By Dr. Najib E. Saliba
Since the beginning of February (2011), much international attention has been focused on the so-called Arab Spring, a term coined by the Western media and applied to the series of uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and then Syria. Unlike Tunisia and Egypt whose regimes’ continuity depended on Western backing, the Syrian regime drew its support from the loyalty of its armed forces, the Ba ‘th party, political groups affiliated with the Ba ‘th, and the Arab nationalist ideology the Syrian regime has stood for since the end of the French mandate, if not before. Of all the Arab states Syria believes it has a special mission in the Arab World. It considers itself the heartbeat of Arab nationalism. This idea rests on historical factors and modern ones as well.
Historically, Damascus served as the capital of the Umayyad Caliphate for almost a century. The Umayyad Caliphate prided itself on having been the most unadulterated Arab state in history, and controlled a sprawling empire stretching from central Asia in the east to Spain, Andalus, in the west. Damascus was the administrative center of this empire, and Syrians have drawn much inspiration and pride from that. The famous Umayyad Mosque, built in the beginning of the 8th century A.D. still stands in the heart of Damascus.
Modern factors inspiring Syria’s role in the Arab world today pertain to the rise of the idea of Arab nationalism. The idea of Arab nationalism might have begun in Beirut toward the end of the 19th century, but by WWI it had become centered in Damascus. The Damascus Protocol which formed the basis of Sharif Husain’s secret negotiations with the British government in 1914-15 was put together in Damascus. The resolutions of the Syrian Congress of 1919 which were communicated to Woodrow Wilson’s King-Crane Commission were passed in Damascus. It is important to know that the Syrian Congress of 1919 was representative of all the people of Greater or Geographical Syria with little exception. Yusuf al-‘ Azmeh, Defense Minister of Amir Faisal, son of Sharif Husain, was the first Arab defense minister, perhaps the only one, to die in battle fighting French imperialism at the gates of Damascus in July 1920. These factors have inspired and influenced Syria’s domestic and foreign policy long before the Ba’th party came to power in 1963. If we fail to take them into consideration, then we fail to understand Syria’s behavior. These very factors are also at play today in the current confrontation between the Syrian regime and its opposition, backed by the Western powers, namely the U.S., France, Britain, Italy, etc.
Who is the Syrian opposition? What is it composed of, and what does it stand for? The Syrian opposition is an amorphous assortment of individuals and political-religious groups that defy identification. It has no unity, no structure, and no united leadership to articulate its objectives. The only well-identifiable part of this opposition with a clear program is the Muslim Brotherhood, which is an offshoot of the original Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt, established by Hasan al-Banna, a schoolteacher, in 1928. Its objective, as articulated by Banna, was and perhaps still is, the establishment of a Muslim state based on the Qur’an and the Shari’ah. Its slogan has always been “Islam is the solution”. The Brotherhood has had a violent history, was banned and suppressed in Egypt, and is currently banned in Syria where a membership in the Brotherhood carries a death sentence. In spite of this, the Brotherhood has been the standard bearer of the opposition to the Asad regime.
Besides the Brotherhood, the opposition includes groups and individuals in exile. In the U.S. there is the so-called “the Reform Party” led by Farid Ghadry, who reportedly visited Israel more than once. In Paris, there is the “lslamist Movement for Justice and Development” of unknown leadership. Paris is also the residence of the former Vice President of Syria ‘Abd ai-Halim Khaddam, who had served President Hafiz ai-Asad and his son loyally until he had a fall out with President Bashshar in 2005. Since Then, he has lived in Paris where he established the “National Salvation Front” (2006), composed mainly of Muslim Brothers. On September 5, 2011, Khaddam called for foreign military intervention in Syria, claiming that “military intervention is not occupation”. In London, there is also an opposition group, which started a television program aimed at Syria not too long ago.
