The longer the struggle for power in Syria drags on, the greater the danger for its minorities and, equally ominously, for those in neighboring states. This is the human dimension of the stalemated Syrian violence that is often obscured by overarching geostrategic considerations.
In world capitals, attention is focused on the political and ideological stakes pitting Iran, Syria and their influential Hezbollah ally in Lebanon against a loose coalition of Turkey, Gulf Arab petro-monarchies — notably Qatar and Saudi Arabia — Europe, the United States and, by extension, its Israeli ally.
Played out amid the turmoil unleashed last year by the Arab Spring, the stakes in the battle for Syria are momentous for the United States and for Russia, which backs Syria’s government. The outcome could accelerate — or offset — the palpable decline in American influence in much of the wider Muslim world.
But the region’s minorities increasingly risk becoming expendable collateral damage in the open-ended civil war in Syria. Many of Syria’s ruling Alawites — and their Kurd, Assyrian, Maronite Christian, Greek Catholic and Orthodox fellow minorities, indeed even the prudent Druze — feel caught in a vicious zero-sum game.
Like many another dominant minority throughout Middle Eastern history, President Bashar al-Assad’s beleaguered Alawites both protect and manipulate Syria’s other minorities. Assad relentlessly insists they are all under growing threat from the still disorganized and disparate opposition drawn from the Sunni Muslim community which accounts for 70 percent of Syria’s population.
That way, the longer the strife goes on, the less isolated his Alawites (perhaps 12 percent of Syrians) feel and the more they justify their backs-to-the-wall defense of privileges accumulated over more than 40 years in power. The counterexample is Iraq, where America’s war put the majority Shiites in power and minorities paid a heavy price.
Past intercommunal bloodletting remains very much alive in the memories of the region’s peoples. Indeed, the present slaughter of the innocents recalls two massacres that just 30 years ago took place barely 100 miles apart. To this day their very names remain ominous shorthand for unpunished wholesale slaughter. Each involved a dominant minority that felt threatened.
In February 1982 as many as 20,000 Sunnis died in the Syrian city of Hama when the Alawite regime of Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Assad, suppressed in cold blood an uprising inspired by the quintessentially Sunni Muslim Brothers and other Islamist radicals.
Then, that September in neighboring Lebanon, Maronite Christian militiamen, egged on by allies in Israel’s invading army, slaughtered hundreds of unarmed Palestinians in Beirut’s Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.
The so-called “international community,” a deliberately vague term in fact then designating the United States and its allies, swallowed hard but decided nothing could be done to bring the perpetrators to justice.
Have things changed much since?
That lack of forcefulness back then led to other tragedies. Israel’s invasion and expulsion of the Palestine Liberation Organization from Beirut came only halfway through Lebanon’s bloody 15 years of “little wars,” those serial conflicts for which the word “Lebanonization” was coined to describe the country’s penchant for inventing ever more irrational and deadly forms of mass murder and mayhem to afflict its 18 officially recognized sects and religious minorities.
Even an abbreviated account of Lebanon’s past travails helps explain why many Middle Easterners are jaundiced about the repercussions from the struggle for Syria. Turkey helps Syria’s Sunni insurgents but worries that Assad will use Syrian Kurds to cause trouble among its own large and restive Kurdish population. The essentially Shiite government in Baghdad is nervous about a Syria eventually under the influence of Sunni radicals.
A black joke among Lebanese last year asked why their much battered country was spared the turmoil that attended the Arab Spring and its most violent ramifications, especially in Syria.
The jest’s cynical answer: Because Lebanon, with its unhealed scars and complicated religious and ethnic makeup, is automatically qualified for the finals.
Despite occasional incidents, an unspoken understanding so far has kept major violence off Lebanese streets — precisely because pro- and anti-Syrian factions await the outcome next door in Syria. Once it becomes clear, the joke’s cynicism assumes that the uneasy stalemate will end.
Is anyone at all planning, in some think thank for example, how to prevent the bloody retribution likely to be the Alawites’ collective fate if Assad’s regime is overthrown?
To conjure that fate and prevent further turmoil spreading throughout the region, the United States and allies would do well to work with — rather than against — Russia to prod all Syrian parties to the negotiating table and have them eschew escalating violence. That again involves swallowing hard and somehow persuading Assad and the insurgents to talk. That’s a tall order and the hour is late.
Jonathan Randal is a former Washington Post foreign correspondent whose book, The Tragedy of Lebanon-Christian Warlords, Israeli Adventurers and American Bunglers, is being republished by Just World Books.