Syria's Next Problem
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Syria's Next Problem


Sectarian conflict might dominate coverage of Syria today, but internal Sunni dynamics will define its tomorrow. Tensions between Alawis and Sunnis won’t be settled over night, but the demographics in Syria do not suggest a prolonged conflict similar to Iraq or Lebanon.

Unlike those countries, Syria is overwhelmingly Sunni (~75%) and Bashar al-Assad’s fate rests on their support. Over the last two years, the strategic alliance between Assad and the Sunni elite has eroded significantly. Assad’s former Syrian-Sunni allies are now some of his opponent’s most important financial contributors. Russia seemingly hedging its bets on Syria’s future, and the United States attempting to raise its profile on the issue bothindicate that post-Assad preparations are being made.

After almost two years since the rebellion began, over 44,000 have been killed, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. According to press accounts and my personal observations during a recent trip to the Syrian/Turkey border as part of Truman Project's Democracy and Human Rights Initiative, the rebels control much of Syria’s north, including most of the border with Turkey, significant portions of Aleppo, and are steadily making a push for Damascus, the final prize. Even Assad’s deputies have cynically taken to the airwaves to advocate for a political resolution, an unlikely proposition at this stage.

An impending power vacuum is inevitable so focus must shift to the competitors aiming to fill that space. The common consensus is that the opposition’s political and military factions are poised to battle for authority. In reality, this competition highlights a more fundamental confrontation: traditionalist Sunnism versus its more puritanical Salafi strain. The Syrian coalition understands this with their perspicacious selection of Mu’az al-Khatib to lead the opposition: the former head imam at Umayyad Masjid, the country’s most important religious site and the fourth holiest site in Islam. Al-Khatib, a Sunni traditionalist, can counter the growing appeal of Salafism. Rebel militias are dominated by an ideological spectrum of Salafi fighters, but are united by both the cause and their interpretive approach to Islam’s foundational texts. Despite Salafism never having mass appeal in Syrian society, there is potential for that to change.

Most traditionalists are loath to accept this, but admit a prolonged conflict favors the Salafis. They argue that Syrian society has never been receptive to Salafi ideology, despite hosting some of its intellectual heavyweights, like Nasr al-Din al-Albani. Traditionalists argue that people reject Salafi rigidity and its intolerance of Syria’s historically pluralistic society. The Salafis rely on one powerful counterpoint: the people will reward them for the blood they are shedding. In other words, while the traditional scholarly class enjoyed the safety of privilege both inside and in exile, the Salafis languished in Assad’s prisons and ran the revolution’s frontlines.   

To some degree, these are all valid points. Salafis do dominate the fighting force, but revolutions only involve a fraction of the people; elections involve many more. As Egypt has taught us, people’s support for revolution is not always an endorsement of the revolutionaries. It is also true that Salafism has never had mass appeal in Syria and, more importantly, opposition to it has been rooted less in sensational caricatures than in its religious heterodoxy. Yet, prolonged conflict changes a society. Already support for Salafis appears to be far higher than before; people may not always reward revolutionaries, but they don’t often discard them either.

As the war continues, Salafis are being defined by new stereotypes. They have cast themselves as relics of fabled medieval Islamic warriors. They promote discipline in their ranks, impose law and order in the territory they control, race to the front of battle and seek permission before entering homes. As a result, they embody the noblest characteristics of the Islamic past: devotion, piety, fearlessness and honor. The revolution is rebranding Syrian Salafis, even the extreme ones.

Why does this all matter? Simply put: Salafi fighters are numerically insignificant without popular support. The United States’ recent labeling of Jabhat al-Nusra, the most prominent Salafi militia, as a terrorist group only bolstered its mass appeal. As the conflict prolongs, the Sunni balance of power will shift resulting in serious long-term consequences. A speedy end to the conflict must be the highest priority.

To this end, leaving aside contentious issues of no-fly zones and arming rebels, there are other steps that can be taken.

First, we should increase our support for local councils in opposition-held northern Syria. Not only is the north a vital safe haven for Syrian civilians, but its security will contribute to Syria’s future stability.

Second, we must engage in symbolic acts of public diplomacy. Ambassador Robert Ford’s early visits of solidarity and vocal support of the opposition still resonate with Syrians. The absence of such bold acts has hurt American credibility. High profile visits to refugee camps or inviting Mu’az al-Khatib to the White House would demonstrate our commitment to the Syrian people while isolating the Assad regime. 

Finally, a forward-located embassy near the Syrian border in Jordan or Turkey would not only demonstrate serious engagement, but would increase our effectiveness in resolving the conflict. The end of Assad’s regime is inevitable. How much time it takes to occur, however, will not only mean lives lost, but how greatly Syrian society is altered.

