Whatever the outcome of the current Syrian crisis, the sectarian killings that have been raging for the past two and a half years, and which might have reached new paroxysms of savagery in August 2013, all bear the telltale markings of ethnic cleansing, impending fragmentation, and ultimately the Balkanization of a country formerly known as Syria.
“Ethnic cleansing” is not a phrase to be uttered in vain; its tortured tales are stained with heartbreak and bloodshed, its sad trails spattered with chronicles of dispossession and forced population movements. As a concept, “ethnic cleansing” traces its semantic origins to the Balkans during the early 1990s, but its inglorious history is as old as history itself, its deeds recorded in the sacred writs and annals of nations, its crimes premeditated, designed to eliminate undesired populations with the aim of building ethnically, religiously, or culturally homogenous regions in once mixed or disputed territories. Syria, as a complex of ethno-religious and linguistic mosaics, living a brittle and uneasy peace under the rule of an apprehensive and historically oppressed community, falls within the patterns of deeply divided societies susceptible to ethnic conflagrations. And so, since the early days of the insurgency in early 2011, Syria’s troubles were pointing in the direction of an impending sectarian boiling point. And Assad, a child of the catacombs, an accursed minoritarian, an Alawite upstart whose family made good and bequeathed him the throne of the Sunni’s overlord, was not about to throw it all away and deliver a redeemed community back to its oppressors. Some Pollyanna in 2011 might have thought it opportune to ride the winds of an ill-conceived “Arab Spring”, doodling some rosy freedom slogan on a wall in Daraa. But Assad’s appetite was not for self-immolation so as to feed the flame of someone else’s freedom. Safeguarding one’s own trumps all other virtues in the creed of persecuted Levantine minorities, Alawites included, and Assad was not about to betray that sacred writ. Indeed, he has yet to have a “bad day” as he continues to prosecute this fight for self-preservation, and as he forges on, coming ever closer to carving out an Alawite heartland. But that “bad day” came and went, with Obama’s posturing and abrupt retreat, and Assad triumphed yet again. Today, with the regional and international response to his brutality as incoherent as ever, Assad remains the winner of this conflict, and he endures, more determined, consolidating an eventual rump state.
The opposition to Assad remains a motley assortment of Islamists, with some reformers and liberals interspersed in-between, most of whom loathe each other, perhaps more than they hate Assad himself. What’s more, Assad’s military remains largely loyal and determined, his popular base remains intact and committed, and American policy—or lack thereof—remains his greatest ally, and so he remains firmly ensconced at the helm. Like his father Hafez before him, Bashar al-Assad is a skilled strategist and a patient master of time; he is wily, deliberate, coolheaded, and coldblooded; a crafty murderer and a seasoned statesman at once, qualities that a flamboyant hothead like Muammar Qaddafi, a kleptocratic oligarch like Zine al Abidine Ben-Ali, and a fossilized military veteran like Hosni Mubarak all lacked. And so it is unlikely that Assad’s fate will come anywhere near Qaddafi’s, Ben-Ali’s, or Mubarak’s—although predictions are the praxis of the foolhardy in the Eastern Mediterranean.