The Arab Spring has created a new political situation in the Middle East. I am not referring to any hope that real democracy, much less any interest in peace with Israel, will take hold, but rather to a reconfiguring of relations between the religious groups and the Arab street.
Some of this is certainly bad for Israel: The Sunni masses don’t seem willing to continue accepting dictators like Hosni Mubarak, who make peace treaties with Israel that at least stave off war, even if they don’t lead to real peace. But there is also something very positive about this: The Sunni masses are also no longer willing to accept non-Sunni regimes simply because they act hostile to Israel.
This is the conclusion that must be drawn from Syria: In radical contrast to the earlier situation, the Alawite regime has not been able to distract the Sunni masses by pointing to the “Zionist enemy.”
The ongoing revolt in Syria may have begun under the banner of “democracy,” and it may still be misunderstood and misrepresented as such in the international media, but this is not why it is continuing. It is continuing because the Sunnis hate the Alawite “infidels” who have taken over the country, while the Alawites are terrified at the prospect of a Sunni takeover that, they know, would almost certainly be followed by a program of genocide against them. The Sunnis make up 70 percent of Syria’s population, the Alawites only 12%, and the parallels to the Rwanda genocide of 1994 are all too clear.
The issue here is not democracy, and we can see this clearly by comparing the only other uprising of the Arab Spring in which a religious majority rose up against a ruling religious minority: when the Shi’ites of Bahrain, constituting more than 70% of the population but ruled over by a Sunni minority, took to the streets in February. They were given no sympathy in the rest of the Arab world (other than from Shi’ites in other countries), their revolt was put down by a multinational Sunni Arab force, and they have given up.
The Sunnis of Syria, on the other hand, have not given up; they are Sunnis and believe they have an inherent right to rule. And the irrelevance of democracy as more than a slogan is even more clear if we consider the situation in Iraq, where real democratic elections brought the Shi’ite majority to power, but the Arab Spring has nevertheless seen a continuation of resistance by the Sunni minority.
The Sunnis accepted Alawite rule in Syria and Shi’ite hegemony in Lebanon only for a brief period because these groups professed hatred for Israel, and the Sunnis regarded Israel as the more immediate enemy. But now this grace period is ending and the Sunnis are fighting back. They are challenging Alawite rule. They have rehabilitated Hamas and accepted the idea that Hamas represents the mainstream Arab position regarding Israel – thus Hamas need no longer depend upon the non- Sunnis of Iran, Syria and Lebanon. They are resisting the Shi’ites on all fronts, putting down the rebellion in Bahrain, continuing their uprising in Iraq, and beginning to resist Hezbollah by implicating the Shi’ite organization in the assassination of the Sunni Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri.
THIS IS creating a new political reality in the Levant. Sunnis consider the western Levant – the area within about 75 km. of the Mediterranean, including Israel, Lebanon, southwestern Syria (primarily Druse) and northwestern Syria (primarily Alawite), but excluding Gaza and the West Bank – to be an inseparable part of their patrimony, even though in this area Sunnis constitute less than 20% of the population. This is true not only in Israel, but also in neighboring parts of the western Levant to the north, in Lebanon and Syria.
Furthermore, the overwhelming majority of non-Sunnis living in the western Levant – not only Jews but also Alawites, Shi’ites, Maronites, and Druse – reject the idea of living under Sunni domination (only the non-Maronite Christians do not). The only way that the Sunnis have managed to maintain the façade that the western Levant is part of their patrimony is by keeping these groups fighting among themselves, specifically by provisionally accepting Alawite dominance over Syria and Shi’ite dominance of Lebanon on the condition that these groups remain anti-Israel.
But now it is clear that Alawites and Shi’ites can no longer deflect
Sunni hatred by claiming Israel is the real enemy. The Alawites are
learning this lesson now, and the Shi’ites of Lebanon, who are already
casting their lots with the Alawites by sending help to them, will learn
it soon enough. Together numbering only 3.5 million, they are now
realizing that they are surrounded by the 15 million Sunnis of Syria and
Lebanon, who aren’t going to be fooled any longer. Iran is not going to
help them significantly in such a situation. At some point, as the
civil war in Syria develops, the Alawites will have no choice but to
retreat to their mountain stronghold in the northwest and appeal for
military assistance to protect them and help them establish their own
state there (as they unsuccessfully petitioned the French in the
From personal contact with Alawites, I know
that they are already beginning to discuss the possibility of appealing
to Israel for help. If they do – and they probably will at some point –
and the international community does not help them,Israel should step in
to aid the Alawites, which would also mean helping their Shi’ite
allies, who will by that point be similarly embattled . The result would
be the formation of a bloc of states in the western Levant which would
share the common interest of avoiding Sunni domination. For the first
time, Israel would have actual state allies in the region, as opposed to
temporary peace treaties . This is certainly a better choice than
allowing the Sunnis of Syria to massacre the Alawites and establish a
puppet state in Lebanon: Having eliminated the Alawites and the
Shi’ites, they would be free to focus all their energies against the
Jews.The writer teaches
linguistics at the University of Haifa, specializing in the relationship
between language, religion and national identity. This article first
appeared in the
BESA Perspectives series on May 4.