The Assad regime is certainly a brutal and merciless regime when it comes to stifling any internal dissent or throwing its weight around neighboring countries. Few have forgotten the multipronged misery caused to the Lebanese by Syria’s nearly three-decade long occupation of their country. But today the larger and intricately nuanced picture needs to be kept in mind as one contemplates Syria’s future while the situation inside the country unravels with daily bloodshed and expanding violence. By all indications, Assad’s demise does not seem imminent. Sadly for the civilian population of Syria the internal strife there is most likely going to fester with a rise over time in innocent casualties.
On the plus side the eventual fall of this regime will weaken the emerging radical Shiite axis extending from Iran’s Qom to Hezbollah strongholds in southern Lebanon and on the Mediterranean. And as is the case with other Arab countries experiencing change the hope remains that some form of liberal democratic rule will eventually replace a homegrown despotism. However, the dangers of things going horribly wrong remain very palpable and should not be brushed aside. Bringing down a dictatorship may be measured in weeks, months, and in some cases years, but building a viable democracy is a generational project, especially in an environment like the Arab east that has been largely freedom-starved for most of its history and inhospitable to pluralist political self-fulfillment.
Uppermost among the perils besetting both the Arab Spring as a whole and Syria in particular is the slippery slope towards Islamism, Salafism, and Jihadism. Fears expressed by native minority communities in Syria and elsewhere—Christians, Druze, Alawis, others—about such a scary prospect are not exaggerated hallucinations born of fertile imaginations. Nor are they indications of latent “support” for the dying murderous dictatorships, an accusation leveled unjustly at these communities. Trends in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya don’t appear encouraging when one measures the mounting gains of the Islamists. The example of the decimation of Iraq’s Christian communities since 2003 is still fresh in everyone’s mind. Tragically, prospects for these minority communities are often of the “frying-pan-to-the-fire” variety: a choice between bad and worse.
Success or failure of the Arab Spring, which encompasses the outcome in Syria, has always hinged on whether Sunni moderation will be able to prevail in the face of emboldened, well organized, and funded Islamist agendas. There lingers deep and justified skepticism with regard to the durability and robustness of such moderation. With the open entry of Al-Qaeda into the fray the lack of reassurance about the moderates’ staying power soars. Given the toxicity of Saudi Arabian policies generally when Wahhabi motivations are factored, every policy line advocated by the Kingdom elevates suspicions throughout the region. One would have expected Turkey to play a more decisive role in resolving the Syrian impasse, but anti-Assad rhetoric from Ankara seems to have peaked and any unilateral military intervention ruled out.
What should the US and the West do? More vigorous attempts are required to get the Russians on board for a comprehensive deal over Syria. Turkey remains a key player however one views the situation, and a proactive Turkish intervention with support from the international community must be fashioned—perhaps as the spearhead of an international peace-keeping force. The fears expressed by Syria’s minorities must be addressed because they will adversely impact everyone near and far if they are actualized. Again, success of the Arab Spring rests in large part on the treatment of these native Muslim and non-Muslim minority communities. Finally, bold geopolitical thinking that contemplates creative federal solutions to the internal tensions pervading the Middle East’s heterogeneous and divided societies need to be advanced with a view to ensuring long-term stability and providing adequate opportunities for authentic communal self-expression. This is the only way to guard against that infernal slippery slope towards religious militancy.
Habib C. Malik is Associate Professor of History at the Byblos campus of the Lebanese American University
This post is part of The Caravan, a periodic discussion on the contemporary dilemmas of the Greater Middle East. Other commentary in this symposium on Syria is provided by Charles Hill, Itamar Rabinovich, Habib Malik, Russell Berman, Nibras Kazimi, Abbas Milani, Joel Rayburn, Josh Teitelbaum, Reuel Gerecht, Asli Aydintasbas, Camille Pecastaing, and Fouad Ajami.