The Syrian conflict is expected to be a major topic in tonight's presidential debate on foreign policy. Mark Tomass, Harvard Extension instructor and former research fellow at the Harvard Center for Middle Eastern Studies, provides insight into the Syrian civil war. Tomass was born and raised in the Assyrian Quarter of Aleppo, Syria. He lived through the Muslim Brother's rebellion of 1979--82 and the Lebanese Civil War of 1975--90.
Many foreign policy advocates are dismayed by the lack of US leadership in establishing no-fly, no-drive zones along the Syrian borders with Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon. Along these lines army defectors and rebels could stage military operations to bring about the downfall of the Assad regime.
The truth about US support of Syrian rebels
The Obama administration has thus far provided political support to the Syrian rebels. But it has limited military aid to intelligence, training, and logistics.
The administration is betting this kind of qualified support will help overturn the regime. And the United States will appear to be on the side of victors.
Its real motive is to weaken Iran's regional influence by a proxy war that would destroy its ally.
The Syrian rebellion is more antigovernment than prodemocracy
US support for the rebels and those who call for an interventionist US policy are under the illusion that the antigovernment rebellion is a prodemocracy one. But the rebels have no conception of freedom and democracy in the Westerner tradition.
The spontaneous rebellion that aimed to topple the Syrian regime soon mutated into a sectarian civil war between two sects: Sunnis and Alawis.
The Sunnis are represented by local fighters, international jihadists, and regional Sunni states, such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar.
The Alawis control the army and have grassroots support from secularists, heterodox Muslim sects, Christians, leftists, nationalists, and feminists.
Classified intelligence briefings have made Congress aware of this. Yet the administration, the republican presidential candidate, and the mainstream media still present a misleading picture to the US public.
The conflict in Syria is not simply between a tyrant and his people. If that were the case, Assad would have been overthrown in a few weeks, like Ben Ali of Tunis and Mubarak of Egypt.
The sectarian character of the conflict
The advocates for military intervention underplay the sectarian character of the conflict. They claim that the Assad family fomented sectarian strife to convince members of their sect, the Alawis, that the fall of the regime would be catastrophic for Alawis.
But the Alawis needed no convincing. Their nonliteral reading of Islamic scriptures makes them susceptible to secular ideology. They are apostates in the eyes of the dominant Sunni orthodoxy. And apostasy in Islam is a capital offense.
Throughout history, the Alawis were subjected to campaigns of mass murder. The first religious judgment was issued against them in 1305 by a Damascus based Sunni religious scholar. The Sunni Ottoman state issued similar decrees in 1516 and 1820 to kill Alawi men, enslave their women and children, and loot their property.
When the Alawis were not being pursued, they were boycotted and ostracized. They lived for centuries in appalling conditions, often forced to give up their children into servitude to escape starvation.
After Syria's independence from France, Alawis filled the ranks of the army and the emerging secular Baath party, whose ethos suited them as much as it did the rest of the persecuted heterodox Muslims and Christians who sought equality.
Democracy would mean majority rule, not constitutional democracy
The Alawis, rich and poor alike, understand that democracy in the Middle East implies majority rule rather than a constitutional democracy. They understand that under the pretense of democracy, Syria would gradually become like Saudi Arabia.
For them, giving up power implies the tyranny of the Sunni majority. Sunni religious authorities have shown for the past millennium that there is no place for freedom of thought and religious heterodoxy within Islam.
Indeed, the religious orthodoxy that emerged by the end of the Crusades was only sidelined after the 1966 Alawi officers' coupe that endorsed the more enlightened Sufi clerics among Sunni religious scholars. The latter focused on the universal values of Islam. They sought reconciliation with other sects and religions.
The Alawis have two options
For those of us who grew up in the Middle East, the sectarian divide is a reality. Those who claim that Assad stirred up sectarianism either are ill-informed outsiders, who formed their image of Syria by reading politically correct discourse, or are in denial.
Bear in mind that this secular authoritarian and arguably brutal Alawi regime granted religious freedom to all sects. It appointed the first woman vice president in the entire Muslim world.
Convinced that the present rebellion is not a prodemocracy one, the Alawis have two options. They can continue to rule Syria to guarantee their security and thereby continue their repression of the rebellious Sunnis. Or they can rule their own territories in the Alawi Mountains and the Syrian coast, thereby provoking painful sectarian cleansing.
The second option would leave the rest of Syria in chaos, fighting to host the armed groups the West dreads (much like the Syrian regions currently under rebel control).
A recommended US policy
A wise US policy toward the Syrian crisis would persuade its Turkish, Saudi, and Qatari allies to stop arming and recruiting international jihadists to fight a war that would further destabilize a volatile region.
Moreover, the United States should encourage the domestic opposition to negotiate a settlement with the regime that ensures a reasonable transition to a pluralistic and secular political system and saves what is left from pre-Abrahamic civilizations from imminent destruction.
Most importantly, it should cease emboldening the rebels by continuing to predict the demise of the regime, thereby causing more unnecessary bloodshed.