August 28, 2012
The Syrian government's crackdown on the civil unrest that began in 2011 has claimed thousands of lives and displaced 1.5 million people. With the violence intensifying -- 4,000 people have been killed in the fighting in August alone -- and the United Nations Security Council announcing that it will not renew its observer mission to the war-torn country, the prospect of a negotiated settlement to the conflict is looking ever more remote. Below are several reports from PubHub and other sources that provide some context for understanding the religious, political, and geopolitical divides behind the unrest.
What do we know about the composition of Syria's population? According to Mapping the Global Muslim Population: A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World's Muslim Population, a report from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, approximately 20.2 million Syrians, or 92.2 percent of the population, are Muslim, with Sunnis comprising the majority (74 percent) and Shia and Alawites (the sect President Bashar al-Assad's family belongs to) comprising between 15 percent and 20 percent of the population.
Opposition to the Assad regime is concentrated among the Sunni, and many Sunni Islamists abroad are vocally encouraging their co-religionists inside Syria to "rise up and fight." In their article "UK Islamists and the Arab Uprisings" in Current Trends in Islamist Ideology (Vol. 13, August 2012), a publication of the Hudson Institute's Center on Islam, Democracy, and the Future of the Muslim World, James Brandon and Raffaello Pantucci examine how Islamists living in the West helped shape the Arab Spring movements that set the stage for the uprising in Syria. Brandon and Pantucci note that a wave of Islamist exiles arrived in the United Kingdom from Syria after the Muslim Brotherhood tried to overthrow the regime of Hafez al-Assad (Bashar's father) -- a revolt brutally suppressed by Assad -- in 1982. Two UK-based Islamists, Anjem Choudhary and Omar Bakri Mohammed, have clearly expressed a desire to see the current Assad regime toppled. "For them, the ongoing strife in Syria is a clear-cut example of how the West is conspiring against Muslim warriors who are fighting for the oppressed masses," Brandon and Pantucci write. "They believe this despite the fact that strongest support for intervention comes from the West."
Just how strong is the support for military intervention to end the violence? In the Fall 2011 issue of the Carnegie Reporter, a publication of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, Michael Barnett discusses the "Responsibility to Protect" (R2P) resolution adopted by the United Nations in 2005. R2P asserts that when states "are unable or unwilling to protect their citizens from genocide, ethnic cleansing and other situations of large-scale violence," the international community has a responsibility to do so. "When the protesters hit the streets in Syria, and the Assad regime began to hit back, the UN's advisers on R2P and Prevention of Genocide jumped into action," Barnett writes, in part to prevent a repeat of the 1982 massacres perpetrated by the Assad regime. "Does this imply that R2P is a means of defending human rights reformers and pro-democracy movements?" Maybe, Barnett says. But
the very real possibility is that R2P becomes seen not as an impartial protector of civilians but rather as a covert promoter of democratic change. The irony is that while some proponents wanted to expand R2P into prevention in order to rid it of the imperialist tone of humanitarian intervention, the toolkit for prevention plays into the hands of those who see R2P as a vehicle for the powerful to overturn the sovereignty of the weak and impose their liberal values in the process.
Such views are moot absent widespread support among Syria's neighbors and within the United States for stiffer economic sanctions and/or military intervention in Syria. According to Widespread Condemnation for Assad in Neighboring Countries, a Pew Global Attitudes Project survey conducted in the summer of 2012 by the Pew Research Center, the vast majority of Jordanians, Egyptians, Tunisians, and Turks would like to see Bashar al-Assad step down, while the Lebanese population is divided along sectarian lines, with Shia Muslims in that country overwhelmingly expressing support for the Assad regime. The survey also found no consensus about what action should be taken, with Tunisia the only Arab country in which a majority of people supports both stiffer sanctions (63 percent) or an Arab-led military intervention (61 percent). Americans, according to a March 2012 survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, are much less sanguine about intervention, with 64 percent of survey respondents saying the U.S. does not have a responsibility to intervene in the conflict; 62 percent opposing a U.S. and/or NATO-led bombing campaign (as was seen in Libya) in support of anti-government groups; and 63 percent against sending arms and military supplies to anti-government groups looking to depose the Assad regime.
