February 17th, 2012
03:00 PM ET

Will post-Assad Syria look like Iraq?

Editor’s Note: Professor Eyal Zisser is the head of the Department of Middle Eastern and African History and a senior research fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center, both at Tel Aviv University.

By Eyal Zisser - Special to CNN

In an interview that Bashar al-Assad gave to the Wall Street Journal in January 2011 before the Syrian protests broke out, he assured his interviewers that the Arab Spring would not reach Damascus. Al-Assad was mistaken, of course, for within a month of the interview protests broke out across the country. But al-Assad had a point, Syria is different from the other countries of the Arab Spring such as Egypt and Tunisia.  Syria possesses qualities that protect it better from the storm.

Nearly 40% of Syria's population consists of members of minority communities. There are the Alawites (about 12%), from among whom come the ruling al-Assad family. In addition to this community, there are the Christians (12%), the Kurds (10%), and the Druze (5%). Many within minority communities worry that radical Islam will replace al-Assad and have been reluctant to join the protests against Bashar al-Assad.

In addition, the revolution in Syria is not driven by the “Facebook” youth - offspring of the big city middle and upper classes - as they were in Egypt and Tunisia. Syria's revolution is a peasants' revolution. It broke out in the rural periphery, away from Damascus.

The residents of Syria's big cities, including the members of the Sunni community, are still sitting on the fence. They see Iraq - Syria's neighbor to the east - as a possible scenario for post-al-Assad Syria. Iraq was liberated by the Americans from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein but instead of stability and prosperity, the dictator's fall brought on a bloody civil war between Iraq's different religious and ethnic communities.  Indiscriminate terror resulted, along with the gradual disintegration of the country into its regional components - Kurds in the north, Sunnis in the center, and Shiites in the south.

What to watch

The Syrian regime is bleeding. Of this there is no doubt. The question is: Will it continue to bleed until it finally falls, or will Bashar al-Assad somehow be able to maintain power. To answer this question, one must look for the “game-changers” - those major developments that could bring about a dramatic and quick collapse of the al-Assad regime.

First, one must pay attention to the cohesion of the Syrian army and government apparatuses. These have so far maintained their cohesion, continuing to support the al-Assad regime. There have not been any major desertions from the army. No army unit or high-ranking general has deserted its ranks for the opposition.

Most of the Syrian Army's high-ranking officers come from the al-Assad family or the Alawite community. They know that - in contrast to their counterparts in Egypt - the end of the al-Assad regime also means their end. Even the Syrian state bureaucracy stands firmly behind Bashar al-Assad. Thus, for example, not one Syrian diplomat has defected even though there are hundreds of diplomats in the Syrian Foreign Service stationed in more than a hundred embassies around the world. This fact stands in complete contrast to Libya where most of the Libyan diplomatic corps defected to the opposition within days of the outbreak of the violence there.

Next, one must pay attention to the communities currently sitting on the fence - the residents of the big cities such as Damascus and Aleppo - along with members of the various minority groups such as the Druze and Christians. As long as the residents of the big cities, mostly Sunnis, refrain from joining the demonstrations against the regime, the opposition, which is in any case divided, will find it even more difficult to garner enough power to bring down the al-Assad regime. On the other hand, if the Druze on Jabal al-Druze (Druze Mountain) decide to join the demonstrations against the regime - something that has not yet happened - this will signal their belief that the Syrian regime has come to the end of the road.

Given this situation, it is no wonder that the world has been careful about intervening militarily in Syria. The Syrian army, which still stands behind al-Assad, could fight back. It is a strong and powerful army. It is most likely that the world will let the Syrian struggle continue until the regime weakens and collapses by itself, or until those who are sitting on the fence in Syria join the protests and thereby signal the nearing end of al-Assad. At most, other states will continue to supply the insurgents in Syria with money and weapons with the aim of bleeding the Syrian regime until it collapses.

The Syrian regime has enough strength to survive for some time absent a game-changing event such as defections of entire army units or high-ranking officers, a sudden change of heart in the international community followed by substantial intervention, or massive demonstrations in Damascus and Aleppo.

Absent these events, the struggle for Syria is likely to be long and bloody, without a decisive outcome on the horizon.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Eyal Zisser.

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Topics: Syria

soundoff (26 Responses)
  1. S.V.P.YADAV

    Respected, Mr.Al-Assad Garu,you are facing very big problem and suffered lot. In front of U.S insollence you could not do anything. In my verdict you have only one way,that you can make meeting separetely with KURDS and DRUGE and MINORITIES about CRISTIANITY about its stand in SYRIA. In pursuance,you can give additional benefits to above said three groups.Then you can pickup U.S stand.After that you have known conclusion.

    February 18, 2012 at 3:05 am | Reply
  2. j. von hettlingen

    That no notable defections among Syrian diplomats and armed forces have taken place yet as it was the case in Libya can be explained that Assad seems to be more popular than the late wayward Gaddafi. Besides the families of the would-be defected will face reprisals from Assad's regime. I do think it's senseless to have a country with a myriad of conflictual ethnies and sects united. There will never be stability. If Iraq's Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites think it better for them to have their own sovreignty, let them. Of course it wouldn't come easy to decide who's going to have what, due to the country's oil.

