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Is Syria becoming the new Iraq?

By Shashank Joshi, Special for CNN
updated 12:20 PM EDT, Thu May 31, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • For decades Syria interfered in Lebanon to the west, and Iraq to the east, says Shashank Joshi
  • Joshi: Now Syria increasingly resembles its war-torn neighbors
  • What makes Syria particularly volatile is its complex sectarian and ethnic makeup, he writes
  • Joshi: Government presents itself as guarantor of minority rights in face of Sunni onslaught

Editor's note: Shashank Joshi is a research fellow at the London-based think tank Royal United Services Institute and a doctoral student of international relations at Harvard University's Department of Government. He specializes in international security in South Asia and the Middle East.

(CNN) -- For four decades, consecutive generations of the Assad family -- Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father as Syrian president in 2000 -- have interfered in Lebanon to the west, and Iraq to the east. Syrian agents assassinated rivals and pumped in fighters.

Now, the irony is that with every passing week, Syria increasingly resembles its war-torn neighbors. The government is hemorrhaging cash, Damascus is scarred with suicide bombings, and sectarian enmities are worse than ever. Syria is a lot better off than Lebanon in 1975 or Iraq in 2007, but it might not stay that way.

What makes Syria particularly volatile is its complex sectarian and ethnic makeup. Sunni Muslims comprise three-quarters of Syria's 22 million people. Christians make up another tenth, and the Druze a few percent. But it's the Alawite sect of the Assad family -- a syncretic offshoot of Shia Islam -- that, despite being only 12 percent of the population, has dominated the state since the 1960s.

It's reported that 70% of Syria's full-time soldiers, 80% of officers, and the entirety of some elite units, are Alawite. The Shabiha (from the Arabic for "ghosts"), locally recruited Alawite militias, have also been crucial over the last year. Shabiha from neighboring villages -- allegedly with "Shia slogans" on the foreheads -- were likely responsible for last week's Houla massacre.

Shashank Joshi
Shashank Joshi

But the sectarian dimension to the conflict should not be overstated. Many poor, rural Alawite people are not enamored with the government, and the urban Sunni trading classes have been important to the regime's survival.

Yet, there is a parallel here to the civil war that tore through Iraq after the U.S.-led invasion of 2003. There, the end of Saddam Hussein's Sunni-minority government paved the way to Shia majority rule. In some parts of Baghdad, that meant ethnic cleansing of entire Sunni neighborhoods. Naturally, minorities -- and Alawites in particular -- fear the retribution they could face in a post-Assad government.

These fears are not illusory. One Sunni man in Houla, seething at the massacre, told a journalist: "We will kill their men, women and children as they killed our men, women and children." Although much of the insurgents' anger is directed at individual villages and families, rather than the entire Alawite sect, that situation could change quickly.

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The government has sought to exploit these fears by presenting itself as the guarantor of minority rights in the face of an Arab-fuelled Sunni fundamentalist onslaught.

And it is true that both Sunni fundamentalists, including al Qaeda, and Sunni-majority Arab powers, like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have come out strongly against al-Assad's regime, for both strategic and ideological reasons.

For the Arabs, Assad's regime is seen as Iran's tool in the Arab world and its means of supporting the Lebanese Shia militant group Hezbollah. A senior commander in Iran's Revolutionary Guards admitted this week that Iranian forces were helping Syria in its crackdown. Hezbollah, which has longstanding ties to Damascus, has also supported Assad although there's little evidence that it's offering meaningful help on the ground.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar, in turn, are likely sending arms and assistance to the Syrian rebels. This proxy war between Sunni and Shia powers exacerbates the sectarian tensions.

For al Qaeda, this is a chance to make up for its mistakes in Iraq, where its orgy of violence became hugely unpopular. This is their chance to join a fight against President al-Assad's self-described "secular" government, exploit their supply lines across the border with Iraq, and build up strength and credibility on the ground. In the last month, a new jihadist organization called Jabhat al-Nusra has claimed responsibility for several suicide bombings this year.

Regardless of their intention, the overall effect of these bombings is to solidify minority support for the Assad government, deter foreign intervention (who would put their troops at risk?), and tarnish the opposition as terrorists. However, it is important to understand that jihadists make up only a small fraction of the opposition, and will have highly limited political appeal. If foreign boots were present on Syrian soil, however, this would quickly change.

Finally, as in Iraq, the Syrian conflict is spilling over. Refugees are flooding into Turkey. Gun battles are occurring on the streets of Beirut between what are perceived as anti-Assad Sunni, and pro-Assad Shia factions. Lebanon's northern borderlands are turning into smuggling routes for Syrian rebels. If Arab states use Jordan as a conduit for assistance, that could have a destabilising effect to the south too.

Syria is not sliding towards a civil war -- it is in the midst of one. There is little international appetite for a military intervention, although this could change if, say, Syria's chemical weapons are displaced or -- worse -- used. In the medium-term, there will be more massacres and more suicide bombings. That will sharpen the grievances of the largely Sunni opposition, strengthen extremists, and amplify the fears of Alawites and Christians fearful of regime change. As in Iraq and Lebanon, such a trajectory would leave Syria's society and politics with permanent scars.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Shashank Joshi.

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