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Gatestone Institute: Will Syria Remain a Unified State?

While the news is filled daily with terrible atrocities which the Syrian regime is carrying out, these reports mask another development: the breakup of Syria into at least two, if not more, statelets. Is Assad trying to create an Alawite homeland in the traditional Alawite area along the Syrian coast between Lebanon and Turkey? Will Syria end up being a federated state, more along the lines of Iraq? And where are Syria's Kurds headed?

Reports from various sources inside Syria and from the defectors and refugees whom al-Jazeera has interviewed in northern Jordan reveal that the war in Syria has descended into a sectarian war, primarily between the ruling Alawite minority and the Arab Sunni majority.

One of the places that the Assad regime has been most violent is against the Sunnis living in the Alawite traditional homeland and in Homs, a largely Sunni city just to the east of the Alawite heartland. Assad's forces have been destroying Sunni villages in that area, and wreaking havoc on Homs. As the Sunni refugees in Jordan – mostly from the Homs area – who were cited on al-Jazeera on July 4 noted, "The regime has turned this into a sectarian battle between itself and the Sunnis. It is killing the Sunnis in Homs and forcing other Sunnis to flee that area.

Clearly, the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad understands that the trend in the Middle East is towards Islamic Sunni fundamentalism, supported by the Muslim Brotherhood, the Wahhabis, the Qataris, and Turkey's Sunni fundamentalist leadership.

The regime knows that in the long run, it cannot stand up to these forces -- possibly the reason Assad and his cohorts are doing everything they can to destroy the Sunni fundamentalists and perhaps hoping then to retreat to the Alawites' ancient homeland.

Another sign that the Syrian Sunnis are abandoning Assad is the defection of Manaf Tlas, a senior Sunni Syrian military official – a childhood friend of Bashar Assad, and whose father Mustafa was a close ally of Bashar's father Hafiz, the previous dictator who ruled Syria with an iron hand.

Since 1966, Syria has been ruled by the Alawite minority, who make up about 12% of Syria's population and live mainly in the coastal area between Lebanon and Turkey. As the Alawites historically would do the distasteful work which the Sunnis refused to do, the Syrian Sunni Arab establishment traditionally looked down upon them, referring them as as "abid," or, roughly "slave."

Also, as Alawites believe that Ali – the Muslim prophet Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law – is God, Sunnis do not see them as monotheists, and often therefore do not even accept them as Muslims.

During the 1940s and 1950s, the Sunnis, who did their best to avoid military service, gave their Alawite servants recommendations to enter the military. As they rose to higher and higher ranks, the Alawites eventually, in 1966, took over Syria in a military coup.

Members of Alawite community have all along felt conflicted: should they see themselves as Arabs and try to attain, through Arab nationalism, the equality they lacked among the Sunnis? Those who accepted this view became the most ardent Arab nationalists in Syria; their hope was that speaking Arabic as the Sunnis did would serve to gain them the equality that was eluding them under Syrian traditional system, in which being Sunni was a key element to advancement.

Others within the Alawite community, who disagreed with this approach, argued that they would never be accepted by the Sunni majority as equals; and instead strove to attain an independent homeland in their traditional homeland: the Syrian coastal area between today's Lebanon and Turkey.

In the early 1940s after the French had ruled Syria from post-World War I until 1946, Suleyman Assad, the grandfather of Syria's present leader, Bashar Assad, and about five other Alawite leaders wrote to the French government asking the French to let the Alawites have their own state in their homeland along the coast. These Alawite leaders claimed that the Sunnis had never treated the non-Sunnis fairly, and that therefore, in a united Syrian state, the Alawites would continue to suffer serious discrimination. They cited as evidence the way the Sunnis were at that time treating the Jews in British-Mandated Palestine.

Given the present trend towards Sunni Islamist rule throughout the region, the non-Sunnis clearly feel threatened. Christians have been leaving the Middle East in droves. Shiites in Bahrain, although they form the majority, are ruled by an oppressive Sunni minority who use brutal force and who, earlier this year, called in their Sunni Saudi allies to subdue the Shiites, who were calling for equal rights. Syria's Druze, Ismailis, Christians and other minorities seem to be terrified about what might happen to them if the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood takes over there.

If one views Assad in this context, there is a real possibility that Syria will not stay united, and that the days of Arab nationalism are over. Islamist Sunni fundamentalism is the enemy of the non-Sunnis, who, to survive, will likely have to look for other political alternatives beyond the present borders, and possibly ally themselves with fellow non-Sunni Arabs in the region.

Similarly, the Kurds in northern Syria, who are directly connected to the Kurdish territories inside Iraq, although also Sunni, see the Muslim Brotherhood and the Wahhabis by and large as Arab imperialists trying to force them to abandon their Kurdish identity and become Arabs -- probably the reason most Kurds loathe the Muslim Brotherhood. For the Brotherhood, being Sunni is not enough. For the Brotherhood, only Arabs can be true Muslims. Non-Arabs must abandon their non-Arab and non-Sunni languages and cultures, and adopt an Arab identity -- exactly how most of the Middle East became Arabs during the first century of Islam.

If the present violence in Syria does not come to an end, Syria could easily disintegrate; the northern part of the country would become a Kurdish entity – either within a loosely federated, geographically altered Syria, or possibly even as an independent state. If either of these were to happen, Iraqi Kurds, who have been politically counseling the Syrian Kurds, could form an alliance with Syria's Kurds who inhabit an area which reaches west almost to Aleppo, a city not far from the Mediterranean Sea. If the Kurds then made some political arrangement/alliance with a future Alawite state, they could gain access to the sea . This would be a major step towards the establishment of an independent Kurdish state.

In short, what stands behind most of the violence in Syria is the rise of Arab Sunni fundamentalism in its various forms – whether Salafi, Wahhabi, or Muslim Brotherhood. All of those threaten the very existence of the Alawites, the Kurds, and other members of the non-Sunni ethnic and religious groups.

It is therefore much easier to understand why the ruling Alawites feel they are fighting a life and death battle with the Sunnis, and why they believe they must spare no effort to survive. It also explains why most of Syria's other minorities – such as the Druze, Ismailis, and Christians – still largely support the Assad regime.

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