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What Syria's Power Struggle Means

Interviewee: Vali R. Nasr, Dean-elect, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
June 4, 2012

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While some describe the uprising in Syria as a fight for democracy against an authoritarian regime, Islamic politics expert Vali R. Nasr argues that it's much more "about the implications for redistribution of power between communities in Syria." Syria's struggle is between the majority Sunni population and the minority Alawite (Shiite) regime that is also backed by other minorities, Nasr says, comparing the situation to Iraq, where ousted Sunnis fought the majority Shiites until U.S. forces intervened and guaranteed the Sunnis some power. Nasr foresees continuing struggles, and perhaps open civil war, unless the international community can come up with "a plan for an orderly transfer of power from a minority to the majority."

Is the continued turmoil in Syria a fight between an authoritarian regime and democracy advocates? Or is it more complicated, due to the country's sectarian divisions?

The uprising in Syria was inspired by the same set of issues and forces that animated protests in Tunisia, in Egypt, and in Libya. The Syrians watched those protests unfold on al-Jazeera, followed it on Facebook, and were inspired by it. The way in which the Syrian regime handled the very first tensions in Daraa kept adding fuel to the fire and has continued to do so. There is no doubt that the uprising in Syria is being animated by pent-up frustration against the way in which the regime of President Bashar al-Assad has monopolized and exercised power.

But the Assad regime is not just a simple, authoritarian regime. It is an apparatus that has maintained minority rule over the majority of the population. And therefore any change in the structure of the regime implies a redistribution of power away from the Alawites and their allies among Christians, the wealthy bourgeois Sunnis, and the Druze, in the direction of the majority population that are Sunnis. That would be a net loss for those in the ruling position, much as the transfer of power in Iraq from Sunnis to Shiites meant a net loss for the Sunni community. And now that there's been so much bloodshed in Syria, there is palpable fear of a reprisal if the minorities ever lose power to the majorities. The fight is much more about the implications for redistribution of power between communities in Syria than it is about constitutionalism and democracy.

The Syrian Free Army--which is what the guerrilla forces call themselves--are they made up pretty much of Sunnis?

The discussion in the United States is still overwhelmingly focused on the issue of transfer of regimes from authoritarianism to democracy, but the United States really doesn't have a strategy for dealing with the sectarian issues in the region.

Yes, by and large they are Sunnis. We can always find an anecdotal case here or there of Alawites participating in the SFA, just as on the other side we have Sunnis that continue to support the Assad regime. There are Sunni bourgeoisie; there are members of the Ba'ath Party who are Sunnis as well. But generally, the opposition is heavily reliant on the majority Sunni population. The regime is by and large reliant on the Alawites, and then it receives tacit or active support from Kurds, from Druze, from Christians, and from elements within the Sunni community as well. [So] there are grey areas, yes, there are crossovers, but generally opposition to the Assad regime and support for the Assad regime have clear ethnic, and particularly sectarian, identities associated with it.

Iran is the largest Shiite country and Saudi Arabia is a major Sunni country. Is this becoming a test of wills between the Iranians and Sunni Arabs over Syria?

If you look at the region, in Iraq the Shiites were a majority that [was] not ruling, and then the American invasion empowered them. In Bahrain, the Shiites are the majority; they wanted to use the Arab Spring to redistribute power, and they were not successful. In Lebanon, the Shiites are more [numerous] than their access to power would reflect. Syria's the only country in which you have a reverse scenario: The majority [is] Sunni and the government is an offshoot of Shi'ism supported by Iran. For Saudi Arabia and many Sunnis in the region, [this] has enormous symbolic importance.

Behind this issue is just raw, regional rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Moreover, Syria is not a prize in itself; it's also a gateway to Lebanon, where Iran and Saudi Arabia have been supporting different movements. March 14 is Saudi Arabia's and March 8th is Iran's [March 14 is celebrated in Saudi Arabia as a day when Lebanon demonstrated against Syrian influence; March 8 is marked as a day of triumph for Hezbollah in Lebanon]. So a change of power in Syria would have implications for Lebanon as well.

What should the United States be doing? Is the United States aware of all these subtle differences here?

The United States is very aware that Syria is extremely complicated and will be a hornet's nest if this regime goes, exactly because there are few institutional apparatuses in Syria for an orderly transfer of power. When you have minorities and majorities trying to recalibrate their power, as we saw in Iraq, there's no straight path. Therefore, Syria is not just about support for democracy--it's really about management and redistribution of ethnic and sectarian power. And the United States understands this to be very difficult.

