Syria: Liberation or catastrophe?

The time for preventing all-out sectarian warfare appears to have passed.

syria protests violence damascus
The Syrian uprising has begun to devolve from peaceful protests into civil war [REUTERS]

Washington, DC – One could make a compelling case that the situation in Syria is developing into everyone’s worst-case scenario, a disaster in which no one wins, and everyone loses – in Syria, in the wider region, and beyond.

The Assad regime shows every sign of fighting to the end, but the nature of that end cannot be in doubt. There is every reasonable expectation that the final images of Bashar will be like those of Ceausescu, or of Najibullah, or of Gaddafi. Inevitability, however, does not equate with ease, and the path to the Assad family’s ultimate destruction will surely be one of unrelieved violence and waste.

 Syrian army defector speaks to Al Jazeera

For all that we might have wished to see a united, non-sectarian opposition to the bloody ruling clique in Damascus, and for all that some outside powers have tried to condition support for the opposition Syrian National Council on their ability to incorporate minorities, the time for preventing all-out sectarian warfare appears to have passed. The cynical designs of the Assads have played out precisely as intended; the Alawite minority sees – and, increasingly, is being given – no alternative between continued support of the regime and the vengeance of a Sunni-dominated opposition. As the opposition continues to gain, however uneven its progress over time, the revenge-taking which has already begun will surely become more cruel and more widespread.

What had begun as noble, peaceful civilian resistance to oppression has now devolved, as the regime’s brutality has dictated it must, into bloody civil warfare, with ever more Syrian military personnel deciding to heed the oath they have given to protect the Syrian people by turning their weapons on their former masters. And as more of the civil population shows itself solidly in support of armed oppositionists, the logic of Syrian repression dictates ever greater resort to indiscriminate use of heavy weapons against entire neighbourhoods, towns and cities.

Many have foreseen what now appear to be clear, if nascent, signs that the conflict is both spreading to and drawing in outside regional actors. Sunni-Alawi violence has broken out in Tripoli, Lebanon. The Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood has made a call for volunteers to cross the Syrian frontier. Tribal leaders in Iraq’s Anbar province feel duty-bound to come to the aid of co-religionists to the west, perhaps seeing in this an opportunity, as well, to strike a proxy blow against the Persians whose influence they hold responsible for many of their problems at home.

The first signs of “terrorist” infiltration in Syria came in late December and early January, as some 70 people were killed in mysterious explosions in Damascus. And now, just as two suicide bombings have struck regime compounds in Aleppo in recent days, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has issued a call to Muslims to make war on Bashar al-Assad. Such indications that Syria could become a magnet for regional extremists, much as Iraq was before it, are already giving western powers yet more reasons to avoid extending lethal assistance to the opposition.

But before we conclude that all reason has been lost in Syria, and that growing hostilities there will both immerse the region in conflict and promote a resurgence of al-Qaeda, perhaps a touch of perspective is in order.

There is no denying the likelihood of brutal, unrelieved sectarian recrimination in Syria.”

First of all, though the breakdown of security in Syria and the lure of jihad against a brutal secular regime will surely attract extremists of various stripes, both their numbers and their influence are likely to be marginal. However unpopular the Assad regime may be in some quarters, opposition to it is hardly the moral equivalent of a holy war to oust a perceived foreign invader. The importat of al-Qaeda tactics in the Syrian revolution, including suicide bombers and improvised explosive devices (IEDs), could well lead to greater brutality and an increase in civilian casualties, but the post-Arab Spring dynamics at work in Syria do not portend either political influence for al-Qaeda or a resurgence of its popularity. Syrians have enough means and motives of their own to bring down the Assad regime, and they are not inclined to see their national quest as part of a wider regional struggle in which they have a personal stake.

As for the outward spread of sectarian tensions from Syria, this, too, is likely to be of limited scope. The specific Sunni-Alawi confessional tensions which led to civil hostilities in Tripoli have a long pedigree, and do not apply elsewhere in Lebanon, let alone elsewhere in the region. Though Alawites may be considered to be belonging to a branch of Shi’a Islam, they are hardly embraced by mainstream Shi’a; the Iranian interest in protecting the Assad regime has little to do with religion, and much to do with geopolitics. By extension, the concern of Iraq’s Shi’a-dominated parties with events in Syria is based more on the desire to avoid antagonising a Persian patron than it does with interests intrinsic to Syria itself. Violence in Syria is unlikely to draw the wider region into conflict.

Of course, that is not to say that the wider region will be immune to events in Syria and their demonstration effect. Impressionable non-Syrian fighters, whether Muslim Brothers or others, once having become inured to the use of violence in pursuit of political goals, are unlikely to be as patient as they might otherwise have been in seeking democratic change when they return home.

And there is no denying the likelihood of brutal, unrelieved sectarian recrimination in Syria, both as the current struggle progresses and, perhaps especially, when it is over. One can only hope that both regional and international powers, Turkey and the Arab states prominent among them, will be able to use post-conflict aid and other levers of influence to help move at least some Syrians to follow the better angels of their nature, and to seek renewed national cohesion.   

No, the noble quest of the Syrians to throw off the yoke of political repression will not be without its grand tragedies and bitter unintended consequences, but the die has been cast, and there is no turning back. In the end, the rest of the world having stood aside, at least Syrians will have the satisfaction, as not all liberated people do, of knowing that they have been the agents of their own salvation.

Robert Grenier is a retired, 27-year veteran of the CIA’s Clandestine Service. He was Director of the CIA’s Counter-Terrorism Center from 2004 to 2006.