The regime running the critical and complex country of Syria is proving a much harder nut to crack than Muammar Qaddafi and his motley group of henchmen in Libya. Indeed, the Syrian drama is notable for what we have not seen: wholesale defections from the armed forces, resignations of key government officials, erosion of all international support, and direct European intervention. Those waiting for the immediate or easy withdrawal of the regime and its assorted allies will be sorely disappointed.
The demographics of Syria explain part of the puzzle. This country of 23 million has been ruled by the minority Alawite sect, related to the Shiite branch of Islam, for decades. From time to time, most notably in the 1980s, the Alawite regime of the late Hafez al-Assad brutally suppressed the Sunni majority. The al-Assad regime was much more concerned with raw power than religion, and smashed any effort seen as a potential competition. His son, Bashar al-Assad, shows he has learned his father’s lessons well in his cruel suppression of the current uprising.
Christians Content With The Status Quo
Christians, mainly Greek and Armenian, make up about 10% of the population and have done fairly well under the current regime. Unlike most other countries in the Middle East, there are several operating monasteries in Syria, and the churches function without the interference seen in Egypt. It’s not that the al-Assad regime is particularly tolerant, but it sees the Christians as natural allies against the fundamentalist Sunnis. And they’re not entirely wrong as many of the Syrian Christians, seeing what is happening in Egypt, fear that a fundamentalist Sunni uprising could threaten them as much as the ruling regime.
A sophisticated middle class has also developed under the Alawite regime. A sudden change could threaten their position. While they might not be strong supporters of the al-Assad family, they fear the Islamic fundamentalists even more.
But it is in the international arena where the complexity of Syria becomes even more apparent. Where Qaddafi was left with no friends or allies, except perhaps Chad, Syria can count on enough international support to keep it going. Iran, for both religious affiliation and raw political influence, is Syria’s key supporter. When the rest of the world has you in the cross hairs you accept any ally you can find. Not far behind is Iraq, anxious to stay close to its Shiite co-religionists. Russia may have distanced itself from its role as Syria’s only arms supplier, but it is no supporter of the European and American sanctions against its former client state.
Turkey's Key Role
Turkey presents an interesting case. Not too long ago Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan and his Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu were basking in the glow of their improved relations with the Arab countries – especially Syria. Turkey was anxious to show Europe that it had other options than joining the European Union, and it felt strong enough to re-assert itself in the Middle East. Erdoğan even received the ‘coveted’ Qaddafi prize for Human Rights. Visa restrictions with Syria were eased and traffic flowed easily across the once-heavily guarded border with Turkey. Earlier Syrian support for the outlawed Kurdish militant group PKK was conveniently shoved into a dark corner.
Then Turkey got caught out by the Arab Spring, and did some hasty back-peddling. Initial ambivalence toward the European intervention in Libya soon gave way to support. Turkey also saw that its support of the al-Assad regime in Syria was hurting its claim to be a friend to the new ‘democracies’ in the Arab world. At the same time Turkey’s prized relations with Iran began to unravel, especially after Turkey agreed to site NATO radar along the Iranian border. It also began to dawn on Turkish officials that an Iran with an atomic bomb would be major problem for them. Relations with Iraq turned sour with the Iraqis accusing Turkey of meddling in internal Iraqi affairs.
On top of this Turkey’s dominant, orthodox Sunni Moslems can not be pleased with the prospect of becoming encircled by Shiite Iran in the East, and Shiite Iraq and Syria in the south. The upheaval in Syria also gave the Turks the opportunity to be seen providing humanitarian relief to desperate people fleeing Syria.
The attitude of the rest of the Arab world toward events in Syria really depends where they stand on Iran. Those close to Iran, like Iraq, take a softer line with Syria. Others like Saudi Arabia who detest the Iranian regime keep their distance from Syria. Bear in mind that Saudi Arabia also regards itself as the protector of the orthodox Sunni branch of Islam.
Barring some kind of military intervention – very unlikely – there is no rapid end in sight to the Syrian standoff. The insurgents do not appear strong enough to overthrow the regular army and the regime does not appear strong enough – or willing enough – to crush completely the insurgents. At this point all eyes are on Turkey. How far will it go to protect the insurgents? Could this protection include establishing a buffer zone inside Syria backed up by the Turkish military? Turkish officials deny any military plans. But this is the Middle East. The unexpected and unwanted happen regularly