Adnan A. Zulfiqar is a Fellow at the Truman National Security Project. He previously lived in Syria (2002, 2007 and 2008), and recently returned from the Turkish/Syrian border as part of Truman's Democracy and Human Rights Initiative.

Wim Roffel
December 27, 2012 at 22:20

The article assumes that the Salafists and other extremists will quietly wait in the sidelines to be beaten at the first elections. They won't. They don't recognize elections and democracy as a legitimate way of government. And as we can see in North Africa (in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia) they are prone to use armed mobs to impose their will – starting with the closure of alcohol shops but including more intruding demands like pressure on women to veil themselves. There are already reports from Syria about such pressure. Also note that all recent elections in Egypt were marred by accusations of fraud.
Until recently Al-Nusra was reported to keep itself invisible. They did not mix with the population, didn't allow themselves to be photographed and evaded journalists. Recently that has suddenly changed in that they take an active role in government. We see also demonstrations on Al-Jazeera accusing the FSA to be corrupt thieves and demanding to be ruled by Al-Nusra. 
This raises the question why Al-Nusra is stepping forward. I am afraid it is because the FSA proved inadequate in ruling the area it had conquered. This has little to do with money and sending more money to them will change little. It is because these are basically just bands of discontented farmers who would long ago have been defeated if it hadn't been for massive foreign support with arms and money. But they don't have the conpetence to rule a large area and as a consequence there is lots of banditism in the areas they control and their organization has been infected by bandits and corruption as well. And so Al-Nusra steps in. Although no one knows who controls it, it is clearly a highly disciplined hierarchical organization.

December 25, 2012 at 09:10

Finally someone who understands Syria!!  Thank you for this great article.  I am sick and tired of all those pseudo-Syria experts who know zilch and start pontificating all sorts of garbage.  Please keep writing and explaining.

Antonio de Martini
December 25, 2012 at 09:05

How long a comment has to wait in order to receive clearance or be rejected? Thank you.

Antonio de Martini
December 25, 2012 at 01:51

My I suggest you , next time, to cross the Turkish border and enter Syrian territory? You might discover a few facts that can change your  present point of view .
1) the cartel that is ruling Syria is approximately 30% of the population (  Alawis, Shia , Christians of different faiths and minor sects). The remaining 70% of Sunnis is parted between the regime ( 50%) and those in favour of a change ( 20%). This 20% minority is divided among " western democrats" (5%?) and Muslim loyal to Sunni Imams ( 10% probably, most of them flying the war in Jordan, Lebanon ) and a 5%  funded by Saudi Arabia  showing a salafist, medieval religiosity.  Roughly, this makes a 65% majority for Assad regime.
2) the repression of Syrian pro Assad forces is very heavy, due to the military  training and doctrine  received by Russian advisors: " if in a building there is a sniper, destroy the entire  building regardless of the collateral damages".
3) this rough attitude has caused many casualties even if not as many calculated – from London – by the Syrian observatory  that has nothing to do with internationally recognised organisations .
4) in this situation, a shift of the balance of forces could happen  only if – as in Lybia – an air support is given by NATO to the Syrian Liberation Army( or by US Air Force). We both know that this will not happen. The situation is similar to what happened in 1960 ( Cuba, pig's bay) or with the Iraqi Kurds in 1991.  No air support, no victory. The Syrian anti aircraft equipment is too modern and  western Air Force can have heavy losses.
5) as you visited the Turkish side , you might be aware that the Turkish military are not eager to open a second front  on top of the Kurdish insurgents on the Iraqi frontier , not to say that they have a long frontier with Iran ( and Iranian Kurds).
6) in this situation every hope of a quick military solution is  impossible, a sniper  or bomb attack against Assad , or family, is difficult to replicate and a coup d'état  from the army  out of question. There has been too much bloodshed  and comrades to revenge.  It's time to think the unthinkable: a political compromise with Assad before  being involved with the salafist embarrassing company.
7) remember what Rabin said once: "peace is made with enemies, not with friends."  Have a peaceful Xmas night.
Antonio de Martini  

Mark Sleboda
December 23, 2012 at 02:25

And what of Syria's significant minorities – the Allawites, Christians, Kurds, Druze, Circassians, Turkmen etc – when and if this Sunni largely religiously motivated revolution supported by the West and their dicatorial allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council takes Damascus. We are already seeing regular acts of ethnic cleansing by the jihadists and Sunni sectarians who make up the FSA, Al-Nusra, and other fractious Sunni sectarian forces? Even if Damascus is taken and Assad murdered like Quaddafi the violence will not stop. It is likely that the violence and ethnic cleansing will only accelerate and become more frenzied. The Christian and Allawite minorites know full well that this for them is a war for their homes and survival. They already saw 600,000 Christians flee the Western 'liberation' of Iraq to Syria amidst the orgy of violence and ethno-relgious hatred. They know what is coming. And they have nowwhere left to run…

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