There’s a bit of a mystery surrounding events in Syria. First, who is the opposition? Second, what will happen?
Unlike in Egypt, where there is the threat and power of Islamists, Syria may well be a different case. Make no mistake, there’s a possibility of an Islamist takeover and an ethnic conflict in Syria, but a number of factors suggest otherwise.
First, ironically, in Syria, as in Tunisia, the tough repression of radical Islamists by the regime has weakened those forces. It is easy to forget that Mubarak’s Egypt was a relatively tolerant country. The Muslim Brotherhood was allowed to operate, spread its propaganda, build a large membership, and control institutions. In Syria, there was a bloody suppression of the Brotherhood in the 1980s. Islamists there are a lot less organized.
Second, and this might seem a paradox, Islamists in Egypt opposed the
regime but the Syrian government enjoyed their support. While the
dictatorship in Syria is nominally secular – and was strongly so in
earlier decades – President Bashar al-Assad courted Islamists with his
foreign policy. After all, his government has been strongly
anti-American (though many American officials, journalists, and analysts
did not seem to notice), anti-Israel, allied with Iran and supportive
of Hamas and Hezbollah and of the terrorist insurgents in Iraq. What’s
there for an Islamist not to like? Indeed, the Jordanian Muslim
Brotherhood declared a few years ago that it was not permissible to
oppose the Assad regime because of these policies.
At home, the regime promoted an Islamism that it hoped would support the
status quo. While some of these post-Brotherhood preachers might be
itching to go for an Islamist revolution, they seem to be hesitating
both because they are suspicious of the antiregime opposition and think
Assad might well win.
No doubt, there are protesters who want to fight Israel and America. But
then, why not just support the reign of the Assad regime? In fact, why
not denounce the protesters as CIA and Mossad agents trying to subvert
the revolutionary Islamists’ best friend in the Arabic-speaking world?
Third, Syria is a very diverse country. While Egypt is about 90 percent
Sunni Muslim, the figure for Syria is about 60 percent. There are
Alawites, Christians, Druse, and Kurds, of which only the Kurds are
Sunnis and they have a lot of nationalist feeling against the regime.
Fourth, the Sunni Muslims, the constituency for revolutionary Islamism,
also provide a large part of the middle class, secular-oriented,
pro-democracy movement, thus providing a strong alternative leadership.
Consider that Islamism has never made big inroads within the Sunni
Muslim community of Lebanon. The parallel is far from exact but gives a
sense of that situation.
Fifth, my sense is that, in Syria, there is a stronger pro-democratic
middle class and a relatively more urbanized population. Having lived
under a dictatorship that used Islamism to stay in power – like Iran but
unlike Egypt – people are more skeptical of that doctrine.
I don’t mean to suggest that Islamists are unimportant and might not
emerge as leading forces, but, roughly speaking, I would bet that while
the level of support for Islamism in Egypt is at around 30% – and has a
tremendous capacity for growth – the equivalent number for Syria is
about 15% and is naturally limited by the size of the community.
As to what will happen, there will come a moment of truth. One sign of
that would be the eruption of serious demonstrations in Damascus.
Another would be if inter-communal strife began or if there was any real
sign of a split within the army.
Remember that all the Arab regimes have a three-level priority of response.
Level 1: Wait out the protests in the hope that they will go away.
Level 2: Respond with a mixture of repression and promises.
Level 3: Go to heavy repression, including killing civilians in order to
destroy the protests and intimidate people from participating.
The shah’s Iran in 1978, as well as Egypt and Tunisia in 2011, did not
go from Level 2 to Level 3 because large elements in the elite did not
want to do so. In contrast, in Iran, everyone knew that the regime would
not hesitate to go to Level 3.
The moment of truth on this point has not yet come for Syria. When it
does, the regime will either respond ruthlessly, indifferent to
international reaction, or will lose its nerve. All of the nonsense
about Bashar as a reformer or about the existence of an alleged “old
guard” will disintegrate real fast.
Does Bashar have the killer instinct like dear old dad, or is he just a
wimpy eye doctor? Assad means lion in Arabic, and Bashar will either
have to bite and scratch or be quickly perceived as a cowardly cub. And
that would be fatal.
There’s no third alternative. If he falters, the demonstrations will
grow bigger very quickly. Would the army, and especially the elite
Alawite-dominated units, step in for him and take over? Possibly.
For the moment, though, the case for cheering on and helping the Syrian
revolution is stronger than that of Libya by far. But by the same token,
its prospects are poorer than in Egypt or Tunisia precisely because
those states were more moderate than the ruthless, radical Syrian
The writer is director of the Global
Research in International Affairs Center (www.gloria-center.org) and
editor of Middle East Review of International Affairs Journal and
Turkish Studies. He blogs at www.rubinreports.blogspot.com