The Dangers for Syria

By Issa Khalaf

Long before protests began in Syria, I anticipated them with a mixture of welcome and dread. The welcome part is easy enough: we all want to see the siege of tyranny lifted from the Arab peoples, and we recognize that this moment is an historic turning point as these peoples fearlessly assert their freedom. The dread arises from Syria’s specific context, and that context, to me, dictates extreme caution because the combination of Syria’s internal complexity and external enmity is potentially deadly for the Syrian people.

I argued elsewhere that the Libyan context unfortunately requires outside intervention even though I knew that the Arabs’ loss of control and agency for their democratic uprisings could have fatal consequences. Yet I hoped that, because Libya is ethnically and culturally homogeneous and unified—its young people in particular no less politically aware than their Arab peers—it could draw on that tradition of resistance and liberation so prominent in its anti-colonial struggle to oust its unbalanced, sui generis dictator and his brood. Syria must not find itself at the receiving end of external intervention of any kind under any guise and we must be leery of the received wisdom about its politics and regime. The country must avoid political instability. 

Syria is both the heartland of Arab nationalism and a relatively socially diverse society of 22-23 million. Statistically, it seems homogenous: at least 94 percent of the population is Arab, and 90 percent of it is Muslim. The Christian Arabs, mostly Eastern Orthodox and 10 percent of the total population, are intellectually prominent in the historic Arab cultural renaissance and nationalist movement, and in government and society. The small Christian Armenian community, because the Arab Middle East received them as refugees from the Ottoman Empire during WWI, is integrated and Arabized. Among Muslim Arabs, the Sunnis are over 75 percent, Shi’a Alawis 7 percent, and Druze (500,000) 2 percent. There is really no distinct ethno-linguistic group of significance except the Kurds (Sunni Muslim) who, at 1.2 to 1.4 million, constitute 5-6 percent of the Syrian population.

The French colonial state had played havoc with Syria, as it did with Arab North Africa: it pitted one sectarian group against the other from the 19th century. It broke off a good chunk of Syria to expand Mt. Lebanon in the early 20th century and formed the current Lebanese “confessional” state, but could not so divide a fiercely nationalist, republican, and constitutional Syria.

Since the Ba’ath came to power in 1963, the Syrian regime managed, as in Saddam’s Iraq in particular, to meld party, bureaucracy, and military into the state, suffocating civil society and democracy. The regime has historically drawn its base from regional and sectarian minorities and Sunni (and later other) business classes, with the Alawis (the Asad family and heads of military and security services) being in firm control of the state. The military for the Alawis was historically a source of mobility.

The problem is this. Syria, as a “radical” Arab state outside the orbit of US control, has been demonized and attacked as a trouble-maker, supporter of Hizballah and Hamas, ally of Iran, and “enemy of Israel.” We incessantly hear this hostile trope on US media. Syria is rarely discussed in objective terms, as having its own interests and strategic needs. Its politics is grossly misrepresented and virtually never contextualized. Despite the regime’s pragmatic nature and readiness to accept peace with Israel in return for the Golan Heights, Syria is on the incessant receiving end of subversion from Israel, interested as it is in fragmenting Syria into an Iraq or Lebanon. If the center loses control, Syria is susceptible, with outside interference, to turn on itself with dangerous regional repercussions, including for Turkey, Iraq, and the Palestinians, and obstruction of the Arab revolutions. 

As with Lebanon, one more neutralized, weak, parochially and geographically divided, dependent adversary leaves Israel the unchallenged occupier and regional hegemon for years to come. Given the historical record, I would never underestimate subversive Israeli acts to stir up sectarian and ethnic violence, regardless of US policies, and these policies I’m not sure about.

Recent reports suggest that the Obama administration sees the danger of a failed Syria, and is probably so warned by other Arab states. Yet I’m not certain that, given the chance, Washington would not contemplate the advantages of a fragmented Syria or that it would not be eager, unlike its tepid reaction to royals killing their demonstrators, to cry wolf and mobilize the UNSC for some form of sanction if not intervention. A chastened Syria under the US orbit would provide a jumping off point for getting rid of the Lebanese Hizballah, with Israeli collaboration. I’d like to think this remains a neo-con fantasy only.