One thing is certain: the escalation of the conflict is affecting Syria's relations with its neighbors and has broader security implications for the Middle East and the Persian Gulf region. What kind of security threat to the region might Syria pose? In addition to Syrian security forces being implicated in the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in 2005 and the Assad regime's longstanding support for Hezbollah, the militant Shia group based in Lebanon that is widely viewed as a proxy for an expansionist Iranian regime, Syria was caught violating its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty commitments in 2007 when Israeli intelligence discovered a covert nuclear reactor under construction there. (Israel subsequently bombed the facility.) More recently, according to the 2012 Nuclear Threat Initiative report NTI Nuclear Materials Security Index: Building a Framework for Assurance, Accountability, and Action (128 pages, PDF), Syria ranked near the bottom of a list of countries (132 out of 144) in terms of how well it secures its non-weaponizable nuclear materials.
It is Syria's alliance with regional power Iran, which seems bent on acquiring nuclear weapons of its own, that is of most concern to the U.S., Israel, and other countries in the region, however. Prior to the current uprising, the Syrian government had evinced a more conciliatory attitude toward the U.S. and its regional proxies than the previous regime and had even positioned itself as a mediator between Sunni Arab countries on the one hand and largely Shia Iran on the other. But according to Divided They Dally? The Arab World and a Nuclear Iran (7 pages, PDF), a 2010 report from the Council on Foreign Relations funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the acquisition of a nuclear-weapons capability by Iran would enable Syria to reassert its power in neighboring Lebanon. Indeed, the report's authors write, "a nuclear Iran means a more effective Syria in the Levant, capable of assisting, profiting from, or impeding the actions of Iran's allies such as Hezbollah or Hamas [the Sunni Islamist political party/militia that governs the Gaza Strip]."
In a similar vein, Saudi-Iranian Relations Since the Fall of Saddam: Rivalry, Cooperation, and Implications for U.S. Policy (158 pages, PDF), a 2009 report from the RAND Corporation funded by the Smith Richardson Foundation, describes how Syria's ties to Iran have complicated efforts by Saudi Arabia, the leading Sunni Arab power in the Gulf region, to spearhead a multilateral solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
So, how might the escalating violence in Syria affect the country's relations with Iran and other regional powers? In their March 2012 paper Iran in Perspective: Holding Iran to Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Technology (42 pages, PDF), the Stimson Center's Barry Blechman and R. Taj Moore note that Iranian support for the Assad regime's brutal repression of the opposition movement has damaged Iran's relations with Turkey as well as democratizing Arab nations in the region. If the situation in Syria worsens, they write, ties between Iran and Turkey are likely to be further strained, while if the Assad government falls and is replaced with one less friendly to Iran, it would seriously complicate the close relationship between Iran and Hezbollah, effectively freezing Iran out of the Middle East for the foreseeable future.
Indeed, "the greatest setback" to the Iranian regime's revolutionary and theological agenda has been the uprising against Assad, writes Jamsheed K. Choksy in "The Ayatollahs Against the Rest," also in Current Trends in Islamist Ideology (Vol. 13, August 2012). According to Choksy, Iran's religious leaders initially supported Assad's forces, but as the revolt spread, the executive branch in Iran began to urge Assad to accommodate his "people's legitimate demands" while warning against the kind of "interference by foreigners" that occurred in Libya. Nevertheless, the uprising in Syria has divided Iran's powerbrokers, Chosky suggests, and created internal schisms within the Iranian political class with respect to domestic demands for socio-political liberalization there.
Clearly, the situation in Syria is both complex and in flux, with rival religious sects, regional players, and Western countries all having a stake in the outcome. The question of whether to intervene militarily and/or by imposing stricter sanctions is similarly complicated by the widespread view, in the developing world at least, that intervention is a tool used by powerful nations to impose their values and economic systems on weaker ones. What do you think? Should the U.S. or a coalition of forces led by the U.S. intervene militarily in Syria before the fighting there devolves into a full-fledged civil war? And what, if anything, can nongovernmental and civil society organizations do to help resolve the situation? Share your thoughts in the comments box below.
-- Kyoko Uchida