which is dominated by a predominant sect.

This is the end of the beginning of the Syrian civil war. Despite its brutal attempts at reimposing its authority in some areas, the regime understands that every passing day slowly but surely erodes its ability to sustain its rule over significant swaths of Syrian territories. The opposition, despite its chronic disunity and military disadvantage, has remained undefeated, underscoring the gradual weakening of the regime. Soon enough, the Syrian regime will have no other option but to gradually contract its territorial control so it can secure its survival. Consequently, the battle fault lines will be drawn around and next to communal concentrations and mixed areas: most likely, from Idlib in the northwest to Sueida in the southwest. This corridor contains the most geostrategic, mixed areas in Syria that border the heartland of the Alawi community in the provinces of Latakia and Tartus and the capital.

Certainly, the regime will focus on this corridor in order to expand and protect the approaches of the Alawi community, include the minority Christian, Ismaili, Shia and Druze communal concentrations into its territory, and sever the historic link between northern Lebanon and the Sunni areas around Hama and Homs. Undoubtedly, the political roles these minorities come to play will decide the battle, shifting lines in favor or against the regime. In fact, similar plans had been drawn before. In 1936, Bashar’s grandfather, Suleiman al-Assad, petitioned the Leon Blum government, when Syria was under the French mandate, to express Alawi aspirations for independence in the provinces of Latakia and Tartus separately from Sunnis in Syria. Most relevantly, Alawi officers met Alawi dignitaries, shortly after the abortive Nasserite coup of July 18, 1963, to lay foundational plans for the future establishment of an Alawi state with the city of Homs as its capital.

On the basis of such a possible scenario, hundreds of thousands of Syrians would be in danger. A much smaller and less populous country, Lebanon suffered 120,000 casualties in its civil war, many as a result of sectarian cleansing. The international community has to concede the fact that, absent a strong international military intervention that appears more and more fleeting, the recent massacres in Syria are the early signs of a bleak sectarian cleansing. This phase constitutes the end of the beginning of the civil war. The only way to mitigate such calamity is for the international community to be proactive and prepare plans for a large humanitarian relief effort, including significantly increasing the number of UN observers in contested areas. This will neither be risk free nor stop the gradual cantonization of Syria. This will prevent future massacres with prohibitive and inhibitive human cost.

Robert G. Rabil served as a chief of emergency for the Red Cross in Lebanon during the country's civil war. He is associate professor of political science and the LLS Distinguished Professor of Current Events at Florida Atlantic University. He is the author of Syria, United States and The War on Terror in the Middle East and most recently Religion, National Identity and Confessional Politics in Lebanon: The Challenge of Islamism.

Photo: Flickr/Kodak Agfa