Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Syria Primer

Currently, Syria is run by an Alawite regime headed by Bashar al-Assad. The Alawite are a group of tribes from western Syria and make up between 10% and 20% of the population depending on who you ask. These tribes practice a form of Shia Islam, in contrast to the majority of the population who are Sunni.

The Alawite have been in control since the sixties when Bashar's father, Hafez al-Assad took over in a coup. Hafez was a master politician, though a brutal and repressive dictator. Bashar is not in the same league and many feel he is first among a group that lead the regime, but not a real force on his own.

Last year, public demonstrations against the regime began, like elsewhere in the Arab world. As the government brutally and ineffectually sought to crush the demonstrations, they gradually became a rebellion.  The rebellion itself is divided and includes groups with many different agendas. The only thing they seem to agree on is that the regime has to go (and that they don't like Israel, but that's mom and apple pie in the Arab world).

This year, the rebellion became strong enough to compete with the government in rural areas, and has taken over large swaths of the country. Lately, they have been contesting urban areas, with less success.  However, they have survived a month of combat in Damascus, and three weeks of heavy combat in Aleppo.

Several factors, including the attack on Damascus, and the spectacular assasination of Bashar's top security officials have made it clear that the regime is probably doomed. When the trickle of defections becomes a flood, the end will be at hand.

But nothing is simple in the Middle East. Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq Turkey, Qatar and the United States are intervening directly or indirectly. The Russians don't want to lose their last significant Arab client state. The Iranians don't want to see a Shiite regime overthrown, plus Syria is a key strategic ally, helping them get stuff to Hezbollah in Lebanon. The Saudis want very much to have a Shiite regime replaced with a Sunni, and they are funneling guns to the rebels, as is the US (presumably via Qatar). Israel is on red alert, but can't do anything to influence events. So they make concerned noises, but will do nothing unless the chemical weapons come into play. 

The chemical weapons are a new factor. The regime moved some out of rebel held areas recently. This was viewed as a good thing by both the US and the Russians. Both remain concerned (as does Israel) that the weapons could fall into the hands of "terrorists". The Russians are said to have warned Assad in very direct language that these weapons must be secured and cannot be used, period.

At the moment, with all the confusion on the ground and the mad spinning by all sides, it is impossible to tell for sure what is going on.

In any case, the most likely outcome is the fall of the regime and the death of many Alawites. Who will replace them and on what terms is unknowable at this point. Just don't believe everything you read.