As Gaddafi’s regime crumbles, people’s attention is beginning to shift towards the situation in Syria. The unrest in Syria appears to be something that is going to continue for some time to come. Syrian President Bashar Assad has been trying to end the protests against his regime by ordering his forces to engage in violent crackdowns in cities which have seen some of the largest protests (i.e. Hama and Homs). However, anti-Assad protesters have not given up as demonstrated by the thousands of Syrians who called for the ouster of Assad last Friday.
As people begin to pay more attention to what is happening in Syria, I thought it would be useful to highlight some important factors that may influence what eventually happens in Syria. Therefore, today I highlight some important factors that may influence what eventually happens in Syria.
NATO air support was an important source of support that the anti-Gaddafi forces had. NATO air support helped to neutralize some of Gaddafi’s superior weaponry (compared to what the anti-Gaddafi forces had) and helped to weaken Gaddafi’s forces.
In contrast, the anti-Assad protesters currently lack the military force and support to combat Assad's crackdown. Some analysts believe that Assad will be able to continue to fend off the anti-Assad protesters as long as he has the support of the Syrian Army. At the moment, the Syrian Army has not turned against Assad outside of some defections.
The Alawite-Sunnis dynamic in Syria has the potential to play a role in weakening the Syrian Army’s support for Assad.
- Recall, the Assad regime is affiliated with the Alawis, which is a small religious group (affiliated with the Shia branch of Islam)-comprising between 10 to 12% of the Syrian population. Meanwhile, the majority of Syrians follow the Sunni branch of Islam.
- Although the Alawite dominate the Syrian Army’s leadership, 9 of 11 Syrian Army divisions primarily consist of Sunni troops (the other 2 divisions consist primarily of Alawite). The defections that have taken place so far have come from the predominately Sunni divisions.
If Sunni troops begin to grow tired of Assad’s crackdown of fellow Sunnis and begin to defect in mass to support the (predominantly Sunni) protesters, Assad’s ability to crackdown on protesters could weaken markedly and the Syrian opposition’s ability to resist Assad could strengthen significantly.
- Therefore, Assad could be in a lot of trouble if a lot of army defections begin to take place.
Despite having the reputation of being disorganized, Libyans who opposed Gaddafi managed to form and maintain a national transitional council, which served as the political face of the opposition and is now recognized as the official government of Libya by many countries, including the U.S. In contrast, the Syrian opposition is arguably more disorganized than the Libyan opposition as the Syrian opposition has not yet organized to the point where they have officially established a national transitional council of their own.
The Syrian opposition will be unable to resist the Assad regime at optimal effectiveness until they become better organized. Without better organization, the protests against Assad will probably continue to be “nuisances” to the Assad regime instead of something that truly threatens its stability. In addition, without a recognized face of the Syrian opposition, countries who want the Assad regime to go (like the U.S.) will not have a group that is devoted to toppling the Assad regime which it can work with (more on that later).
It is worth noting that Syrians are currently working on organizing a national transitional council that represents all the different groups in Syria. If/when a Syrian national transitional council is formed we may begin to see more coordinated protests against the Assad regime and begin to see some countries play an increased role in helping the Syrian opposition (more on that next).
Iran vs. Its Adversaries
Unlike in Libya, Iran is a relevant factor that may play a role in influencing what happens in Syria. Iran does not want to see the Assad regime toppled for a variety of reasons including:
- Syria is the only major country in the region that Iran can call an “ally”
- The Assad regime shares the Iranian regime’s disdain for Israel.
- Iran wants to continue to use Syria as transporter of weaponry to anti-Israel groups like Hezbollah.
- A new, Sunni regime in Syria may grow closer to the (predominantly Sunni) Saudi Arabia, Iran’s main regional rival.
Given that Iran does not want to see the Assad regime toppled, we should expect Iran to continue to provide assistance to the Assad regime.
Conversely, the adverse consequences that the toppling of the Assad regime could have on Iran may provide incentive for Iran's adversaries to do what it can (without direct military intervention) to help bring the downfall of the Assad regime. The toppling of the Assad regime would weaken Iran’s position in the Mideast, further isolate Iran from the rest of the world, and adversely impact Iran’s ability to support anti-Israel groups like Hezbollah.
- Therefore, do not be surprised if Iran's adversaries significantly increase the economic and political pressure on the Assad regime or finds indirect ways to provide assistance to the Syrian opposition once it is organized enough (i.e. when it has a national transitional council).
The collapse of Gaddafi’s regime in Libya is likely going to inspire repressed people throughout the Middle East and North Africa to continue their struggle for change. Many anti-Assad regime protesters in Syria probably find inspiration from what has happened in Libya because it shows them that one of the world’s most brutal regimes can be taken down if people continue to fight. The inspirational boost that many anti-Assad regime protesters probably have gained is likely going to help them psychologically to continue resisting the Assad regime even if the regime continues to escalate the violence.
Finally, it should be recognized that God is in control. What God plans to happen is what will take place. Syria is no exception. If God’s Plan includes the ouster of Assad, Assad will go regardless of how much Assad wants to stay in power.