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Syria’s breakup is a Levantine norm

The talk about Syria by knowledgeable friends and colleagues whose views I respect has turned increasingly pessimistic in recent weeks, with expectations ranging across a span of many bad outcomes. These range from Syria becoming a Levantine Somalia, where power is in the hands of hundreds of local warlords and tribal chieftains, to a totally fractured state defined by a combination of raging civil war and sectarianism that pulls in interested neighbors and perhaps ignites new regional wars.

Speculation about the future of Syria is a growth industry these days, for good reason: What happens in Syria will have an impact on the region, given its central role in the political geography, ideologies and security of the Levant and areas further afield. The events in recent years in Iraq and Libya remind us that developments in one state in the region can have repercussions in neighboring countries, sometimes immediately and sometimes a few years down the road.

The longer Syria’s domestic war goes on, the more fragmented the country becomes, alongside three other dangerous trends: Sectarianism increasingly becomes the option of choice for Syrian citizens who seek security but cannot get it from the state; revenge killings will become a more likely occurrence after Bashar Assad’s downfall; and militant Salafists may increasingly take root in local communities across the country as they prove to be well organized and funded adversaries of the Assad regime.

Next month we will mark two years since the outbreak of protests against the regime, as the domestic battle continues to rage. Syrians have paid a very heavy price for their desire to remove the Assad regime and replace it with a more democratic and accountable system of governance, but there are no signs that either side is tiring of this fight. Despite the destruction of the economy and urban infrastructure, Syrians seem determined to keep fighting until one side defeats the other. The chances of a negotiation or dialogue to end the fighting and usher in a peaceful transition of power seem slim, given the wide gap between Assad and the opposition groups.

The trend on the ground seems to favor the slow advances of the opposition groups, whose access to more sophisticated weapons and control of key facilities around the country sees the Assad regime’s sovereignty footprint shrinking by the week. The regime has reverted to what has always been its vital core: thousands of armed troops in just a few parts of the country, controlled by officers from, or close to, the extended Assad family, disproportionately anchored in the Alawite minority community. This is a recipe for imminent collapse.

Yet the timing and nature of the transition to a new governance system in Syria both remain highly speculative. I personally expected the Assad regime to have fallen long ago, but clearly its staying power is great. The weakness and lack of unity of the opposition forces make it impossible to predict a post-Assad scenario.

More and more analysts expect chaos, violence, sectarian revenge killings and deep fragmentation to occur, and these become more likely with every passing month of fighting. Some analysts expect a post-Assad Syria to be dominated by Islamists, whether mainstream Muslim Brotherhood types or more militant Salafists who are now playing a major role in the military resistance against Assad.

Others, including myself, are more sanguine, expecting Syria’s 5,000 years of cosmopolitan history and more recent legacy of inter-communal coexistence to shape the new governance system that emerges from the wreckage of the current war.

Syria’s problem, like Iraq’s and Lebanon’s, is that the nature of its pluralistic population means that major demographic groups have strong ties with fellow populations in nearby countries, such as Alawites, Kurds, Druze, Sunnis and even Christians. The main lesson of the current situation in Syria strikes me as being the fragility of the modern Arab state in the Levant and beyond, where countries like Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Palestine in the past three generations have alternated between strong or shattered central governments. These have been either fragmented states or centralized police states since the 1940s, with no chance to live as normal states where citizens agree on the rules and values of national governance.

We are now passing through a period in which fragmenting states are forcing us to discuss Lebanon, Syria and Iraq in terms of Alawites, Druze, Shiites and Sunnis, rather than in terms of coherent states with satisfied citizenries. The slow-motion destruction of the centralized Syrian state will enhance this trend toward the retribalization of the Arab Levant, until the day comes when the many distinct tribes can sit down and agree on how to reconnect as citizens of single states, governed by the rule of law that they can define themselves in meaningful constitutions.

Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR. He can be followed on Twitter @RamiKhouri.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 23, 2013, on page 7.
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