Guest Editorial: Recent history should dissuade entry into Syria
It is a simple fact that many “countries” in the Middle East are not really nation-states as they are understood to be in the West, but rather often unhappy agglomerations of ethnic, tribal, sectarian and even national groups having little in common.
Instability in the Middle East can be measured by the extent of tribal, sectarian, ethnic and national frictions in any “country” in the region.
The borders of many Middle East “countries” were drawn by European colonial powers for their own convenience and profit, without much consideration for the human realities with which they were dealing. The result of this colonial legacy, coupled with the ongoing Arab Spring liberation, is the exacerbation of the conflicts and frictions that have existed for centuries, but which heretofore have been mostly repressively controlled.
Of all of these “countries”, Syria is among the most difficult and complicated. Syria is 90 percent Arab and 10 percent Kurds and Armenians. Sunni Moslems make up about 75 percent of the population with Alawites, a minority sect of Shia Islam, at about 15 percent and Christians around 10 percent.
What makes Syria different is that the minority Alawites govern the majority Sunni population, not necessarily very kindly or gently. Because the Alawites have been in charge since Hafez Assad took power in a military coup in 1970, they have effectively consolidated their grip on the country.
The Alawites control the military and intelligence services in Syria. In addition, under both Hafez Assad and his son Bashar, they have judiciously included important non-Alawites in government and commerce, creating a larger power base than would normally be operated by a 15 percent minority. There are important Sunnis and Christians who have economic or political stakes in the success of the present Alawite-dominated government. In effect, the Alawites have power and the guns — an extremely well armed, well-trained and effective army.
The prime international supporters of Alawite Syria are Russia and Shia Iran. The Iranians support them as the only other Shia regime in the region, one that supports the Iran-centered Hezbollah and Hamas organizations against Israel. Syria is an important Iranian ally.
Russia has supported Syria since just after the 1956 Suez crisis when the USSR contracted to sell them military weaponry. The USSR and now Russia have since then been suppliers of arms to Syria. Clearly, their ongoing rejection of any UN sanctioned military action against the Assad regime is based on that relationship and the importance with which it is viewed in Russia. However, that pro-Alawite stand has hurt the Russians with the region’s majority Sunni world, which will make that policy increasingly disadvantageous to Russia. It could change.
There have probably been 10,000 killed in the ongoing Syrian insurrection. Because of the Alawite/Sunni issues, the great fear is that the insurrection could easily become a sectarian civil war, something that could spread to and have major negative ramifications in the greater Muslim world. So far, that appears not to have happened.
In Syria, as in some other Muslim “countries,” towns and neighborhoods often have developed along sectarian lines. An Alawite town may sit next to a predominately Sunni town just down the way from a Christian town on the banks of the Euphrates.
When un-uniformed “militia” attack a Sunni town and kill Sunni women and children, the cry goes up in the Sunni community that it was a government-backed or sponsored Alawite militia, whereas it is equally possible that it is tribal or family feuds playing out.
And the simple fact is that there is no way of knowing exactly what has happened. Was it really a government-sponsored attack, or a tribal feud, or is it a provocation by others who want to create sectarian conflict, as we have so painfully seen in Iraq?
The point here is that it is exceedingly difficult to sort out who is doing what to whom. American policy makers have little notion of precisely what the “Free Syrian Army” stands for other than the fall of Assad and the Alawites. And what would that fall bring? Certainly not stability!
The situation is vaguely analogous to Libya where we try to figure out what the 150 tribes and tribal coalitions stand for, or further, what the valley-bound tribal residents of Afghanistan would accept (if anything!) as a central government. Our Middle East experiences should have shown us by now that U.S. military involvement without sufficient understanding of local realities can be disastrous.
In Syria, one side will ultimately crush the other. Any peaceful resolution seems remote.
Getting into Syria would be easy. Getting out, or getting anything positive out of it, simply may not be possible.
Haviland Smith is a retired CIA Station Chief who served in East and West Europe and the Middle East and as Chief of the Counterterrorism Staff.
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