Syria may be on the brink of a civil war far bloodier than anything seen for a long time in the Middle East. To make matters worse, it could spill over into neighboring countries by pitting Sunni and Shia Muslims against one another, a conflict whose power has already been seen in Iraq
Iran, Hezbollah, and their allies in Iraq and elsewhere are often extremist Shia Muslims; the radicals further west — as in Saudi Arabia, Hamas, and the Muslim Brotherhood — are Sunni Muslims.
Syria is on the borderlands between these two doctrines. Most of its people are Sunni Muslims but there are also Christians, Druze, and Alawites. Who are the Alawites? While arguably Alawites are not Muslims at all, they claim to be Shia Muslims. Syria’s government is also aligned with Iran and Hezbollah — in other words, the Shia Muslim forces.
And therein lies the danger. The ruling Alawites comprise only about 12 percent of Syria’s population but largely dominate the government. The bloody repression of the opposition, which is largely Sunni, is creating communal tensions. Sunni Muslims, who outnumber Alawites by a margin of more than five-to-one, may view this as a Sunni-Alawites and equally a Sunni-Shia conflict.
The Syrian dictatorship has thus begun a blood feud regardless of these potential consequences. Many Syrians I have spoken with inside the country are seething with anger over the Alawite-led government’s butchering of Sunnis. They are equally aware that Hezbollah and the Iranian regime support President Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s dictator, secretly and cheer him publicly.
To try to convince enraged young revolutionaries that this is not religiously fostered but rather the work of thugs who happen to be Alawites is futile. Whether the revolution succeeds, is repressed, or continues, a communal war could be the result.
And a Sunni-Alawite bloodbath in Syria could lead to something similar happening in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Lebanon. The result could also be a sectarian war that might last for generations.
The best option would be a military coup led by an Alawite general who would free political prisoners, initiate real and major reforms, imprison those guilty of corruption and murder in the current government, and bring a transformation to democracy. By bringing the Alawites credit for ending what is widely perceived as an Alawite regime, such an act could defuse hatreds and lead to national conciliation.
Thus, there is an additional factor making the downfall of the Assad regime even more important and pressing. Otherwise, both Syria and the region will pay a high price, with the victims being mostly innocent victims of communal and religious hatred on both sides. Hopefully, there is a Syrian general who understands this situation. Equally, it is vital that those in the West understand there is limited time and that a successful revolution in Syria followed by national conciliation is in everyone’s interest.