Neither the removal of the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons nor a surge in the Gulf’s financial, arms, and logistical support to the Syrian rebels would dramatically alter the dynamics of the Syrian civil war. Violence by the power nexus that has developed around the Al-Assads in the past four decades, and by the jihadist groups resisting the regime, is here to stay. Irrespective of which side will manage in the medium term to sustain some sort of military dominance, the outcome of the war will almost certainly be a fractured Syria with a semblance of authority in Damascus, surrounded by cantons of power divided along sectarian and ethnic lines.
Syria’s future, however, will not depend on the actors that will dominate specific parts of the country in the medium term. Two other factors are more crucial: how the largest segments of the society will define Syria; and how that social view would affect sectarianism in the country.
Modern Syria, like other eastern Mediterranean countries, was the product of the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement between Britain and France in which the two powers divided the Arab world into respective spheres of influence. But unlike other Eastern Mediterranean countries, the historical Syrian state—which commanded the entire northern part of the Levant from the Tiberius Lake to the Torros Mountains—is not a new creation; it dates centuries back. The defining characteristics of this state, however, varied across the ages.
In the four centuries from the beginning of the sixteenth century (when the Ottomans annexed the Levant in 1517) to the late nineteenth (the birth of the modern Syrian state), the country was the bulwark of Sunni Islamism in the eastern Mediterranean. Sykes-Picot divided the Levant on a sectarian basis: Lebanon was envisioned as a haven for Christians (especially Maronites) and Druze; Palestine with a sizable Jewish community; the Bekaa valley, on the border between the two countries, effectively left to Shia Muslims; leaving Syria with the region’s largest sectarian demographic: Sunni Muslims.
Geography helped. For the period from the end of the Crusades up until the arrival of the European powers in the late nineteenth century, and despite the region’s vibrant trading culture, the different sects effectively lived separate from each other. The Maorinites and the Druze dominated Mount Lebanon; the Shias scattered in the region’s southern valleys, the Alawites in the hills surrounding Latakia, and the Sunnis in the relatively large urban centres of the region, Beirut and Damascus.
This sectarianism meant that different parts of the eastern Mediterranean gradually developed distinctive characters. With a clear Sunni Muslim majority, the regions that form today’s Syria gradually took a Sunni Islamic feel, in the same way that, for example, Mount Lebanon developed a Catholic milieu.
Economics cemented sectarianism. As European influence rose in the region, several groups leveraged on their religious affiliations with the European powers to gain trading privileges. In the first few decades of the twentieth century, for example, being a Maronite carried with it advantages in international trading and securing credit.
For a period, cosmopolitanism shrouded sectarianism. A thriving trading culture and the existence of scores of established merchant families from Christian, Druze, Armenian, Jewish, Persian, and Greek origins made Damascus and Aleppo prosperous, cosmopolitan, and urbanised. But this pluralistic scene floated above a dominant Sunni Islamic culture, especially in the interiors, rural, and suburban parts of the country, and which were slowly but steadily creeping to the margins of these flourishing cities.
This Sunni Islamic identity has been suppressed throughout the past century. In the aftermath of the First World War, Britain awarded Syria to the Hashemites; and though the Hashemites base their legitimacy on their descent from the Prophet Mohammed, they were keen to anchor their rule in their new kingdoms in the eastern Mediterranean on the notion they championed in their revolt against the Turkish Ottomans in the 1920s: Arab nationalism. From the 1930s to the 1950s, Syria endured successive coup d’états that brought to power five militarist regimes in less than three decades. All of them sought to establish some sort of legitimacy, also through championing Arab nationalism. At the end of the 1950s, and after the 1956 Suez-crisis catapulted the Nasserite version of Arab nationalism to the stratosphere, the military cabal that controlled Syria at that time almost begged Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser to accept their country as the “northern province” in a United Arab Republic. This venture collapsed less than three years later, but Syria was to endure another decade under warring generals, until a steely army commander by the name of Hafez Al-Assad orchestrated a power grab that sidelined the different sparring officers and quickly cemented his control over the country. Three decades later his son Bashar inherited the country after the original heir designate (Hafez’s eldest son) died in a car crash.
The descent of Hafez’s regime into corruption, despotism, extreme violence, and eventually dynastic succession, meant that he had to rely on a power structure based on personal loyalty and familial allegiance. His son Bashar followed suit. The Alawites, the sect the Al-Assads belong to, began to command immense and unrivalled power. The Al-Assad regime evolved into a sectarian power nexus maintaining control only through centralising and monopolising power.
In 2011, when the revolt against the Al-Assads sprialed into a civil war, a deep division in the Syrian society opened up. At the surface, there is a ferocious strife between segments that want a return to calm and stability, even if under dictatorship, and segments that believe the prize of liberation from the Al-Assads’ power system is worth the price in blood and chaos.
But there is a deeper divide, one that will fundamentally shape Syria’s future. On the one hand are those advocating the continuation of classic Arab nationalism as the overriding Syrian identity—one that encompasses all sects and rises above social schisms, in sync with the country’s history in the last one hundred years. On the other hand are those who believe that Arab nationalism was a top-down ideology forced upon the lower middle class and poor whose genuine choice would be a country with a historical Sunni Islamist character. At heart, this is a struggle between those who believe that the modern Syrian state that has existed from the end of the First World War should be preserved and those who believe that this state was a historical aberration in the flow of the previous five centuries: Syria as the land of Sunni Islamism in a sectarian-split Eastern Mediterranean.
Both views have credible justifications in this country’s rich past. The difference is the length of arc casted over history.
Neither Bashar Al-Assad nor the leaders of the fighting rebel groups, (and certainly not the political representatives of the Syrian opposition) can impose their answer to this identity question. Only the Syrian people can—through elections, the drafting of a national constitution, and the normal evolution of a functioning civil society and a free cultural scene.
Amid the current mayhem, these mechanisms are now impossible to undertake. Two momentous risks exist. First, a significant part of the fighters against the Al-Assad regime are non Syrians—jihadists from Yemen, North Africa, and the Caucasus, who are killing in order to establish a Sunni Islamic state that has nothing to do with Syria’s own Sunni heritage. Second, this sectarian war is being exacerbated by the region-wide cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Geopolitics is complicating the already highly fraught Syrian situation.
The longer this war and these risks persist, the more difficult it would be for a solution to emerge through a peaceful political process. Meanwhile ordinary Syrians continue to be excluded from the struggle over their future.
Given Syria’s demographic weight and the social and cultural links the country has always had with Lebanon and Jordan, this struggle will very likely spread to the rest of the Levant, plunging the entire eastern Mediterranean into chaos. The solution rests on three action lines.
First, end the regional and international tolerance of the existence of terrorist jihadist groups in the country. The financial and logistical backers of these groups should learn from their experience in supporting the Mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980s, who for two decades after the end of their war with the Soviet Union, terrorized the entire Middle East. Irrespective of the result of this war, if these groups entrench themselves in the country, they would irrevocably wreak havoc on Syria and the entire region.
Second, sideline Bashar Al-Assad, and arrive at a bargain with the key powers in the regime that guarantees them and their families safe—and very comfortable—exits. This would shift their perspective from fighting an existential war to cutting their losses.
And third, use the nascent attempts at goodwill between Iran and the West to demand that Iran stops its direct involvement in the war as the Gulf powers cease their support for the Sunni jihadists in Syria. Eliminating the jihadists and the fighting powers in the Al-Assad regime would allow for establishing the circumstances through which Syrians would gradually settle their society’s identity question. And the lesson from the experience of the past century is that international powers should not design the outcomes—or the entities that are to inherit the future. Let the Syrians do so.