The latest reported defection of Syrian Vice-Prime Minister Faruq al-Shara has sharpened the nature of the struggle to control Syria’s and crystallized the fact that there is an ongoing civil war between competing Syrian sects.
President Assad’s Alawites, who control the army and the intelligence branches – the Mukhabarat – are fighting the Sunnis, who, while being the majority, lack the means to fight the mighty Syrian army and suffer from disharmony inside their leadership and disagree about the kind of Syria they want to arise out of Assad’s ashes.
Al-Shara’s departure signals the end of the Alawite-ruled Baath party, since he and other senior officials who defected, as Sunnis, provided Assad’s clan legitimacy with the Sunni majority. As a result, Assad’s regime is now split along sectarian fault lines. The Alawites have lost the glue that held the regime together, embodied by the radical pan-Arab Baathist ideology. The time has come to decide whether to fight for a united Syria at all costs, or to retreat to their home and haven in the Nusseiri Mountains overlooking the Mediterranean shore.
While it appears that the regime is fighting for Syria as a whole, some signs signal its preparation for an eventual split. The first of these signs comes from the northern Kurdish region, where the Syrian army has retreated and has allowed PKK allies to take over several cities near the Alawite region, while other areas have remained without a defined ruler altogether. This seeming yield of territory to the Kurds may serve the Alawites in the future, should they find themselves holed up in the Nusseiri Mountain and facing a vengeful Sunni majority. The Kurds will then likely remember they were granted their territory by the Alawites without any bloodshed.
However, the Kurds harbor bitter memories of the long history of persecution they suffered at the Baath Party’s hands. Furthermore, Assad does not enjoy the support of all Alawites. The silent minority of Assad’s opponents inside the Alawite community fears retribution from the Sunnis should the civil war’s tide turn against them. Once the war is over, there is no guarantee that they will stand behind Assad.
While the Kurds favor an autonomous government within federated Syria and the Alawites may be preparing to defect, other Syrian factions have their own view of the post-war situation. The Druze, for example, are alarmed by the possibility of a splintered Syria.
Unlike the Kurds, they feel safer as shy partner of lager political entity. Their long history of persecution has taught them not to stand out, not to provoke, and to blend in with the ruling nation. They have learnt to keep their own identity to themselves and avoid displaying it to the public. Hence, the idea of a separate Druze government that would emphasize their separate sectorial existence and control over specific territory may well toss them into territorial disputes with their neighbors who could prevail and lead to dramatic destruction of the Druze community.
For their part, the Arab Sunnis are intent on keeping Syria together as a centralized regime based in Damascus. Their vision has always been that of looking out rather than in, determined to control the region through the pan-Arab ideology of the Baath Party propped up by the Assad clan. The ideology dictates the unification of all Arabs in one great Arab empire that would, as a first step, encompass Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Palestine.
Bashar al-Assad is keenly aware of the Sunnis’ pan-Arab ambitions.
Part of the strategy used in current battles aims to keep the Sunnis busy on their own turf with infrastructure restoration that would not give them the chance to proceed with an expansion plan. Assad will also not retreat from Damascus to the Nusseiri Mountains before destroying the city to a degree that would prevent it from becoming the epicenter of a future Sunni political center that could serve as a launchpad against the Alawites.
A retreat from Damascus would also contradict the advice of Assad’s main backers – Russia and Iran. Both powers are heavily invested in Syria and do not wish to see their assets threatened by the Sunni majority in case of an early retreat that would conjure an image of a Sunni victory. However, while Russia could eventually accept a divided Syria if its interests in the ports of Tartus and Latakiya are preserved, Iran harbors Islamist imperialistic aspirations and is unlikely to ever accept sectorial splits removed from the way of Islam.
The fact that Iran itself consists of many sects and faces the same threat of dissolution along Syrian lines is another reason why it will do its utmost to prevent a split in Syria.
The future of Syria is a good indicator of the future of the Middle East that will either drive the creation of new Islamic empires or reshape the region’s borders along sectarian and tribal lines.