Hesitating over Syria: Ethnic dimensions of the conflict and a need for patience

A brief review of who in the Middle Eastern capitals are for and against toppling Assad can amply substantiate this ethno-religious nature of the Syrian dilemma. All Sunni and Wahhabi countries are for the overthrow of the Assad regime, while the Christian and Shia governments -- from Russia to Armenia to Iran -- are against it. Only a precious few of these have any concern about democracy and justice for the Syrians, as they often deny them to their own citizens. They are all playing power politics while shedding crocodile tears for the suffering of the Syrian public.

In Washington, the issue is not whether the Assad regime should be kept, but rather, with whom or what it should be replaced. Syria is no Egypt or Libya, nor for that matter, Tunisia, Yemen or Bahrain. All those states saw their spring come and go, or stay and succeed. The explosive ethnic and religious dimensions of Syria are the same that led to the murderous civil war in Iraq of 2006-2007, except Syrian realities are even more complicated. No one should want an Iraqi-style civil war repeated in Syria.

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Ethnic and minority issues were not the cause of the “Arab Spring,” except, perhaps for Bahrain where a majority Shia population is ruled heavy-handedly by a Sunni minority, (like Iraq under Saddam Hussein). In Syria, however, those are the very central issues. Syrian minorities total just over 40 percent of the country’s population and are justifiably afraid of what the Arab Sunni majority would do to them if the Assad regime were toppled. The Arabs Sunnis have already brought into Syria and closely worked with al-Qaeda and its affiliate terrorists groups who have unleashed indiscriminate murder and destruction on Christians, Muslims and other minorities.

Syria is an unwieldy mosaic of ethnic, religious, and cultural zones with little historical connectivity or sympathy. The majority of about 60 percent are “Arabs”—the Arabic speaking Sunni Muslims. While these share language with about another 25 percent of the citizens of Syria, they do not share their ethnic identity. Others are the Alawites/Alawis, Levantines (Christians), Ismaili and Imami/Ja’fari Shias, the Druze who also are Arabic speaking. The Levantine Christians were in fact on the side of the Crusaders in the medieval times (and the French in the modern times) when they occupied Syria.

The breaking up of Syria into ethnic states -- what the French Mandate authorities had commenced -- is not an option today. Internationally recognized borders ought to be maintained unless altered democratically and peacefully. In a democratic state, all minorities and a majority should be able to live peaceably and gainfully. But a hasty forcing of democracy on a traditionally non-democratic society is the ingredient for chaos and misery. The remedy to a man dying of thirst is not to throw him into a lake of fresh water. He will drown in its bounty.

Political spring has been trying hard to break in Syria for about two years. Let’s not turn it into a deep winter of chaos and civil war through hasty and drastic actions such as precipitous regime change. The toll in life and limb, treasure and torment has already been so immense in Syria to dwarf those other similar political awakening events across the Middle East and North Africa. And yet, there is no clear idea anywhere among Syrians or well-wishing outsiders as to how to bring Syria safely to peace and democracy.

The United States must allow Syria the time to face its own demons and sort out its domestic and power-sharing issues. Then give the resulting all-inclusive leadership a helping hand to end the dictatorship in Damascus.

Izady is an adjunct professor of Middle Eastern and Western history at Pace University in New York. He helps train and brief Special Forces troops and others in the U.S. military here and overseas on ethnic and social issues.