Let's cut through all the pious pronouncements about the horrible Assad regime in Syria. We err when we apply majoritarian democratic criteria to tribal societies. There is a reason that Syria has labored under brutal minority regimes for half a century, since the Ba'ath Party coup of 1963 led by the Christian Michel Aflaq, followed by the Alawite Assad dynasty's assumption of power in 1971. If you create artificial states with substantial minorities, as British and French cartographers did after the First World War, the only possible stable government is a minority government. That is why the Alawites ran Syria and the minority Sunnis ran Iraq. The minority regime may be brutal, even horribly brutal, but this arrangement sets up a crude system of checks and balances. A government drawn from a minority of the population cannot attempt to exterminate the majority, so it must try to find a modus vivendi. The majority can in fact exterminate a minority. That is why a majority government represents an existential threat to the minority, and that is why minorities fight to the death.
In a 2012 essay for Asia Times Online, I conjured the ghost of Cardinal Richelieu to explain this simple exercise in game theory:
"Isn't there some way to stabilize these countries?" I asked.
Richelieu looked at me with what might have been contempt. "It is a simple exercise in logique. You had two Ba'athist states, one in Iraq and one in Syria. Both were ruled by minorities. The Assad family came from the Alawite minority Syria and oppressed the Sunnis, while Saddam Hussein came from the Sunni minority in Iraq and oppressed the Shi'ites.
It is a matter of calculation -- what today you would call game theory. If you compose a state from antagonistic elements to begin with, the rulers must come from one of the minorities. All the minorities will then feel safe, and the majority knows that there is a limit to how badly a minority can oppress a majority. That is why the Ba'ath Party regimes in Iraq and Syria -- tyrannies founded on the same principle - were mirror images of each other."
"What happens if the majority rules?," I asked.
"The moment you introduce majority rule in the tribal world," the cardinal replied, "you destroy the natural equilibrium of oppression.
"The minorities have no recourse but to fight, perhaps to the death. In the case of Iraq, the presence of oil mitigates the problem.
The Shi'ites have the oil, but the Sunnis want some of the revenue, and it is easier for the Shi'ites to share the revenue than to kill the Sunnis. On the other hand, the problem is exacerbated by the presence of an aggressive neighbor who also wants the oil."
"So civil war is more likely because of Iran?"
"Yes," said the shade, "and not only in Iraq. Without support from Iran, the Syrian Alawites -- barely an eighth of the people -- could not hope to crush the Sunnis. Iran will back Assad and the Alawites until the end, because if the Sunnis come to power in Syria, it will make it harder for Iran to suppress the Sunnis in Iraq. As I said, it is a matter of simple logic. Next time you visit, bring a second bottle of Petrus, and my friend Descartes will draw a diagram for you."
That, by the way, also explains the high incidence of atrocities. The really ugly developments of the past several weeks, including air attacks on civilians with mass casualties, probably are a calculated crime on the part of the Assad regime. Syria's Alawites face the not-so-remote prospect of the end of their ethnic existence if a Sunni Muslim regime should accede to power. The Bashar al-Assad regime commits atrocities that are designed to be unforgivable, in order to persuade their base to fight to the end. In practice, that means holding out for an Alawi state on the Mediterranean nestled against the Turkish border. The Assad regime's behavior resembles that of the Nazi regime, which went out of its way to ensure that the German population knew about its worst atrocities, the more to make them complicit in the crimes and persuade them to fight to the bitter end. Benjamin Schwarz of the The Atlantic reviewed new research supporting this interpretation in 2009, concluding, "New histories reveal that the Nazi Regime deliberately insinuated knowledge of the Final Solution, devilishly making Germans complicit in the crime and binding them, with guilt and dread, to their leaders."