Collectively, the Syrian opposition is not monolithic, and includes many shades of color, ethnicities, and opinions. Some are moderate and willing to dialogue with the regime, others are extremists and settle for nothing short of the fall of the regime. At least two attempts have been made to bring some coherence and unity to the opposition movement. About 300 opposition figures converged on Antalya, southern Turkey, for a meeting in late May-early June. They came from many places: Europe, the U.S., Australia and Syria. They were predominately Sunni Muslims, as the whole opposition movement is, with little representation of other religious minorities: Alawites, Christians and Druze. They tried to forge a united vision of the Syria of the future. Some argued that Syria should be a democratic secular state with equal rights and duties for all citizens under a secular constitution. Others objected, equating secularism with atheism, and advocated a stronger role for religion in state and society. Attendees could not agree and the meeting ended without a joint statement. The second meeting took place in Istanbul but was no more successful than the first. At the second meeting new cracks appeared in the opposition movement. Tension was apparent between dissidents in exile and those from within Syria. Kurdish delegates argued for the omission of the word “Arab” from Syria’s name: The Syrian Arab Republic. When they failed, they left the meeting. Secular dissidents raised questions about Turkey’s intentions in hosting both meetings. They suspected that Turkey had lslamist intentions. Meanwhile, preparations for a third meeting are underway.
Will the Syrian opposition bring the regime down? Although it is difficult to foretell the future, I do not believe the Syrian opposition is capable of bringing the regime down on its own, unless there is a split in the armed forces, which at the moment seems unlikely. Despite some six months of demonstrations, propaganda, Western sanctions and backing, the opposition has little to show besides remaining in the streets. The armed forces have maintained solidarity, and there has been little or no disaffection within the regime. Furthermore, the Syrian regime is not without support domestically. It is backed by the military as already mentioned, and probably by more than 50 percent of the people, including Alawites, Christians and Druze. Not even all Sunni Muslims are against the regime. The Sunni business class of Damascus and Aleppo, along with important Sunni clerics, back the regime. Additionally, the Asad regime is not exclusively Alawite. It has never been. Sunnis, Christians and Druze have always been part of the regime. Moreover, Syrians question the nature and motives of the opposition. How can they entrust their future to a disparate opposition, which can’t get its act together and present a coherent program? How can they trust an opposition that is backed by three Western powers despite their negative history in the Arab world?
Incidentally, the same Western powers that back the Syrian opposition have backed the Libyan rebels, and they have already started bickering over the division of Libyan oil!
Should it happen, and the Syrian regime falls to domestic forces, who will rule Syria? Clearly, the Muslim Brothers are best positioned to be the main beneficiaries. They are the most organized and have been the most repressed. They may form a coalition cabinet, but will it last? How long will it take before the revolutionaries turn against one another as happened time and again? If the Ba’th party is dissolved and purged from the army and the people, as is likely to happen and as happened in Iraq, we may have a long period of instability, settlement of old account’s, and perhaps a sectarian civil war. The Ba’ th has ruled Syria since 1963, and firmly, since 1970. The new rulers will lack its expertise and experience in government, as happened in Iraq.
Should the Syrian regime fall as a result of foreign military intervention, then the implications are enormous, not only for Syria, but the whole region. Lebanon stands to be affected first immediately and directly. The Lebanese population is almost evenly divided pro- and anti -Syria. Anti -Syrian forces are pro Saudi Arabia and pro-West. Their leader is Sa’d Hariri, the former Prime Minister. Pro-Syrian and pro-Iranian forces back the current Lebanese government under Najib Miqati. The fall of the Syrian regime will encourage anti-Syrian and pro-West forces to take to the streets demanding the ouster of Prime Minister Miqati and his government, and the return of Sa’d Hariri to the premiership. This may not happen peacefully and will almost certainly lead to violence. There is already an ugly cold war going on between the two groups. In case of violence breaking out, Hizbollah will be involved and probably Iran as well. Should this or part of this come to pass, it is difficult to imagine Israel or the Western powers, or both, will remain uninvolved. The net result may well be the re-division of the Middle East as happened in WWI.
© Najib E. Saliba is Professor of Middle East History at Worcester State University. This paper was presented at the Kennedy School for Government, Harvard University