The Alawites, Syria’s ruling minority, have arguably the most to loose should the international community continue to fully back the largely Sunni Syrian anti-Assad opposition. Indeed Bashar’s father, Hafez Al-Assad (Syrian dictator, 1971-2000) had a key ambition, and that was to never again see his people, the Alawites, be demoted to their historical status as Syria’s persecuted minority. Considering that politics in the Levant (the name for the part of the Middle East facing the Eastern Mediterranean) has always been a relatively brutal affair, with violence being the political tool of choice for both government and opposition parties, Hafez Al-Assad failed to create an inclusive political elite with enough pluralism to satisfy the minimal needs of the country’s multitude of sectarian, economic and political interests. Instead, the Assad dictatorship crushed internal dissent wherever and whenever it was challenged, and thus created a dynastic republican powerbase where politics was concentrated not just in the hands of the Alawites, but specifically in the hands of the Assad family. Over time, this legacy of state-directed political violence and manipulation left Syria’s disenfranchised Sunni majority with little option other than armed insurrection to contest Assad’s legitimacy. And, even with the backing of Christian, Druze, Shia and other minority groups co-opted into the Assad governing structure, this band of minority ‘outcasts’ simply did not have the ability to face-off against the Sunni majority once the latter decided to organise a national anti-Assad resistance. In days gone by, before the advent of the Arab media giants Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, before the advent of the Internet and of social media, the Alawites could have reverted to a brutal default setting and snuff out all anti-government resistance. Few cameras would have recorded atrocities and expose them to the world. Since the 2010 Arab Spring however, we have seen the pervasiveness of mainstream and social media undermine dictatorial regimes in the Middle East. It is as if ‘the people’ or ‘the oppressed’ have not only found their voice, but have at their disposal the tools to conduct their own ‘Information Operation’ campaigns against their staid and repressive governing elites. Does this mean that democracy will ensue? If events in Libya, Egypt, Iraq, Tunisia are any guide, then probably not. Civil society in these countries is still weak and political power still comes out of the barrel of the gun, rather than through free and fair elections. But with the steady gaze of the media, as well as the army of individual Bloggers and ‘crowdsourcing’ by people with smart phones, governments have fewer ways of averting international attention from their ‘bad behaviour’ unless they attack mainstream and social media at its source, as has been done by the People’s Republic of China.
So what of the unfolding tragedy in Syria? What are the possible outcomes of the current conflict?
The most likely scenario is that the fighting will intensify over the next few weeks, placing even more pressure on the Alawite elite and on Assad’s inner circle in particular. Assad’s Prime Minister Riad Hijab fled into exile to Jordan. Treason? Well that depends on which side of the fence one finds oneself. Meanwhile, Hijab might have dreams of a senior role in any post-Assad Sunni dominated government. Many who are still considered close to Assad will be calculating their leader’s days and actions to be considered. There will, at some point, be a critical juncture that may accelerate Assad’s demise. Perhaps an internal putsch by disaffected and fearful Alawite officers of the Syrian military, or, an assassination attempt on Assad himself. Such developments will change the situation on the ground, for without Assad in power, the path may be clear to serious negotiations between the Sunni opposition and the Alawites on new power-sharing arrangements. But the clock is ticking and the more blood that is spilled by the Alawite government in defence of Assad, the less likely an outcome of meaningful negotiations between Alawites and Sunnis, and a high probability that the current civil war will evolve into a full-scale Alawite pogrom.
By Dr. John Bruni, Director SAGE International