Can Syria Avoid Ethnic Cleansing?

Can Syria Avoid Ethnic Cleansing?

Napoleon once said that in war, moral power is to physical power as three parts out of four, and the past few days have seen a sudden and drastic shift in the balance of moral power in Syria. The bomb that killed the three most senior members of the security establishment July 18 may just have been a lucky fluke for the rebels, and the street fighting in Damascus may end with a (temporary) regime victory. But everything has changed in terms of expectations.

Perhaps “morale” is a better word than “moral.” The reason the regime seemed secure until last week was not its weapons, but the confidence of its supporters in the idea that their side would still be able to come out on top. That confidence has now been profoundly shaken. The fighting has reached the heart of the big cities, and the rebels have struck even at the core of the regime, the national security building, to kill key members of al-Assad’s innermost circle.

Suddenly it is occurring to many people who formerly saw the regime as the protector of their privileges that the regime could actually lose. If they are going to lose, you do not want to be in the last ditch with them. Maybe it’s time to change sides.

About ten minutes later, it will also occur to the same people that many others are undoubtedly having the same thoughts – and that means the collapse could come quite quickly. This kind of thinking operates as a self-fulfilling prophecy, so the regime’s final slide into defeat could be coming within days or weeks.

So the question is: what happens then? The great fear is that it could go the same way as Iraq and Lebanon, two neighboring countries that share about the same mix of ethnic and religious groups (in differing proportions) as Syria.

Lebanon tore itself apart in a civil war between those groups from 1975-90, and a quarter-million Lebanese died. Iraq tore itself apart in 2005-2009, and at least half a million Iraqis died. Two million people fled the country permanently, including almost all of Iraq’s Christian minority, and the Sunni Muslims have almost all been driven out of mixed and Shia-majority areas.

Any intelligent Syrian, aware of these dreadful precedents, will be frightened by regime change no matter how much he or she loathes the existing regime. Indeed, the al-Assad regime’s principal means of garnering support has been to insist that only its tyrannical rule can “protect” the Shia, Druze, Alawite and Christian minorities from the 70 percent Sunni Muslim majority.

It could easily go wrong. The original pro-democracy movement was non-violent and emphatically non-sectarian. It was mostly Sunni Muslim, but it deliberately sought to attract the support of various minorities as well. All the leaders understood that only a non-sectarian revolution could produce a democratic Syria.

Unfortunately, the Assad regime drowned that non-violent movement in blood, and instead Syria wound up with a violent revolt that has grown into a veritable civil war. What the rebels must do now is end it without a massacre of the minorities. The price of failure is that the civil war won’t end at all.

The most exposed minority is the Alawites, because they have been the mainstay of the regime. The al-Assad family is Alawite, as are most senior figures in the military, intelligence and Baath Party elites. Their dominance has been based on close clan ties, not on their religion (they are a “heretical” Shia sect), and most Alawites have not benefited much from the regime, but they could easily be held responsible for its crimes – and massacred.

If they think they face that sort of future, they will withdraw to their mountainous stronghold along the Syrian coast (and effectively cut Syria off from the sea). Other minorities will also take fright and arm themselves, and the country will be trapped in a long, cruel war of massacre and ethnic cleansing.

So if the Baath regime goes down soon, the rest of the world should be ready to go in fast with economic help for the post-revolutionary regime, and with multitudes of observers to document what is actually happening to the minorities in the country and dispel false rumors. The rest of the world can do nothing to help now, but it will be sorely needed then.

*Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles have been published in 45 countries.