But Syria is not the only issue of this kind facing the United States. Bahrain also seemed at face value a democracy uprising, but it very quickly turned into a sectarian stand-off. Lebanon and Iraq still have enormous sectarian issues that the United States would have to contend with if those countries were also to go through any kind of a protest movement.

The discussion in the United States is still overwhelmingly focused on the issue of transfer of regimes from authoritarianism to democracy, but the United States really doesn't have a strategy for dealing with the sectarian issues in the region. It's finding itself at odds with Iran right now over the nuclear issue. It is supporting the opposition in Syria, but it is rather muted on issues going on in Bahrain and Iraq, which have a clear sectarian overtone.

Are the Iraqi Sunnis actively involved in helping the uprising in Syria?

Yes. They are also actively involved in attacking their own government. You have, for instance, the bombing today [June 4] in Baghdad killing eighteen people near a Shiite mosque. You have the series of suicide bombings that have been happening, and on the other hand Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki is trying to strip Sunnis of their powers. All this tells you that there is a sectarian fight going on in Iraq as well. And clearly the Shiites in Iraq sympathize with Assad, and the Sunnis in Iraq sympathize with the opposition and have been supporting it.

What would happen if Assad stepped down?

It depends on how he steps down. It is possible to have certain stability, and you might not end up with a worst-case scenario of a civil war. But there has to be a way in which you would also distribute more power toward the Sunni majority. That would be something like what happened in Bahrain. In other words, you are able to resist the democracy movement and keep the sectarian power structure by and large in place.

The departure of Assad would only remove the figurehead of the minority ruling regime. It will not open the door for a broad-based democratic environment in Syria immediately, in which Alawites and Sunnis will be happy with the outcome of an election.

The other [possibility] is that Assad goes, and then you have the beginning of a major civil war in Syria that could go on for many years. It would polarize the Middle East far more than it is today, with Shiites sympathizing with the government and the Sunnis sympathizing with the opposition. Already we see that in the region. Most Shiites believe that Syria is not the issue; Bahrain is the issue and suicide bombings in Iraq are the issue. Whereas the majority of Sunnis think that Bahrain is not the issue and that Syria is the issue. This is going to become far more accentuated if you have an open fight in Syria.

What is your forecast?

There is no soft landing for Syria, largely because the most important issue in Syria has to result in this redistribution of power between its majority and minority. Already the Alawites, and particularly the Assad regime, [have] made a decision to resist this transfer. It is clear that this is not going to happen peacefully unless there is a massive international intervention inside Syria to prevent bloodshed. I'm talking about what General David H. Petraeus did in Baghdad with the troop surge. He put so many U.S. troops on the ground in Baghdad, they shut down the sectarian fighting. And then the United States proceeded to help, in an orderly way, delineate Shia-Sunni boundaries in Baghdad. And the sheer number of troops on the ground forced the Iraqis to stop the fighting.

So since there is no likelihood of international troops coming in, this can go on forever.

Well, either Assad survives through a mixture of compromise and brutality --which will only preserve the situation for a period of time, because ultimately, as I said, a minority regime is not tenable if the majority is not willing to accept that minority regime's hold on power--or Syria will go through a bloody civil war in which either it can break up, or, through that bloody civil war, the distribution of power is going to be ultimately decided.

So the future is not very hopeful.

No. Even if Assad got on an airplane and left tomorrow, the larger question in Syria will not be addressed yet. The departure of Assad would only remove the figurehead of the minority ruling regime. It will not open the door for a broad-based democratic environment in Syria immediately, in which Alawites and Sunnis will be happy with the outcome of an election. Assad's [departure would] not address the fundamental issue of distribution of power between Alawites and Sunnis. As we know, the Sunnis are demanding to rule the country because they are the majority. The Alawites are not reconciled to accept that. The departure of Assad is not going to solve that issue, [though] it would be a right step in convincing the Alawites that the game is up.

You still need the international community to come up with a plan for an orderly transfer of power from a minority to the majority. The first question the Alawites will have to have answered is who will protect them in Sunni-led Syria. In Iraq, the answer at the height of the surge was that the U.S. troops would do that. The international community keeps saying "Assad should go, Assad should go," but the Alawites will say, "If he goes, if we hand over power, what's going to happen to us?" Because there is no satisfactory answer to that question, they're not going to give up power.

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