Why Syria isn’t likely to see an Islamist takeover

THE REGION: The tough repression of radical Islamists by the Assad regime has weakened their forces and made them less organized, unlike in Egypt.

Syria massacres protest 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Syria massacres protest 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
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 regime.

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