As the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Asad continues its brutal crackdown on the unrelenting Syrian revolutionaries, the debate over Syria in Washington has reached a feverish crescendo. Sober analysis seems to be going out the window. The five things everyone should know about Syria:
1) The Syrian regime is similar to a mafia regime, with al-Asads as the Corleone family. It has directly and indirectly used terrorism as a means of state policy to enhance the country's pan-Arab confrontational credentials. Violence is the main language used by the regime in dealing with its adversaries. Significantly, the government helped create an underground in both Lebanon and Syria in which terrorism thrives in relation to a protean definition of regime-security survival, ranging from pan-Arabism to sectarianism. The regime has supported cross-sectarian radical, Islamist and nationalist organizations, such as the Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC) and Hezbollah, to do its terrorist bidding. The kidnapping and recent release of six Estonians in Lebanon's Beka' Valley by the PFLP-GC on the mistaken grounds they were Americans reflect this underground terror network the Syrian regime established in Lebanon. Thus its aggregate capacity to inflict damage is greater than its absolute institutional power.
2) The notion that the regime relies on or is controlled by an inner core of Alawi security barons is misleading. True, the senior figures around Bashar, such as his brother Maher and his brother-in-law Assef Shawkat, wield significant power; yet the sheer Alawi base of the regime goes beyond this circle. Despite certain grievances, the four major Alawi tribes, al-Kalbiyyah, al-Haddadin, al-Matawirah and al-Khayatin, still support the regime. Moreover, powerful former and current security figures and their families, such as Ali Duba and Muhammad Nassif, play major but clandestine roles in Syria's security apparatus. For example, it was the sons and relatives of these powerful figures who monitored the recent Syrian opposition meeting in Turkey. Besides fighting for their survival, these Alawi tribes and figures may under certain circumstances retreat into their historical Nusayri mountain and hinterland and establish a de facto Alawi state. Significantly, one should not discount the reemergence of an Alawi irredentist impulse if the country descends into sectarian strife. It was none other than Bashar's grandfather who petitioned France for an Alawi state during its mandate over Syria.
3) The Syrian regime has cultivated strong communal and political relations with Iran and the Shi'a community in Lebanon, now led by Hezbollah. Besides supporting the Alawi community as a sister Twelver Shi'a community, neither Iran nor Hezbollah would like to see a regime change in Syria, which could heighten their vulnerabilities. Correspondingly, not only have they established a strong presence in Damascus; but also have managed to wield influence over both the governments of Iraq and Lebanon, all in the interest of supporting the Syrian regime. In response, Saudi Arabia and its allies in Lebanon have begun supporting the Sunni majority Syrian opposition, including shipping arms to them. As a result, sectarian tensions have already spilled over into Lebanon, further polarizing Sunni-Shi'a relations throughout the region. Damascus has emerged as the battleground between Iran and its allies on one side, and Saudi Arabia and its allies on the other.
4) The minorities in Syria, Christians, Druzes and Ismailis, have, broadly speaking, taken a position that transition to democracy should be peaceful. By not joining the opposition, they have strengthened the hand of the regime to continue with its heavy-handed policies. These minorities, especially the Christians, are worried about their future, given that the worrisome fate of their coreligionists in Iraq and recently in Egypt is not encouraging.
5) The outcome of applying a rigorous sanction regime against Syria cannot be effective without addressing organized smuggling. For example, the Kurds of Iraq made a mockery of the sanction regime against Saddam Hussein government in the 1990s by smuggling Iraqi oil to Turkey. Currently, they have been smuggling refined oil to Iran undermining international sanctions against Tehran. Absent an agreement with the Kurds, the U.S. should expect that they will do the same with Syria in the event international sanctions were placed against Syrian oil industry.
Washington should wait out the slow death of the Syrian regime. Though the United States should support the opposition, it is for the Syrians to win their own revolution and struggle for their national unity.
Image by Francis Ford Coppola