Following the events from a week ago a tenuous calm has prevailed in Lebanon. However, a closer look at the activities of Lebanon's radical Sunni Islamist groups and Shiite militant organization Hezbollah reveals that something is afoot. For one there are indications that various Lebanese Sunni Islamist groups are collaborating in an effort to mobilize a militia to fight in Syria. At the same time Hezbollah is planning to do likewise.

Assad planning for after collapse of his regime

On 1 October in our prediction for this quarter we wrote that: The Syrian regime is weakening but is unlikely to collapse by or before the end of 2012.The longer the war lasts, the higher the probability that Syria will experience a "Lebanonization," which could ultimately see the al Assad regime and the Alawites devolve into just another clan among many fighting from a regional position rather than as a national entity.

In fact a decision for the deployment of peacekeepers ("blue helmets") by the end of December in Syria is currently the most likely outcome. Yet at the same time it appears that rebels' gains in the north might soon be irreversible.

 

Thus Syria's beleaguered president, Bashar al Assad, might be charting a course of events in his country after the possible collapse of his regime. Post-al Assad Syria will not turn into a democracy; instead, it will emerge as a country thoroughly fragmented along ethnic, sectarian and regional lines. Al Assad has definitely succeeded in pitting not only Kurds against Arabs but also against fellow Kurds who are allied with the Free Syrian Army.

The FSA should not rejoice over the fact that Kurds are engaged in fratricide because it has happened before among Kurds in Turkey and Iraq. That tribal Kurds are divided has not prevented them from eventually presenting themselves as a serious challenge to the central government. Syrian Kurds are currently going through the same phase of communal solidarity and political evolution that their brethren elsewhere in the region went through years ago. A main political fault line in post-al Assad Syria will be between Arabs and Kurds.

 

Syria's complex demographics make it a difficult country to rule. It is believed that three-fourths of the country's roughly 22 million people are Sunnis, including most of the Kurdish minority in the northeast. Given the volatility that generally accompanies sectarianism, Syria deliberately avoids conducting censuses on religious demographics, making it difficult to determine, for example, exactly how big the country's Alawite minority has grown.

Alawite power in Syria is only about five decades old. The Alawites are frequently (and erroneously) categorized as Shia, have many things in common with Christians and are often shunned by Sunnis and Shia alike.

Between 1920 and 1946, the French mandate provided the first critical boost to Syria's Alawite community. In 1920, the French, who had spent years trying to legitimize and support the Alawites against an Ottoman-backed Sunni majority, had the Nusayris change their name to Alawites to emphasize the sect's connection to the Prophet's cousin and son-in-law Ali and to Shiite Islam.

The Sunnis quickly reasserted their political prowess in post-colonial Syria and worked to sideline Alawites from the government, businesses and courts. However, the Sunnis also made a fateful error in overlooking the heavy Alawite presence in the armed forces.

Thus the second major pillar supporting the Alawite rise came with the birth of the Baath party in Syria in 1947. For economically disadvantaged religious outcasts like Alawites, the Baathist campaign of secularism, socialism and Arab nationalism provided the ideal platform and political vehicle to organize and unify around.

In a remarkably short period, the 40-year reign of the al Assad regime has since seen the complete consolidation of power by Syrian Alawites who, just a few decades earlier, were written off by the Sunni majority as powerless, heretical peasants.

Also today Syria's Sunni Arabs will not be able to benefit from the comfort of their majority status -- they constitute 60 percent of the country's total population -- because they are segmented along regional lines as well as urban vs. rural lines. There is little in common between the metropolises of Damascus and Aleppo. The latter had always turned to Mosul and Baghdad, whereas the former had historically identified with Egypt and locally felt much closer to the cities of Beirut, Tripoli and Jerusalem. There is no Kurdish issue for the residents of Damascus because Kurds there have been "Arabized" over the centuries. The vast countryside of Aleppo has left more than 700,000 rural Kurds bitter, alienated and unaffected by the city's rise as the country's economic hub. Whereas Turkey appears positioned to establish itself as the regional hegemon in northern Syria, the Hashemites in Jordan will certainly try to carve for themselves a unique place in southwestern Syria, including Damascus, which they see as a prize.

Syria's Alawites on the coast are readying themselves to eventually ally with Maronites in northern Lebanon and Shia in the northern Bekaa area.

 

Hezbollah's military activity along the Orontes River Basin points in that direction.

In the end Syria may maintain its status as a unitary state, but it will emerge as a highly unstable and fragmented country. The struggle for Syria that predominated the country's politics during the 1950s will most likely resume on a much larger scale this time. Should al Assad physically survive his country's bloody conflict, he will be able to tell his critics, "I told you so."

If a currently discussed UN deployment of peacekeepers ("blue helmets") in Syria where to be agreed upon it would come at the expense of Saudi Arabia, France, Qatar and Turkey - all of whom back the Syrian revolt and demand regime change in Damascus. This anti-Assad coalition is now split between those demanding a compromise solution and those trying to sabotage the process underway between Washington and Moscow. However nobody knows what Assad or Tehran will do, Assad may veto the project; so too might Tehran.

Given the precarious position in which the regime finds itself in the north, it has reportedly already begun contingency planning for the next stage of the war. In a case where regime forces are overwhelmed in Aleppo and Idlib, large numbers of troops will continue to be stationed in Damascus while forces in the north will fall back on Hama and Homs to maintain a secure line of communication to the Alawite coast. Although the rebels will continue to face considerable opposition from a still-heavily armed regime force, their strategic position will have improved.

 

 

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