Syria’s civil war is a tragedy, but might in the long term stabilize the region’s borders. That is the thinking of Pinhas Inbari, who sees the number of refugees fleeing combat zones for other areas as having an ethnic homogenizing effect on Syria and beyond.
There was a long-standing idea among Middle East observers that should Syria collapse into open rebellion against the Alawite-minority regime, the regime might take all its assets and forces and retreat into the coastal region and its buttressing Nusayri Mountains. That region was briefly independent when the French occupied Syria after World War I, attempting a divide-and-conquer strategy that gave independence to the Christians of Lebanon, the Druze near the Golan and the Alawites of the coast.
“As far as the Alawites are concerned, they’re less affected in Nusayri Mountains overlooking Latakia because the Syrian army is the strongest ‘sectarian militia,’” says Inbari. “They are defending the Alawites, the most well-protected group in Syria.”
It was not always like this. Before Hafez al-Assad (Bashar’s father) took power in a 1970 coup d’état, Syrian Arab nationalism was dominated by Sunnis as it was in other countries. But unlike in Iraq, where non-Sunnis eventually became disillusioned with Sunnis’ backhand discrimination even in the secular Arab nationalist movement, Syrian minorities reached the top of the political food chain.
Alawites, Ismailis, Druze and Christians embraced the nationalist Ba’ath Party. Since then, minorities have had a disproportionate share of power which they have been reluctant to give up for fear of Islamist movements bringing the hammer down on their communities.
But outside the Alawite stronghold, there are problems.
“They’re affected outside that Alawite region in Homs where Sunnis are by far greater. They’ve had to leave the Sunni heartland and go to Alawite heartland. Thanks to Hezbollah, parts of the Sunni regions have gone back to the regime, but that hasn’t affected the refugee Alawites.”
“But it did affect the Sunnis there, who are fleeing to Lebanon.”
While Jordan has received a lot of attention for its mass hosting of Iraqi and Syrian refugees over the last 10 years, Lebanon has also been rocked. Lebanon though is far more diverse and delicate ethnically than Jordan is. Lebanon’s mosaic broke down into a multilateral civil war in the 1970s and 80s, where every virtually every religious group had at least one of its own militias.
Lebanon has an odd constitutional structure to maintain the balance between communities. By law, the Prime Minister must be a Sunni Muslim, the President a Christian and the Parliament Speaker a Shiite Muslim. Lebanon has refused to take a census since 1932, worried the perceived balance of groups in the population might provoke one group to demand more power.
According to Inbari, the incremental growth of Shiites as the largest group in Lebanon has been abruptly stopped by the massive influx of Sunni refugees. According to the United Nations High Council for Refugees (UNHCR), there are over 1.1 million Syrian refugees held up in Lebanon. As a result, Sunnis are likely to gain more influence in Lebanon and give Lebanese a chance to roll back Hezbollah’s influence, ironically “thanks to Hezbollah’s” intervention in Syria.
In the other direction, Syria’s Kurds have been largely confined to their own theater of the war. While there has been fighting with ISIS in places like Kobane, the Kurds in the northeast corner of the country have consolidated some degree of independence. According to Inbari, Syria’s Kurds have an alliance with the Damascus government.
“They are deeply coordinated with the Assad regime. They are working fighting ISIS to protect themselves.”
As ethnic divisions become sharper in certain parts of the country, Inbari advises Western powers to get more realistic about what has happened to the country.
“Syria doesn’t exist anymore, only just in the imagination of Obama and Putin. They want to find a solution that will see it united together as one single country, to establish strong government in Damascus in control of all of Syria.”
“They don’t support the ethnic groups. And of course the Christians, they haven’t. They’ve left them to the slaughter.”
While US Secretary of State John Kerry backtracked from recent comments about finding an accommodation with the Assad regime, Inbari suggests the background of negotiations with Iran is misleading the United States on the wisest course of action for Syria’s future. He also calls the policy ruinous in a time that the entire region is already in ruins.
“They want Turkey and Iran to be partners on (backing) a strong government in Damascus.”
When asked if he felt Israel was partially responsible for the apparent success of anti-Assad groups along the Israeli-Syrian border near the Golan Heights, Inbari said he did.
“I think the Israeli policy of establishing good relations with the nearby rebels is a very good policy. I don’t know if they’re with groups like the Al-Nusra Front. There might be 200 groups in Syria. Maybe one or two groups are like Al-Nusra, but not all exactly like the version you might find in Daraa (near the Israeli border).”
Going forward, Inbari hints that as Syria continues down the road to an inevitable partition, that Israel should maintain its balance and keep pursuing a ‘good neighbors’ policy.
“I hope Israel can find ways to establish good relations with other parts of the Syrian population.”