Many liberals argue that US intentions are good, meant only to facilitate peace between Syria and Israel, and that Asad’s failure to implement serious reforms during his eleven-year rule left him with little legitimacy and inability to make peace. They further argue that, because Asad represents a minority’s hold of the state and therefore incapable of real reform—and with his legitimacy compromised in the recent outbreaks—he cannot abandon “Syria’s state of war with Israel.” Thus, sanctions must be more severe, including designating regime members who abused human rights, to get Asad to “make peace with Israel.” 

By this convoluted logic, Israel is front and center of US interests, Syria rejects peace, and somehow, lack of reforms prevent it from peace with Israel. The facts and documentary record demonstrate Syria’s willingness and ability to accept a negotiated settlement, but that Israel rejects it. Arguments to the contrary sound like the inversion of reality so recognizable from the Palestinian case. This is precisely the kind of false assumptions, facts, and causation that may pick up steam among Republicans as well. Enter the Israel lobby, and we have a lethal mixture.

All this comprises the nightmare scenario that the vast majority of Syrians, Muslims and Christians, Sunni and Shi’a, are anxious about. Notice that demonstrations, so far at least and except those in support of Bashar, have been virtually missing in Damascus, Aleppo, and Homs—between them comprising some 4.3 million residents—unlike, say, in Cairo and Tunis, Tripoli and Benghazi, and this is very important. For the Damascenes in particular are keenly aware of the consequences should chaos overtake their nation.  The ever-present danger of disorder and insecurity qua Iraq is a broad and deep Syrian fear.

The Syrians are sophisticated, subtle, pragmatic, and cautious thinkers. Bashar al-Asad is relatively popular, including in his personal life and family, and does not have his father’s iron fisted predisposition. The protestors so far are not calling for his removal, but for reform. Because of the nature of the regime—that is, because of its decades-long effort in constructing such a closed system and the absence of reformist individuals or factions within it—reform may be quite difficult.

Despite Syria’s historic regional and communal divisions, we should not sociologically caricature its social structure and assume eternal sectarianism. The popular Arab uprisings are manifestations of a new generation whose identity is not parochial or sectarian but civic and democratic in nature, its discourse that of individual freedom and commitment to a collective identity, inclusion and social openness, its fundamental demands, popular consent and sovereignty. It is the regimes that are way behind the great social changes and modernity overtaking Arab society. 

Furthermore, Bashar, whose conception of Syrian socio-political life is vigorously secular and modern, would not be popular if old resentments by Sunnis against the Alawi dominated state were that deep or pervasive, nor is the influence of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood known and it is likely to join the Syrian people’s call for freedom, justice, human rights, and democracy. This is good.

Bashar fortunately may be the key to reform. Young and educated in England, he can relate to what his people want and begin to accommodate their now familiar democratic demands. The Syrians are keenly aware that Arab elites have historically virtually invited imperial powers into their affairs either because of their idiotic adventures, as in the case of Saddam Hussein, or because their survival depended on intervention, as in the case of the royals. The hope is that the party and military will not stand in his way, and the security services will wait no longer to heed his orders not to shoot at peaceful protestors no matter what.  The fact that the government reacted swiftly to the demonstrators’ demands is a good sign, but it’s not good enough.

A recent International Crisis Group report (“Conflict Risk Alert: Syria”) recommended that Bashar must not only come out and apologize to his people but also act immediately, comprehensively, and decisively to institute far reaching political and economic reforms.  I cannot agree more, though I’m quasi-optimistic this will happen and the regime may well end up beckoning the nightmare of mayhem and intervention that the Syrian people so fear.

The Syrians want and must have change and democratization, but it must be done peacefully and preserve the country’s unity and integrity. They urgently need to be free of authoritarianism, corruption, and elite enrichment of a historically brutal and secretive police state, and require deep economic reforms, but it must happen on their own terms. The Arab publics and democratic activists in the region, as the rest of us, should be keenly aware of the Syrian context.

– Issa Khalaf has a Ph.D. in political science and Middle East Studies from Oxford University. He contributed this article to

(The Palestine Chronicle is a registered 501(c)3 organization, thus, all donations are tax deductible.)
Our Vision For Liberation: Engaged Palestinian Leaders & Intellectuals Speak Out