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International American Council
Middle East and North Africa

The fastest end to the Syrian civil war may be ethnic reconciliation

For the past few weeks, the focus in the international discourse on the Syrian civil war has focused on one question—will they or won’t they? Will the United States impose a no-fly zone over Syrian airspace or perform other direct interventionist actions, or will it merely continue sending light arms and ammunition to the rebels? U.S. President Barack Obama has been vacillating recently on his stance, and the world is waiting with baited breath for the ultimate outcome. The global community has criticized, contested, cajoled—but all eyes are now turned to the U.S. and the international community, and not to Syria itself.

However, the importance of U.S. intervention may actually be a red herring in meaningfully solving the conflict in Syria. After all, it is not unreasonable to assume that because this is a Syrian issue, there ought to be a Syrian solution to resolve it. The negative consequences of tossing foreign military intervention into a country without enough meditation on the roots of the conflict can be seen plainly in Afghanistan and Iraq today, and Vietnam forty years ago.

So if there is, in fact, a viable domestic resolution to the conflict, the question shifts from a U.S.-centered “Will they or won’t they?” to a Syria-centered “How can this nation heal itself?”

One of the key reasons for the stickiness of this conflict, which has been dragging on with nary a light at the end of the tunnel since March 2011, is the demographics of the country itself. Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, and his backing ruling Ba’ath Party are Shi’a Muslims from the Alawi sect, which makes up 12 percent of Syria’s population. This makes the Assad regime a minority government—74 percent of Syrians are Sunni Muslims. Although Alawis and Sunnis differ theologically, in Syria the issue is not religion in and of itself, but rather the strong social divides it has engendered.

In the mid-20th century, the Alawis, who had been relatively disenfranchised under the Ottoman sultans and local sheikhs, used the Ba’ath Party, a pan-Arab socialist group, as a means to gain more power and protection. The alliance of the religious group with the ruling Ba’ath Party led to the rapid development of a professional class of economically powerful and well-educated Alawis.

This began to breed resentment within the Sunni majority, and the ascension of Assad’s father Hafez al-Assad to the presidential office in 1971 solidified the resentment even further. A Muslim Brotherhood-led series of uprisings against the first Assad regime, dominated primarily by Sunni Muslims, was one of the major domestic events of the late 1970s and early 1980s in Syria, culminating in the Hama massacre of 1982. These events have set the tone for Sunni-Alawi relations in the Syrian civil war thirty years later.

Within the civil war itself, most (but not all) Alawis have remained loyal to the Assad regime; some partially out of fear of Sunni retribution, as they saw in the Islamist uprisings three decades ago. 12 percent of the population might not seem like a great number, but when the 12 percent holds most of the military, political, and security power, it makes it difficult for the Sunni majority—not all of which are rebels—to win any sort of decisive victory.

For this reason, reconciliation between the Sunnis and the Alawis, along with the rest of the Syrian population, could be key to resolving the Syrian conflict without foreign intervention. This might mean one of two things—either the Sunni population, or a larger portion of it, turns against the rebels and reverts back to supporting the Assad regime, or most of the Alawis reject the Ba’ath Party and the central government, and throw in their support with the opposition. On a simple numbers level—and especially because Assad’s repressive regime tactics are not exactly popular even among the Alawis—it seems as if the latter option is more likely.

It may seem simplistic to reduce the people of Syria to Sunnis versus Alawis. After all, we all have many different identifying features. Some of us are wealthy, and some are poor; some are educated, some are not; some live in cities, while others live in rural areas. We all have different background and personalities that make us truly unique, and not just one of a number in our ethnoreligious group. But the Sunni-Alawi cleavage has been reinforced by so many factors, both socioeconomic and historical, that its importance in the Syrian conflict cannot really be overstated, and a bridging of this cleavage could mean peace and reconciliation.

How to get to this reconciliation is another issue altogether. All sections of Syrian society have been mired in this civil war for so long that prejudices are stronger than ever. Many Alawis believe that, after two years of violence, the Assad regime is the only thing keeping them safe. Even Alawis who had not explicitly supported the regime were at times attacked by Sunni rebels, leading them to support Assad more staunchly. But most ordinary Syrians are sick of war, which may be enough for them to try to stop it. It is hard to say what path the Alawi people will take as the civil war drags on. But their loyalty to the Assad regime—or lack thereof—will be the most crucial domestic element for war or peace.

By Laura Gates

Source: The Washington Post, The New York Times, NPR, Foreign Policy, Minority Rights Group International

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