A few days ago, I blogged about the debate that has begun to emerge among Mideast analysts with respect to the situation in Syria. One of the major sticking points in that debate is the question of what role Syrian “sectarianism” is playing in the anti-Assad protests and the regime’s counter-propaganda. A couple pieces of commentary caught my eye today, and I think they do a good job of illustrating the two main lines of argumentation on this issue:
(1) Joshua Landis & Ammar Abdulhamid at Blogging Heads: This interview is highly worth watching in its entirety. Landis asks all the relevant questions, and Abdulhamid — a Syrian dissident exiled in Washington and a leading opposition activist –provides a very interesting take on several issues, including: (1) the origins of the protests; (2) the multi-faceted character of the opposition; (3) what happens the day after the regime falls; (4) the future of Syria’s relationship with Iran and Israel.
On the question of Syrian sectarianism, Landis challenges Abdulhamid to respond to those who fear that Syria could disintegrate into a sectarian civil war, like Lebanon during the 70’s and 80’s, or Iraq after the US invasion. Abdulhamid’s response, to my mind, is not particularly convincing. He argues that Syria is exceptional; it is unlike Lebanon and Iraq, and will find a way to withstand a sectarian conflagration because it is “a country of minorities”. Furthermore, this exceptionalism is something that the regime itself has always touted.
The logic is easy to pick apart. Lebanon is even more diverse, minority-wise, than Syria and this did not prevent a sectarian civil war. Furthermore, it strikes me as problematic to use regime propaganda to bolster a claim of Syrian exceptionalism. Note that I am not arguing that Syria is actually a sectarian powder-keg; I just don’t think that Abdulhamid’s argument is very convincing.
(2) May Akl, “The False Hope of Revolution in Syria,” (Foreign Policy): In this piece by Michel Aoun’s US spokesperson, the Syrian protests are characterized as a fringe phenomenon instigated by Salafist elements who don’t have Syria’s best interests at heart. No real evidence is presented for this thesis beyond the notion that a recent army ambush had the tell-tale signs of a jihadi operation. Akl plays the sectarianism card with gusto:
Syria is a secular country where minorities are protected, and as much as they might want to see a regime change in their country, the majority of Syrians cannot accept their country becoming another Iraq — in terms of security — or another Saudi Arabia — in terms of religious rule.
Obviously a majority of Syrians — or, for that matter, the citizens of any country anywhere in the world — would prefer not to see their nation disintegrate into a bloody civil war. But that’s neither here nor there. The issue is whether or not the levels of dissatisfaction with the regime will eventually prevail over whatever anxieties may indeed exist about inter-sect relations.
Incidentally, it’s also worth comparing this Aounist position on Syria with Aoun’s own statement at a fundraiser in the US in the early 2000’s (Arabic YouTube clip; English translation below):
Hizbullah is the extension of the [foreign] policy of two countries — Iran and Syria — in Lebanon, and its operations are controlled by these two countries. We refuse to say that the responsibility [for Hizbullah's actions] lies with one organization only; when Syria itself is dealt with, Hizbullah will disappear from Lebanon. But if Hizbullah is hit in Lebanon, Syria will bequeath us a second Hizbullah and a third, and a fourth, and a fifth. In a spirit of friendship with the Syrian people, I wish them salvation from a terrorist regime, because this people was the first victim of terrorism. Let’s not forget that Hama was the first example of terrorism, when in twenty-four hours the Syrian regime killed more than 30,000 citizens because they were opposed to its rule.
My point is not to play a game of gotcha with Akl or Abdulhamid, but simply to say that we should all recognize that the sectarianism question is very much open. We just don’t know how it is going to feature in the fallout of the Syrian revolution, assuming the protesters can prevail.