By Joseph Schupac
As the uprising in Syria approaches its twentieth month, it is becoming increasingly important that the world understand that the violence occurring there is not, as the media often claims it to be, the result of sheer unbridled authoritarianism. Syria is not a troubled country because of the rule of Bashar al Assad, however misguided and contemptible his decisions may be. Rather, like Sudan in the 1980’s, Yugoslavia in the 1990’s, and Iraq in the 2000’s, Syria is suffering mainly because its population is divided into opposing factions that are organized along geographic lines.
The demographic composition of Syria is exceedingly complicated. Sunni Arabs, who account for almost sixty percent of the Syrian population, are located in the north of the country on either side of the Euphrates River and in the south of the country around the city of Damascus. Allawites, members of a Shiite spin-off group that has made up the majority of the Syrian elite since the French
ruled the country in the 1940’s, are located mainly in the mountains that run along its northwest and only coastline. Kurds, a non-Arabic people, live in the mountainous part of the country’s northeast, which extends into the equally rugged Kurdish regions of Turkey, Iran, and Iraq. Christian Arabs comprise ten percent of the population of Syria and are predominant in many areas that run alongside the Allawite communities, as well as in central Lebanon only one hundred and fifty kilometers away. Finally, the Druze, a fiercely independent group of about half a million people, make their home in the Jabal Al Arab Mountains in the south of the country.
Should Syria fragment along geo-sectarian lines, as it is looking increasingly like it might do might do, the main beneficiaries would be its immediate neighbours, Turkey and Israel. Though, both might face a greater threat from terrorists and refugees as a result of chaos the divide might cause, they would nonetheless benefit from having a far weaker government in Syria to concern themselves with. For Israel, a fragmented Syria would mean that only Egypt could pose a coherent long-term threat to its existence, barring the use of nuclear weapons. For Turkey, a fragmented Syria would mean that the road to becoming a significant regional power would become much less difficult; it would be freer to devote
resources to becoming more influential in other parts of the Greater Middle East, such as the Balkans, the Caucuses, and Iraq.
Iran would be the only country to be seriously alarmed should Syria undergo a sectarian divide. It has benefited greatly from the Allawites’ control of Syria, as the Allawite fear of a Sunni takeover of the country has forced the Assad regime to forge a close relationship with Iran instead of with powerful Sunni-dominated countries in the region like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. In addition to being an important country in its own right, Syria has been the base of Iran’s influence over the Shiite group Hezbollah in Lebanon, and has also been useful in Iran’s efforts to aid and influence the Shiites who make up more than half of the population of Iraq. If Syria falls into chaos, Iran might lose much of its influence in Lebanon while also suffering a major setback in Iraq, where it is currently the most influential external actor. Iran would go from being in an extremely strong position in the region, with significant influence all throughout the Fertile Crescent, to just being one of several important Middle Eastern countries. Its ability to put pressure on oil-rich Gulf Arab monarchies with oppressed Shiite majorities, such as Bahrain, or with large, concentrated Shia minorities.
such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, would also be negatively impacted. Israel and Saudi Arabia would be thrilled by the Iranian loss of power, but would be worried about a new threat: Turkish power. Turkey already has the largest and most highly diversified economy in the Middle East by far, and its military is the most sophisticated than any other with the possible exception of Israel. If, in the future, Turkey were to gain too much influence in Iraq, the Gulf Arab states might become concerned that it would put pressure on them as Iran has attempted to do. Unlike Iran, which uses disgruntled Shiite Arab populations to worry the Gulf monarchs, Turkey could potentially make use of the ideologies of democracy and modernity, two things it has that they lack. This would have the added benefit of appealing to the United States, who Turkey would not want to make an enemy of in the way that Iran has. It would also naturally give rise to the Shiite issue these countries are vulnerable to, because democracy would extend a measure of political power to the now-powerless Shiite majorities in Bahrain and in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province (where ninety percent of Saudi Arabia’s oil production happens to be located). Though Turkey has been a firm ally of Israel for decades, even claiming that its relations with the country were only disrupted by Israeli actions in the Gaza flotilla incident rather than broken entirely due to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, it would likely feel the need to boost its anti-Israel credentials should it attempt to become a regional leader. Among other things, taking a stance that is more critical of Israel might allow Turkey to pressure the Gulf Arabs by pointing out that their governments do next to nothing to advance the cause of Palestinian statehood – an argument Iran and others have already been making for years in an attempt to stir up the Arabian masses against their governments.
the dynamic of the Israeli-Arab conflict might shift, bringing in a Turkish element that has not been present since the early days of modern Zionism, before the First World War stripped the Turks of their old empire. Thus, even if Turkey’s actions with regards to Israel weren’t to change much as a result of its growing authority, its rhetoric certainly would.
By Joseph Schupac