Since the day Egyptians began gathering in Tahrir Square, pundits have declared that an Arab Spring has given the region a new hope for self-determination, democracy and individual rights. This so called “Spring” has yielded little fruit but many weed patches. Those applying a western paradigm to events in the Middle-East seem confounded by the eventual descent of populations handed the reins of their governments back into civil clashes. The root of the issue is the heterogeneous nature of the populations within countries politically partitioned after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire after World War I with an eye to natural resources and geographic advantage rather than existing ethnic or sectarian divisions.
In Syria it is impossible to understand events on the ground without understanding these demographics both within Syria and regionally. Most important by far is the split within Islam between Shia and Sunni and it is important to note that world-wide the Sunni make up 80-90% of the Islamic population and Shia make up the balance. It is this division upon which the Syrian civil war centers.
The Syrian population is 74% Sunni, 13% Shia and 13% Christian. However Assad, and his father before him, is Alawi Shia and governs heavily to the benefit of the Shia population. Regionally the numbers break down like this–Iran- 89% Shia, 9% Sunni, the government is Sunni led. Turkey- 85% Sunni, 15% Alevi Shia, the government is semi-religious Sunni led. Lebanon- 37% Shia, 23% Sunni and 39% Christian. Lebanon is unique in that the government is constitutionally mandated to have a Christian president, Shia Speaker of Parliament and a Sunni Prime Minister.
The argument for intervention in the Syrian civil war by the United States is humanitarian. This new precedent has been set by Obama’s creation of the Atrocities Prevention Board which includes in its mandate the statement that the prevention of atrocities globally is core to the national interest. This represents a new standard for intervention in the internal issues of an autonomous state.
The humanitarian crisis in Syria is the recent series of massacres in which populations are being terrorized and executed typically directly after an action by the Syrian military. President (dictator) Assad has disputed responsibility for these attacks, blaming them on foreign terrorist gangs out of his control. This is where the term “Sectarian” comes in as it describes violence between religious sects.
The group responsible for the horrible post-bombardment massacres is the Shabiha. The Shabiha are an Alawi militia that has operated as a state-sponsored mafia, accumulating wealth primarily through racketeering. In return for being allowed to operate criminally they have acted as Assad’s enforcers. Their motto being “Bashar (Assad), do not be sad: you have men who drink blood.” The tactic that employs their use is for the Syrian army to surround a town or city, cutting off avenues of escape, and begin a bombardment driving people off the streets and into cover. Once the population is subdued they allow the Shabiha in to do their terrible work. It is non-co-religious cleansing and the technique allows the Syrian government to claim innocence in the massacres. It is a historically common tactic in the Middle-East and a very effective one.
However, intervening on a purely humanitarian basis comes with problems. First, should the Assad government fall and be replaced by a Sunni majority government it can be expected that Alawite community will suffer similar treatment. And although some Alawites are Shabiha members, the majority is not and distinctions are not likely to be made after many years of this type of injustice. Second, should Assad be removed but the government stays in the hands of the Alawite sect, it is very possible Assad’s replacement would be even more ruthless toward the Sunni population than Assad was.
The only true remedy for this situation is occupation, something that nobody in the United States has articulated a stomach for, particularly on the heels of the Iraq and Afghanistan occupations. This situation also makes it unlikely that the Assad regime or the Alowite sect will give up power easily knowing well the repercussions, something Syrian state media has stressed. This makes it an existential fight for the Shabiha and Alowites generally.
Regionally sectarianism also rules sympathy and affiliation. Iran’s Shia controlled religious government is sympathetic to the co-religious Assad regime, one of their closest allies in the region. Additionally, Syria is Iran’s access to Lebanon where they fund and arm Hezbollah, and corridor to the Mediterranean Sea. For Iran there is a real tactical interest to protect in Syria and that is reflected in the fact that they already have troops on the ground there.
Turkey’s Sunni controlled government supports the Syrian opposition, even to the point that they have proposed the creation of “safety zones” for the opposition within their borders. They see this as an opportunity to shift the regional balance of power from Iran to them. Creation of a sympathetic government in Syria carries significant tactical advantages for Turkey. However, they are very unlikely to take on Syria and Iran alone and would not open up its territory to the Syrian opposition as a staging area for the conflict unless the U.S. or NATO were involved to help defend their southern border.
Lebanon has its own problems with sectarian violence internally and is operating under a policy of containment regarding Syria, hoping to keep the conflict from taking hold inside its borders. The northern port city of Tripoli is a key supply line for the Syrian opposition and the local population is generally sympathetic to them. However, sectarian battles have taken place there and on the Lebanese-Syrian border. Hezbollah, the Shia militia group, is supported by Iran and Syria and therefore supports the Assad regime.
Another country with a tactical interest in Syria is Russia which has its only naval base on the Mediterranean there. They also have some economic interest and have been intransigent on the issue so far, supporting Syria with their veto vote in the U.N.
The Syrian situation is sad but not unique currently as a global humanitarian crisis crying out for American intervention. Consideration of recent U.S. experience in Libya, which also has mounting sectarian violence and has had negative regional repercussions, as well as Afghanistan and Iraq which are both headed in the wrong direction as impending American withdrawal looms closer, would seem to indicate prudence in regard to intervention in Syria. It would not address any of the underlying problems of demographics endemic to the region and without long term commitment to occupation it carries no guaranty of addressing the near term issue of sectarian cleansing either.