Sometimes counterfactual analysis can provide interesting insights in events. In the case of the Syrian Revolution, or Syrian Civil War, it might be insightful to look at the the religious background of it’s leader Bashar al-Assad and the effects it would have on the conflict if he wasn’t a Shia Alawite but a Sunni. Although religion and sectarian differences are important for the backgrounds of the situations I will analyse in this post, I will not introduce you to Sunni or Shia Islam and it’s Alawite offspring. There are other places where you can get better information about that.
If Assad was a Sunni, would there have been a revolution in the first place?
One might suggest that the sectarian division between the Sunni majority and the Shia minority that is in power in Syria, is the main reason the revolt began. Sunni’s and Kurds were suppressed and Shia Muslims got the best jobs. The Shia minority dominated the security forces and important governmental posts and the majority of the population felt subordinated which led to enormous dissatisfaction and unrest. From this point of view it is plausible to state that the revolution was caused by a deep division along sectarian lines in which a minority suppressed a majority (mind you, Bahrain…). However, the situation in Syria before the uprising gave plenty reasons to start a revolt. Assad is a dictator in the broadest sense of the word. No free press (the Ba’ath party controls the press), no free speech, limited freedom of movement, restrictions on assembly and association, arrests of political opposition, torture and abuse of prisoners and of course, no free elections which makes the Ba’ath party the only party in the country and effectively leaves them in power. So, when the Arab Spring started, Syrians saw dictatorial regimes being toppled in Egypt and Libya and wanted to shake off the shackles as well. Would it really have mattered if Assad was a Sunni? No, I don’t think so. Assad is a dictator and dictatorship isn’t limited to Alawites or Shi’ites. Gaddafi was a Sunni, Mubarak was a Sunni (although maybe not so much a dictator as Assad) and Assad being a Sunni would have made no difference. The revolution was to come anyway.
If Assad was a Sunni, what would the alliances look like?
It is clear that the current alliances are build along sectarian lines. If Assad was a Sunni, Turkey, Saudi-Arabia and Qatar probably wouldn’t have been supporting the opposition forces as much as they do now, if at all, and therefore it would be easier for Assad’s troops to fight the less armed and funded rebels and perhaps the conflict wouldn’t have dragged on for so long. Iran, a Shia state and Assad’s number one ally, might be not even be an ally of Assad if he was a Sunni, but on the other hand, they have one thing in common and that is that they are both dictatorships. Iran might be supportive of Assad to prevent the revolution being successful so it won’t be another example of a dictatorial government being toppled and an inspiration for Iran’s opposition to try the same. For ‘Western’ powers as well as Russia and China it wouldn’t have mattered if Assad was a Sunni or a Shi’ite. For them the balance of power and regional stability matters most. The US perhaps would have backed the revolution because they want ‘liberty and freedom for all’ and China and Russia would still have backed Assad because they are also authoritarian regimes. However, religion is, in this case, not as important to them.
If Assad was a Sunni, would there have been jihadists in Syria?
A big part of the rebels in Syria are Salafi jihadists who are there to ‘protect their fellow Sunni’s from the heretic Shi’ites’. In fact, the call for jihad in Syria is based upon this. So the reason most jihadists are travelling to Syria is to fight a war against Shi’ites. Jihadists from all over the world heed this call and they are coming in from all places: Europe, the Caucasus, Northern Africa, America and so on. But what if Assad wasn’t a Shia Muslim? Then there wouldn’t have been a call for jihad based upon the fact that ‘Shia’s are killing Sunni’s’. As a result, the influx from jihadists from all over the world wouldn’t have been as big as it is now. However, as we have seen in Mali, Libya and maybe Egypt, jihadists from al-Qaeda and their affiliates are looking for weak spots to build a power base and a revolution gives them the best opportunity to do so. In other words, yes, there would have been jihadists in Syria. Maybe not as many as there are now, but they would have been there to support the revolution and create a safe haven for their operations in the chaos that occurs. Given the fact that most al-Qaeda affiliates are fighting for a caliphate or emirate, they would do the same in Syria. The name of one of the most prominent jihadist factions fighting in Syria, Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), says it all. They are not (only) there to fight the Shi’ite government, they are there to establish an Islamic (or Islamist) state which stretches from the Mediterranean to the river mouth of the Euphrates and the Tigris.
If Assad was a Sunni, there would still have been a jihadist backed uprising in Syria. The revolution would have been there anyway because Assad is a dictator and people sooner or later will rise up against the oppressor. However, the current conflict wouldn’t have dragged on for so long, since the rebels probably would have lacked direct support from Turkey, Saudi-Arabia and Qatar. Assad would have been able to deal with the opposition forces far more easily.
Of course, the reality is a different one. Assad is an Alawite and much of the direct motivation for the revolution stem from the sectarian division in Syria. This has made the conflict immensely complicated and difficult to solve. Even more so since ISIS yesterday attacked Free Syrian Army (FSA) occupied Azaz, a border post with Turkey. There are more and more reports of infighting between the rebel factions and this might give Assad the upper hand in the end.