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Syria's Fractious Voices
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Syria\'s Fractious Voices

Bashar and Asma al-Assad appear on fashionable people pages the world over: enjoying an art exhibit in Paris, or frequenting one of New York’s trendiest clubs. They’re slim, attractive and stylish, the envy of international wannabes the world over.

Bashar al-Assad’s ascent to power after his father’s death was hailed as a new, more liberal era for Syria. He promised to rule differently from his dictator father, and there was wide-spread talk of reform. For a time, the first couple enjoyed a honeymoon with the world press.

Yet Assad’s regime has responded to dissent by slaughtering thousands of its own. The UN, the world’s democracies, and the Arab League have all met urgently. Sanctions have been imposed and assets seized. Asma al-Assad can no longer travel to England, where she grew up. UN/Arab League envoy Koffi Annan stepped in to broken a peace agreement that’s due to go into effect on April 10th, and Ban Ki-Moon, the current head of the UN, has warned that the deadline is not an excuse to kill as many dissidents as possible in the meantime. Key European Union trading partners have cut Syria loose, and still al-Assad appears grimly determined to crush the armed uprising. The press reports little hope for the Annan peace plan. Propects for dialog are slim.

Indeed, the regime has behaved despicably over the past year. Thousands have died or disappeared, reports of torture are rampant, and the town of Hama has been all but leveled. With what we in America see and hear, it’s easy to view the situation in Syria as another chapter in the year-long Arab Spring. Cries that al-Assad should step down ring out from numerous quarters, and support for the dissenters grows as the violence escalates.

But al-Assad’s repeated preference for bloodshed over talking is not just the result of his desire to hold onto the reins of power. He fears an Islamist takeover, and his fear is grounded in reality.

The differences that divide the dissident factions are political, economic, and religious in nature. While about 75% of Syria is Sunni Muslim, virtually all of the top political, military and intelligence posts in the government are held by members of the tiny Alawite Muslim sect, which is affiliated with the Shia Islam, and to which the al-Assad family belongs. In fact the key posts are held by the family itself. Lower echelon government jobs belong mostly to well-to-do Sunnis who are loyal to the regime. The majority of poor, disenfranchised Sunnis feel deep (if unspoken) resentment of the Alawite regime and its privileged Sunni lackeys. From the outside, al-Assad is supported by the Shia majority in Iran and the Lebanese Hebullah.

The result is that those opposed to the regime have not managed to create a united front, which prevents them from gaining a geographical stronghold from which they might expand their influence and to which supporters could send arms and supplies. Unlike in Eqypt and Libya, they have not succeeded in taking and holding a single town, though al-Assad’s forces have concentrated their wrath on the Sunni population of Hama and Idlib in the western part of the country, as though those areas were Opposition HQ.

With such a widely dispersed insurgency, the collapse of the al-Assad government might well leave a black hole, with deadly chaos close behind. And history has taught us that deadly chaos is a fertile breeding ground for Islamist extremism. So al-Assad’s propensity for labeling the opposition as terrorist is not just rhetorical. Qatar, Saudia Arabia and Turkey are reportedly funding Syrian insurgents, at least some of whom are Islamist terrorists. If al-Assad is toppled, terrorists could indeed begin to crush the other factions, thus killing off any remaining vestiges of the good will necessary for peace talks.

The United States, France and some other countries support the Syrian National Council, an opposition government currently headquartered in Paris, as the head of the insurgency. The SNC is led by westernized Syrians and refuses to send arms or aid to more militant combatants inside Syria. It is headed up by Burhan Ghalyun, a French professor at the Sorbonne. Then there’s the Free Syrian army which is made up largely of former al-Assad troops who have defected, and which is furious at the SNC’s refusal to help those actually fighting for the cause. It differs with the SNC as to how and even whether to garner support outside Syria, and whether to negotiate with the al-Assad regime.

Kurds make up about 10% of the Syrian population, and opposition leaders at a meeting in Istanbul, where the factions struggle to create a viable coalition, have said that Kurd support is pivotal, though many Kurds seem to be keeping their heads down for now. In addition there’s a new wave of opposition spurred on by a highly Sunni, highly religious ideology, and it looks ever more Islamist. Also, Local Coordination Committees draw together young, unorganized protesters, document protests, and spread anti-government messages. Finally, there are significant Druze and Christian groups in Syria, and reports vary as to their loyalties. At any rate, it’s safe to say that thousands of Syrians are doing their best to stay out of the conflict while they wait for an outcome.

Regardless of the daunting picture I’ve painted, it’s vital that we in America inform themselves about the complexity in an on-going way, and that we support the formation of a representative coalition to govern Syria. Sovereign countries whose populations are deeply divided are not a new phenomenon, and we must hope that Syria will find its way too. As the story unfolds, let us also hope that the al-Assad regime is dealt with in a way that supports the formation of a coalition that’s capable of governing.

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