Between 1947 and 1954, Syria held three national elections that all broke down more or less according to these regional and sectarian lines. After 21 changes of government in 24 years and a failed attempt to unify with Egypt, the Alawite air force officer Hafez al-Assad took power in a 1970 coup. By ruling with utter ruthlessness, he kept the peace in Syria for three decades. To wit, when the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood rose up in Hama in 1982, he killed more than 20,000 Sunni Muslim civilians there in response, according to some estimates. Assad’s son, Bashar, who succeeded his father as Syria’s president a decade ago, has yet to make his bones in such a way. It is unclear whether the son is visionary enough to satisfy today’s protesters, or cruel enough like his father to stay in power. His regime’s survival may require stores of both attributes. A complicating factor is that to a much greater degree than his father, the son is trapped within a web of interest groups that include a corrupt business establishment and military and intelligence leaders averse to reform. So the political crisis in Syria will likely continue to build.
Syria at this moment in history constitutes a riddle. Is it, indeed, prone to civil conflict as the election results of the 1940s and 1950s indicate; or has the population quietly forged a national identity in the intervening decades, if only because of the common experience of living under an austere dictatorship? No Middle East expert can say for sure.
Were central authority in Syria to substantially weaken or even break down, the regional impact would be greater than in the case of Iraq. Iraq is bordered by the strong states of Turkey and Iran in the north and east, and is separated from Saudi Arabia in the south and Syria and Jordan to the west by immense tracts of desert. Yes, the Iraq war propelled millions of refugees to those two latter countries, but the impact of Syria becoming a Levantine Yugoslavia might be even greater. That is because of the proximity of Syria’s major population zones to Lebanon and Jordan, both of which are unstable already.
Remember that Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel are all geographically and historically part of Greater Syria, a reason that successive regimes in Damascus since 1946 never really accepted their legitimacy. The French drew Lebanon’s borders so as to bring a large population of mainly Sunni Muslims under the domination of Maronite Christians, who were allied with France, spoke French, and had a concordat with the Vatican. Were an Alawite regime in Damascus to crumble, the Syria-Lebanon border could be effectively erased as Sunnis from both sides of the border united and Lebanon’s Shiites and Syria’s Alawites formed pockets of resistance. The post-colonial era in the Middle East would truly be closed, and we would be back to the vague borders of the Ottoman Empire.
What seems fanciful today may seem inevitable in the months and years ahead. Rather than face a “steadfast” and rejectionist, albeit predictable, state as the focal point of Arab resistance, Israel would henceforth face a Sunni Arab statelet from Damascus to Hama — one likely influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood — amid congeries of other fiefdoms. The unrest in Syria brings the Middle East perhaps to a precipice. Peaceful or not, the future of the region will be one of weakened central authority.
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