August 18, 2006 at 9:30 pm (Arab society, Arabs, Islam, Islamism, Middle East, Military, War)

Let us take a look at Syria for a moment.

Like many Middle Eastern states (especially Lebanon and Iraq), Syria is a state within which there are a number of groups. The major groups in Syria are the Sunnis, Nusayri Shiites (also called Alawi Shiites), Isma’ili Shiites, Twelver Shiites, Druze, and Christians. The ruling regime (consisting of the top military brass) consists of Nusayri Shiites.

Syria is ruled by the military. There is no question about this. Even Syrian dictator/autocrat (officially “President”) Bashaar al-Assad (son of previous dictator Hafez al-Assad) rules according to what the military says. He has little to no room for independent movement. He is constrained to follow the military’s orders rather than the other way around. The military’s primary concerns are staying in power, preventing viable opposition, and resisting Western influence in the region. Another major preoccupation of the Syrian regime is establishing a “Greater Syria”.

When I was in Pakistan, Dawn ran a picture on its front page of a protest against Israel’s actions in the recent Israeli-Arab war. In that picture was a girl with a very curious pendant. It was of some geo-political entity but its borders did not resemble anything that existed. It was a pendant of Greater Syria, incorporating what we know now as Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel. This is no idle dream but, really, a sincere dream of the Syrian regime. This explains Syria’s intense interest in Lebanon–the control of which is only the beginning of the Greater Syria dream–and why peace with Israel is virtually an impossibility. It views itself as the rightful ruler of all lands of Greater Syria.

In a situation reverse of that of Bahrain, a Shiite minority rules the other larger groups. This has, of course, not placed the Nusayri Shiites in a popular position in Syrian society. Despite being heterodox to the point of being accused of being non-Muslim, Nusayri Shiites evidently have a very close relationship with Iran’s Twelver Shiite regime. Although how much of this is a relationship and how much is Syria depending on Iran for survival I am not sure.

The Syrian regime is well-known for taking strong actions against its enemies. When the Muslim Brotherhood began to be a threat, the Syrian military virtually wiped out the entire village the Muslim Brotherhood was based in. Yes, they wiped out the Muslim Brotherhood (which in itself is not a bad thing) but at the same time many, many people were disappeared. Such actions are alarming, and it is even more alarming that Syria has been able to get away with it.

Considering Syria’s policies and the danger it poses to the region, it is not unexpected to find that people advocate regime change. But do we really want that?

My fear is that if the Syrian government’s authority becomes unstable, let alone overthrowing the regime, there will be a bloodbath as larger groups compete for power. The backlash against the Nusayris, removing them from power or even from existence, would be immense. The Syrian people would not be able to form a working government: they are completely ignorant of the essential elements that make up a functional non-martial government. Opposition would be violently put down – that is all that they know and understand. And who knows how terrorists (Islamist, Shiite, and Kurdish) would take advantage of such a situation, of such chaos.

I am not saying that the Syrian regime should be accepted, tolerated, or protected. Even if they prevent Sunni terrorists from flourishing in Syria, they support and train and arm Shiite terrorists. Syria does not contribute anything positive to the region.

Perhaps in the case of Syria, it would be best to pressure the government to abandon its sponsorship of terrorism on its own accord. With increased foreign aid, investment, and involvement, the Syrian regime can vastly improve the conditions within the state, progressing forward. If this is allowed to happen in Syria, imagine how Lebanon and Jordan would be able to benefit as well. If all goes well, the regime can then be persuaded to gradually introduce democratic reforms (by which I mean civil liberties more than electoral change). This is, of course, the best-case scenario, which I strongly doubt will ever come to be.

Still, Syria is a case worth thinking about in detail. There are many aspects and elements that are crucial in this issue.


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