    February 18, 2012 at 6:47 am | Reply
    • Rz

      JVH, you are almost illuminating one of the most basic problems.That religion and state must be separated! I'm not saying that rule by either form is perfect, but Christians have learned the hard way too. Respect the Church and religion, but keep it out of politics. When this is implemented, there is usually a better chance for peace. It may not be instant by any means ( ie. Cathiolics vs Protestanrs), but eventually it usually gets better.

      February 18, 2012 at 9:47 am | Reply
  3. .

    Post Assad Syria - assuming he is thrown out of power, which is a longshot - will look just like it did under Assad, but with a different dictator. Because the Arabs don't understand Jeffersonian democracy. They only understand Saddam, Assad, Saladin, Ghadaffy and the Ayatollahs.

    So why are we wasting our time there? For oil, which we can drill for right here, right now, in the good old US of A.

    That's why I'm voting a straight Republican ticket in November.

    February 18, 2012 at 12:00 pm | Reply
    • jay

      Actually, they do understand Jefferson- he said every generation needs a revolution.

      February 20, 2012 at 2:58 am | Reply
    • Come Again?????

      "That's why I'm voting a straight Republican ticket in November" ???????

      uhhh, you had better check your favorite candidates...last I looked, the Repubs (sans RP) were getting itchy trigger fingers to more aggressively intervene. Like or Obama or not, if this is your key issue, you are riding the wrong horse.

      Obama will attempt intelligence, restraint, common sense, and accept input from from people in positions to offer informed and useful opinions. He will look for the best possible course and outcome for our nation's interest. Will he get it right in the end? Who knows, and who knows how things will still develop. Get back to me on that. People can inteliigently disagree on policy and approach,

      But if you think the Repubs displaying instinctive hard-ons for a flex of Americs military might over there in Syria for purposes unknown to most of the rest of us - good luck with your choice.

      February 20, 2012 at 2:50 pm | Reply
    • holycow

      If that's the only reason you're voting straight republican than you're not thinking about what's right for America itself. Do your neighbors a favor and stay home..

      February 24, 2012 at 9:53 pm | Reply
  4. Hahahahahahaha

    It will look like the cesspool it already is. Hahahahahaha

    February 18, 2012 at 10:08 pm | Reply
  5. Reality

    Will post-Assad Syria look like Iraq? Fareed where do you come up with this non sense?? When this is all said and done and Assad is still in power I will remember to remind you to eat your humble-pie that was made in Bombay! You don't know what you're talking about.

    February 20, 2012 at 12:00 pm | Reply
  6. Syrian

    I challenge Eyal Zisser to give us proofs and to state to us his resources regarding the size of minorities is Syria.

    To claim that minorities in Syria are substantial, specifically to claim that the Alawite population in Syria is 10% or more is a lie.

    The person who began this lie was Bashar's father the criminal Hafez Assad to intimidate the majority Sunni Syrians and to soften the appearance of the fact that an extreme minority is controlling the vast majority.

    According to the Central Bureau of Statistics of Syrian Arab Republic and to the UN Demographic Yearbook 1999 at:

    Population in Lattakia province where the majority of Alawites are is 991,000.
    More than 600,000 of total population are Sunnis in the cities of Lattakia and it's suburbs and Jableh and the other smaller towns.

    Population in Tartoos is 785,000 and most of them are NOT Alawites.

    Considering the little number of Christians, and presuming that most of the Alawites exist in Lattakia and Tartoos, and presuming that there are 500,000 Alawites outside the above mentioned provinces, and we know that Syria's population is 21 million:
    Alawite's population is then 7 to 7.5%

    Druze population:
    Sweda province is where the Druze are concentrated.
    But: Sweda province population is 365,000 ONLY out of 21,000,000 Syrians.

    Finally, the uprising is not against minorities.
    The uprising is AGAINST CORRUPTION.

    February 26, 2012 at 12:57 am | Reply
    • Syrian

      As of today, March 9, 2012, Eyal Zisser have not responded to my challenge to show us a proof of what he claims to be the number of minorities in Syria.

      Which means: he has no proof.
      And it means that whoever exaggerates minorities in Syria DOES NOT want change in Syria.

      March 9, 2012 at 9:03 am | Reply
  7. Some sense

    If America deso not help the Syrian people, then Al-Qaeda will step in.
    It is a shame if we fail to help the Syrian people and leave the field open for Al-Qaeda to win the hearts and minds of the freedom fighters.
    This will not be in the best interest of United States' security and it's international status.

    February 26, 2012 at 12:59 am | Reply
  8. Religious state of Israel commenting on Minorities!

    Is it a coincidence that the writer of this article which exaggerates the size of minorities to scare the world and Syrians of sectarian violence is a citizen of the Religious State of Israel?

    Is it possible that Israelis would rather that Assad stays?

    Is it possible that the Israeli Lobby in the US is pressuring policy makers NOT to support the Syrian people?

    February 27, 2012 at 11:22 am | Reply
  9. watex1234

    Not our problem, so why is it a story?

    April 2, 2012 at 1:31 am | Reply
  10. Sherkoh Abbas

    Your count of Syrian Kurds is not accurate ; according to 1958 there were 1.5 million out of 4.5 million Syriana that were Kurds.

    May 21, 2012 at 12:32 pm | Reply
    • Syrian

      I am NOT against the Kords!

      I am against lies.
      The turmoil in Syria is because of CORRUPTION.
      Not because of minorities.

      And please whoever writes about statistics, show your sources for credibility's sake.

      July 1, 2012 at 8:41 pm | Reply

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