Gwynne Dyer: Can Syria avoid ethnic cleansing?

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In war, moral power is to physical as three parts out of four, said Napoleon, and the past few days have seen a sudden and drastic shift in the balance of moral power in Syria. The bomb that killed the three most senior members of the security establishment last Wednesday (July 18) may just have been a lucky fluke for the rebels, and the street fighting in Damascus may end with a (temporary) regime victory. But everything has changed in terms of expectations.

Until last week, the regime seemed secure in the short term, although potentially doomed in the long term. President Bashar al-Assad’s army was well-armed and apparently loyal, and he still had the support of much of the population. The opposition was poorly armed and only loosely organised—and as Napoleon also remarked, God is on the side with the best artillery. (If you want to be thought wise, contradict yourself frequently.)

Perhaps “morale” is a better word than “moral”. The reason the regime seemed secure until last week was not its weapons, but the confidence of its supporters that their side was still able to win. That confidence has now been profoundly shaken. The fighting has reached the heart of the big cities, and the rebels have struck even at the core of the regime, the national security building, to kill key members of Assad’s innermost circle.

So it is suddenly occurring to a lot of people who formerly saw the regime as the protector of their privileges that these guys could actually lose. If they are going to lose, you do not want to be in the last ditch with them. Maybe it’s time to change sides.

About 10 minutes later, it will also occur to the same people that many others are undoubtedly having the same thoughts—and that means the collapse could come quite quickly. This kind of thinking operates as a self-fulfilling prophecy, so the regime’s final slide into defeat could be coming within days or weeks.

That is by no means guaranteed, of course. In material terms the regime is still vastly superior, and morale is a volatile thing. If the uprisings in parts of Damascus and Aleppo are crushed quickly and decisively, the morale of the regime’s supporters could recover, and the civil war might continue for months or years more. But Syrians must now reckon with the possibility of an early collapse of the Baath Party’s 49-year-old monopoly of power.

So the question is: what would happen then? The great fear is that it could go the same way as Iraq and Lebanon, two neighbouring countries that share about the same mix of ethnic and religious groups (in differing proportions) as Syria itself.

Lebanon tore itself apart in a civil war among those groups in 1975-90, and a quarter-million Lebanese died. Iraq tore itself apart in 2005-2009, and at least half a million Iraqis died. Two million people fled the country permanently, including almost all of Iraq’s Christian minority, and the Sunni Muslims have almost all been driven out of mixed and Shia-majority areas.

Any thinking Syrian, aware of these dreadful precedents, will be frightened by regime change no matter how much he or she loathes the existing regime. Indeed, the Assad regime’s principal means of garnering support has been to insist that only its tyrannical rule can “protect” the Shia, Druze, Alawite, and Christian minorities from the 70 percent Sunni Muslim majority.

It could easily go wrong. The original pro-democracy movement was non-violent and emphatically non-sectarian. It was mostly Sunni Muslim, but it deliberately sought to attract the support of the various minorities as well. All the leaders understood that only a non-sectarian revolution could produce a democratic Syria.

Unfortunately, the Assad regime drowned that non-violent movement in blood, and instead Syria wound up with a violent revolt that has grown into a veritable civil war. What the rebels must do now is to end it without a massacre of the minorities. The price of failure is that the civil war won’t end at all.

The most exposed minority is the Alawites, because they have been the mainstay of the regime. The Assad family is Alawite, as are most senior figures in the military, intelligence and Baath Party elites. Their dominance has been based on close clan ties, not on their religion (they are a “heretical” Shia sect), and most Alawites have not benefited much from the regime, but they could easily be held responsible for its crimes—and massacred.

If they think they face that sort of future, they will withdraw to their mountainous stronghold along the Syrian coast (and effectively cut Syria off from the sea). Other minorities will also take fright and arm themselves, and the country will be trapped in a long, cruel war of massacre and ethnic cleansing.

So if the Baath regime goes down soon, the rest of the world should be ready to go in fast with economic help for the post-revolutionary regime, and with multitudes of observers to document what is actually happening to the minorities and dispel false rumours. The rest of the world can do nothing to help now, but it will be sorely needed then.

Comments (4) Add New Comment
John-Albert Eadie
It may well be that fragmentation and severe ethnic cleansing of Alewite (Shia) results. If it turns out so I will lay it at the feet of the US and Saudi governments who have been arming and promoting the rebels - plus the entire Western media - who wholeheartedly bought into the "pro-democracy rebel" line. The alternative - liberalizing Assad's regime via great power cooperation using UN, as suggested by Russia / China was never given a chance. The reason they (USA + Saudi Arabia) do this, is *to weaken IRAN*.
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McRetso
The Assad regime had no reason to give up power. They controlled most of the weapons in the country and thought themselves safe; why voluntarily give that up to a bunch of civillians?

Further, Russia and China are not exactly the countries one should go to for advice on how to make the transition between a dictatorship and a democracy.

Indeed, the prime motive for Russia and China's positions is to ensure that, if Putin ever decides to kill all those protestors in Moscow who want to get rid of him, or if Jintao and his people ever have to deal with another Tian'anmen Square, they won't have a bunch of foreigners running around interfering, or at the very least won't look like hypocrites.
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Pat Crowe
Can Syria avoid ethnic cleansing?
What God wants. God gets.
God is great! KABOOM!!
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scissorpaws
This is nevertheless very much like 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Egypt is doing better than planned and there's no organized blood baths in Libya. Somewhere the idea has been broached that the only insurance against a dictator is cooperation and democracy. At least I hope it has. The alternative is to break up these British Colonial structures designed in large part precisely not to work under any rule but tyranny: lots of ethnicities and religions and languages in the blend. That could prove far messier. A good model could be Canada's multiculturalism. By and large we manage to get along fairly well, races, creeds and colours. Agree to disagree and laugh all the way to the bank. A lot of jawing, not much warring.
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