Given our recent post on the rising Syrian Kurdish quest for regional autonomy, see here, there is a serious question about the viability of a unified Syria. Probably one of the most astute observers of the dynamics in sectarian torn neighboring Syria is Pinhas Inbari in Jerusalem who writes for the World Jewish Congress. He keeps a watching brief on developments in the region. He has the requisite linguistic and cultural understanding coupled with sources among the conflict ridden neighbors of Israel on which to base his analyses. Israel's neighbors are caught up in the rise of Sunni fundamentalism, whether Muslim Brotherhood, Salafist or, more dangerously, al Qaeda with the so-called Arab Spring. Add to that mix the US reliance on a coalition of Sunni Islamist neighbors led by Turkey with support from Wahhabist Qatar and Saudi Arabia seeking to perfect an enclave in northern Syria to funnel weapons to the opposition rebel forces, including the Free Syrian Army. At some stage the US with Turkish support might establish a no-fly zone. Some observers believe that if the northern Syria no-fly zone came to pass it might complicate air route planning a possible Israeli air assault on Iran's nuclear facilities.
From a Weekend Wall Street Journal report on the Sunni opposition in and around the embattled region of Aleppo, “Kidnapping, Spats on Docket of Rebel Syria boss”, the opposition appear to have meager weapons and munitions supplies and their hands full dealing with irredentist Kurds and domestic disputes in the region.
In his latest report issued by the World Jewish Congress, “Will Syria Split”, Inbari explains the realities behind the bloody sectarian divide inside Syria posing the question of could this lead to a split of the country along ethno-religious lines, post-Assad. He presents a more realistic picture than the filings from many mainstream correspondents in the field in Syria and Turkey.
Here are Inbari’s perceptive observations:
The latest reported defection of Syrian Vice-Prime Minister Faruq al-Shara has sharpened the nature of the struggle to control Syria and crystallized the fact that there is an ongoing civil war between competing Syrian sects.
President Assad’s Alawites, who control the army and the intelligence branches – the Mukhabarat – are fighting the Sunnis, who, while being the majority, lack the means to fight the mighty Syrian army and suffer from disharmony inside their leadership and disagree about the kind of Syria they want to arise out of Assad’s ashes.
Al-Shara’s departure signals the end of the Alawite-ruled Baath party, since he and other senior officials who defected, as Sunnis, provided Assad’s clan legitimacy with the Sunni majority. As a result, Assad’s regime is now split along sectarian fault line
[. . .]
While it appears that the regime is fighting for Syria as a whole, some signs signal its preparation for an eventual split. The first of these signs comes from the northern Kurdish region, where the Syrian army has retreated and has allowed PKK allies to take over several cities near the Alawite region, while other areas have remained without a defined ruler altogether. This seeming yield of territory to the Kurds may serve the Alawites in the future, should they find themselves holed up in the Nusseiri Mountain and facing a vengeful Sunni majority. The Kurds will then likely remember they were granted their territory by the Alawites without any bloodshed.
However, the Kurds harbor bitter memories of the long history of persecution they suffered at the Baath Party’s hands. Furthermore, Assad does not enjoy the support of all Alawites. The silent minority of Assad’s opponents inside the Alawite community fears retribution from the Sunnis should the civil war’s tide turn against them. Once the war is over, there is no guarantee that they will stand behind Assad.
While the Kurds favor an autonomous government within federated Syria and the Alawites may be preparing to defect, other Syrian factions have their own view of the post-war situation. The Druze, for example, are alarmed by the possibility of a splintered Syria.
Unlike the Kurds, they feel safer as shy partner of lager political entity. Their long history of persecution has taught them not to stand out, not to provoke, and to blend in with the ruling nation. They have learnt to keep their own identity to themselves and avoid displaying it to the public. Hence, the idea of a separate Druze government that would emphasize their separate sectorial existence and control over specific territory may well toss them into territorial disputes with their neighbors who could prevail and lead to dramatic destruction of the Druze community.
For their part, the Arab Sunnis are intent on keeping Syria together as a centralized regime based in Damascus. Their vision has always been that of looking out rather than in, determined to control the region through the pan-Arab ideology of the Baath Party propped up by the Assad clan. The ideology dictates the unification of all Arabs in one great Arab empire that would, as a first step, encompass Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Palestine.
Bashar al-Assad is keenly aware of the Sunnis’ pan-Arab ambitions.
Part of the strategy used in current battles aims to keep the Sunnis busy on their own turf with infrastructure restoration that would not give them the chance to proceed with an expansion plan. Assad will also not retreat from Damascus to the Nusseiri Mountains before destroying the city to a degree that would prevent it from becoming the epicenter of a future Sunni political center that could serve as a launch pad against the Alawites.