Syria's Troubles Are Far from Over

Whether Assad stays or goes is only the beginning...

Friday, September 25, 2015, is the 1,500th day since President Obama called on Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to step aside. The statement from the White House was released hours before President Obama left on a ten-day trip to Martha’s Vineyard, and at least with regard to forming and executing a coherent policy towards Syria, it seems the vacation has extended to the present day. Assad remains, ISIS has emerged as a threat and the largest refugee crisis since World War II is unfolding.

Instead, consensus seems to be that Assad will stay. As Gideon Rachman (who has an essay in the new issue of The National Interest) wrote in the Financial Times on Tuesday, “A diplomatic solution clearly has to involve the regime and, almost certainly, President Bashar al-Assad.” Speaking in London on Saturday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry also seemed to soften on the question of Assad’s departure. While the Syrian president must go, Kerry said, “the modality” of that departure is still up for debate, adding, “it doesn’t have to be on day one or month one or whatever.” And on Thursday, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has long called for Assad’s ouster, said, “Either a transition process without al-Assad, or with al-Assad, is possible.”

The question of whether Assad stays or goes is appealing because it seems to offer an easy way to understand and to respond to the horrific violence occurring among multiple factions in Syria’s civil war. Certainly Assad has perpetrated heinous, documented acts against Syrians. Remaining holed up in Damascus precludes his being brought to some form of justice. However, in determining the future of Syria, the question of Assad’s specific whereabouts is largely incoherent in the absence of answers to three additional questions about the people and area that Assad’s regime now controls. They are questions that often get overlooked amid the immediacy of refugee needs and the horrors of both Assad and the largest group that opposes him, the so-called Islamic State and its associates.

First, can sectarianism stabilize in Syria?

Assad’s Baathist, Alawite-dominated regime is the last of the minoritarian regimes in the Levant, as Syria scholar Joshua Landis has pointed out. Lebanon, through civil war, and Iraq, through invasion, both saw their long-standing regimes, composed heavily from each state’s minority population, replaced. (The origins of promoting minorities to power dates back to when Western powers controlled the region, if not earlier.) But the minority Alawites remain Assad’s base of power in Syria. In his wonderfully detailed 1990 account of Hafez al-Assad’s life, Patrick Seale described how the Alawites rose from an outsider community.

The advancement of the ‘Alawis offended many Syrians who believed they were unduly favoured, but few outside the extremist ranks of the Islamic fundamentalists held their heterodox beliefs against them. Rather, what was resented was the rise of one region over others and of a community hitherto considered inferior. Yet, thanks to their strong position in the army, the security services, the professions, the party, and indeed every institution across the land, the progress of the ‘Alawis seemed irreversible. Having fought and studied their way to the top, they would not easily be dislodged.