What Syria’s Power Struggle Means
-Bernard Gwertzman, Council on Foreign Relations
While some describe the uprising in Syria as a fight for democracy against an authoritarian regime, Islamic politics expert Vali R. Nasr argues that it’s much more “about the implications for redistribution of power between communities in Syria.” Syria’s struggle is between the majority Sunni population and the minority Alawite (Shiite) regime that is also backed by other minorities, Nasr says, comparing the situation to Iraq, where ousted Sunnis fought the majority Shiites until U.S. forces intervened and guaranteed the Sunnis some power. Nasr foresees continuing struggles, and perhaps open civil war, unless the international community can come up with “a plan for an orderly transfer of power from a minority to the majority.”
Is the continued turmoil in Syria a fight between an authoritarian regime and democracy advocates? Or is it more complicated, due to the country’s sectarian divisions?
The uprising in Syria was inspired by the same set of issues and forces that animated protests in Tunisia, in Egypt, and in Libya. The Syrians watched those protests unfold on al-Jazeera, followed it on Facebook, and were inspired by it. The way in which the Syrian regime handled the very first tensions in Daraa kept adding fuel to the fire and has continued to do so. There is no doubt that the uprising in Syria is being animated by pent-up frustration against the way in which the regime of President Bashar al-Assad has monopolized and exercised power.
But the Assad regime is not just a simple, authoritarian regime. It is an apparatus that has maintained minority rule over the majority of the population. And therefore any change in the structure of the regime implies a redistribution of power away from the Alawites and their allies among Christians, the wealthy bourgeois Sunnis, and the Druze, in the direction of the majority population that are Sunnis. That would be a net loss for those in the ruling position, much as the transfer of power in Iraq from Sunnis to Shiites meant a net loss for the Sunni community. And now that there’s been so much bloodshed in Syria, there is palpable fear of a reprisal if the minorities ever lose power to the majorities. The fight is much more about the implications for redistribution of power between communities in Syria than it is about constitutionalism and democracy.
The Syrian Free Army–which is what the guerrilla forces call themselves–are they made up pretty much of Sunnis?
The discussion in the United States is still overwhelmingly focused on the issue of transfer of regimes from authoritarianism to democracy, but the United States really doesn’t have a strategy for dealing with the sectarian issues in the region.
Yes, by and large they are Sunnis. We can always find an anecdotal case here or there of Alawites participating in the SFA, just as on the other side we have Sunnis that continue to support the Assad regime. There are Sunni bourgeoisie; there are members of the Ba’ath Party who are Sunnis as well. But generally, the opposition is heavily reliant on the majority Sunni population. The regime is by and large reliant on the Alawites, and then it receives tacit or active support from Kurds, from Druze, from Christians, and from elements within the Sunni community as well. [So] there are grey areas, yes, there are crossovers, but generally opposition to the Assad regime and support for the Assad regime have clear ethnic, and particularly sectarian, identities associated with it.
Iran is the largest Shiite country and Saudi Arabia is a major Sunni country. Is this becoming a test of wills between the Iranians and Sunni Arabs over Syria?
If you look at the region, in Iraq the Shiites were a majority that [was] not ruling, and then the American invasion empowered them. In Bahrain, the Shiites are the majority; they wanted to use the Arab Spring to redistribute power, and they were not successful. In Lebanon, the Shiites are more [numerous] than their access to power would reflect. Syria’s the only country in which you have a reverse scenario: The majority [is] Sunni and the government is an offshoot of Shi’ism supported by Iran. For Saudi Arabia and many Sunnis in the region, [this] has enormous symbolic importance.
Behind this issue is just raw, regional rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Moreover, Syria is not a prize in itself; it’s also a gateway to Lebanon, where Iran and Saudi Arabia have been supporting different movements. March 14 is Saudi Arabia’s and March 8th is Iran’s [March 14 is celebrated in Saudi Arabia as a day when Lebanon demonstrated against Syrian influence; March 8 is marked as a day of triumph for Hezbollah in Lebanon]. So a change of power in Syria would have implications for Lebanon as well.