Whether or not such a system might be theologically or politically acceptable today, it would not work in practice since the several communities have become much more mixed than in Ottoman times. To judge by their proclamations, at least the more radical part of the insurgency would try to impose upon all the Syrians a centralized Islamic legal and cultural system. In areas under such control, the members of the previously “protected” communities will either emigrate, convert or be eliminated.. We see and hear signs of this already in reference to the Alawis and the Christians.
Thus, almost certainly, a “balkanization” of Syria will greatly add to the number of internal and external refugees. Moreover, in that part of Syria that falls under the control of the Jabhat an-Nusra, strenuous efforts will be made to carry a jihad further afield. Initially, a common cause will be found with the Iraqi Sunni community which is restive under the yoke of the American-imposed and Iranian-supported Shia regime. Further ties will be taken up with radical Muslim groups in Libya, Egypt, the Gulf states, Afghanistan, Pakistan and even further afield. In short, the turmoil we are now seeing will be greatly increased and more widely spread.
Contrariwise, the results of Russian policy are likely to be an increase in the power and determination of the Syrian government. It is no more democratic than the rebel groups, but it is more ethnically tolerant: although Alawi dominated, it includes even at the top level numbers of Muslims and Christians. Whether or not this liberal or tolerant aspect of the regime continues will depend, I suggest, largely on how long the war continues, how bitter it becomes and whether or not serious efforts are made to improve the economy. Thus, much will depend on the Russian program.
Whether or not the aim of the Russian government is humanitarian is beside the point: with its back protected, this or any other Syrian government will naturally seek to achieve its own salvation, security and “victory.” Such, after all, is the aim of nationalism.
This is all short or middle term; the long-term needs of the Syrian people for peace and security, for jobs and food, and for hope will go unmet as long as the civil war lasts. The long-term needs to cope with a rising number of stomachs to be fed as resources of good land and water decline will not even be addressed much less solved. The bill to put Syria back together again can only be guessed. My hunch, based on what we have seen in Iraq, is on the order of a trillion dollars. And I see no sources for such an amount. But, if the war is not stopped and stopped soon, the amount needed will multiply.
And Syria is only the focal point of these problems. A dynamism has been set in motion that will affect all Syria’s immediate neighbors first and then others. If the war continues, the regional prognosis can only be chaos. Among the first to be affected will be Lebanon which, always a fragile conglomeration, can easily fall back into civil war; then Turkey, apparently so strong and stable, will come under increasing pressure from the Kurds who will have been encouraged by their new autonomy in Syria. Their challenge will likely increase the rigidity and oppressiveness of the state. Jordan, after half a century, must have nearly used up its nine lives; and the Palestinians, having effectively lost what is left of their homeland, are likely to be driven away yet again. Not to go on, let me just predict that the already unstable area will throb with anger, frustration, armed conflict, terrorism and revanchism. Even those who wish to support Israel must realistically consider how this gated community can find happiness in such a slum.
I end with a teaser: as I used to do for our government, I am now at work on a policy paper in which I will address what might be done to head off or at least ameliorate these dire projections.
William R. Polk Sunday, September 15, 2013