This week marks two important dates in the modern history of Syria. One: on March 8, 1963, 50 years ago, the Ba'ath Party took over in Syria in a bloodless coup, something that needs to be emphasized as we see the atrocious bloody drama unfolding in Syria these days, as this regime fights for survival against most of the people of Syria. The second: this week two years ago the anti-regime struggle started with the peaceful demonstrations in Der'aa in south Syria, quickly spreading throughout the country and becoming the Syrian civil war.
The first date may be remembered by few, but the second is surely remembered by many in Syria, with awe, fear and a lot of agony. The Syrian civil war has evolved, as was predicted so often in this blog, into a confrontation, the extent and brutality of which has dwarfed anything else that we have witnessed in the Middle East. The one element of the situation which seems to defy the odds is the ability of the regime to still sustain itself in large parts of Damascus, smaller parts of Aleppo and altogether in a significant, though dwindling portion of Syria's territory. This state of affairs requires an explanation.
In Syria, we do not witness an ideological struggle between right and left, between religious and secular, between one social group and another. What we see in Syria is all of the above, but far beyond, it is a sectarian war, the nature of which is such that the two main protagonists, the Alawite regime on the one hand, and the Sunni opposition on the other, are fighting for their own physical survival. This is a struggle for all or nothing, and it is the nature of such struggles, that they require the utmost levels of loyalty and motivation from the adversaries.
The Alawite regime fights in order not to subject the three million Alawites to a return to the status of religious pariahs forced upon them for a thousand years of life as a persecuted minority. To start with, most of the Alawites know that a Sunni regime Will not just doom them to an inferior religious status, much more ominously for them, it will put in danger their very existence, taking revenge for the last 50 years. Fighting to the end therefore is not an option for them, it is a must. So, they do whatever is in their power, and so long as the Syrian army, even after so many mass defections and internal disintegration, still throws to the battle 70,000-80,000 trained and motivated mostly-Alawite soldiers aided by what is left of the air force, they can prevent the Sunni rebels from achieving a decisive victory.
The rebels, for their part, cannot continue the fight without the support of the Sunni population. The fighters as well as the civilians have no illusions, that there can be any peaceful settlement with a regime which is constantly proving his readiness to kill en masse as a means of survival.
The regime is supported also by members of other non-Sunni communities, Christians included, and by elements of the bureaucracy and the Ba'ath Party, which still get paid by the government, but the Sunni masses are not going to change, and rediscover the "greatness" of Bashar Assad and Ba'athism. This story is over, and the question is, what story is still open, perhaps the greater question is, what Syria?
Syria as we know it in current maps, is for all intents and purposes a political fiction. There is no more one Syria, there are quite a few Syrias. In that regard, Bashar Assad may have a point. He keeps saying, that the "great game" of Turkey, the U.S., Saudi-Arabia and others is to divide Syria. Well, Syria is indeed divided, but the dictator should blame himself in the first place, as his policies made it impossible for any meaningful reform to take place in Syria, one that could have prevented the current calamity. But then, exactly because the regime has always been based on the Alawites and other minorities, it lacked any real desire for reforms which would have brought it down, if leading to a truly representative democratic regime.
So, we have today the Assad Syria, the Druze enclave in the south, an increasingly self-ruled Kurdish area in the northeast, and rebel-controlled territories in parts of the south, northwest and central Syria. These territories are ruled by factions and militias which do not necessarily see eye to eye the future of post-Assad Syria; in fact, they may be very divided in their outlook of the future.
In the absence of a military decision in the foreseeable future, Syria can continue to exist in a way not dissimilar to Lebanon. After the two years of civil war in 1975-6, the country was virtually fragmented, with a central government which failed to exert its authority over large parts of the land, controlled by sectarian militias. It took Lebanon 15 years to start a process of rebuilding its unified political Institutions. This process is far from over, and any talk about the building of civic society, one which would provide a sense of civil solidarity based on consensus, is just a talk. Lebanon is not there yet, not even close.
It is not a formula that should copy itself in Syria, and the circumstances are similar but not identical. Yet it is safe to say that Syria of the past is over, and a new Syria is still far from being. The people of Syria are in for much more suffering. Tragic, but sadly so realistic.