Ethnopolitical Consequences of Regime Change in Syria

JURIST Guest Columnist Paul Juzdan, Seton Hall University School of Law Class of 2014, is the author of a series commenting on the Syrian civil war. Previously, Juzdan explained the nature and complexity of identifying the rebels in Syria and the implications of using the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine in justifying an intervention in Syria. Here, Juzdan explores the ethnopolitical landscape of Syria and what a regime change could mean for the country and international relations...

The population of Syria is characterized by strong religious and ethnic diversity. Syria's population is well over 22.5 million. Sunni Muslims make up about 74 percent of the population, while other sects of Islam, including Alawites, Druze and Shia, account for about 16 percent of the population. Other religious minorities include Christians, who make up about 10 percent of the population, and Jews, who live in small communities throughout Syria, mainly in Damascus, Al Qamishli and Aleppo. About 90 percent of the Syrian population is Arab. Kurds, Armenians and other ethnic minorities account for about 10 percent of the population. Compare this to Libya's 97 percent Sunni Muslim population and two main ethnic groups, Arab and Berber. Syria has a strikingly more complex demographic structure and, as a result, regime change may cause a significant surge in sectarian violence. Furthermore, the presence of these distinct ethnic groups in Syria has led to tension between government forces and religious and ethnic groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood—a complicating factor that was not necessarily present in countries such as Libya.

This ethnic and religious diversity is the result of a complex set of historical events leading up to Bashar al-Assad's presidency in 2000. Many individuals from poor rural areas saw a military career as a welcome opportunity to climb the social ladder and to lead a life that would be slightly more comfortable than what was possible within the farming sector. This contributed to the strong representation of minorities in the Syrian army resulting in government policies that tended to favor Christians and Alawites which, in turn, has had an enormous impact on the current conflict.

Assad's Politics: Reformer or Brutal Tyrant?

During the presidency of Hafez al-Assad, Bashar's father, numerous policies were put in place to help "coup-proof" Syria, ensuring a long period of stability. Before Hafez's presidency, Syria had experienced a series of ten coup d'états, a record in the Arab world. However, Hafez al-Assad's economic and foreign relations policies were not as effective as his political ones. In the late 1980's, Hafez faced numerous challenges, including a declining economy, an isolated foreign policy and tensions with Israel. These circumstances would continue throughout much of his presidency, which lasted until his death on June 10, 2000. Upon his death, his son Bashar, the current president, was elected for a seven-year term and re-elected for another seven-year term in 2007.

During Bashar al-Assad's presidency, and under the Bush Administration, US-Syria relations gradually disintegrated. Several events led up to this breakdown [PDF], including "the Palestinian intifada of 2000, Syria's disapproval of the US-led invasion of Iraq, the US's region wide push for democracy, and US open support for regime change in Syria." It was not until Obama became president that the US sought to form closer ties with Syria. On February 16, 2010, President Obama nominated Robert Ford to be the US Ambassador to Syria, and Ford presented his credentials to President Bashar al-Assad on January 27, 2011. Unfortunately, once the "Arab Spring" protests began, the US was forced to pull Ambassador Ford from Syria over security concerns, blaming the lack of safety on President Assad's regime.

Today, it seems that Assad has lost legitimacy in the international community but it is rather puzzling how quickly he lost it. In attempting to reignite relations with the Syrian government, President Barack Obama appointed the first US Ambassador to Syria in five years. In February of 2010, the US sent Under-Secretary of State William Burns on a visit to Syria to meet with President Assad and improve US-Syrian relations. In July of 2010, Arlen Specter [PDF], a US Senator from Pennsylvania, "had a constructive and in-depth conversation about the formidable challenges facing the region and ways in which the US and Syria can overcome those challenges." These examples illustrate that the Obama administration did, at one point, see a need for strong US-Syrian relations. In addition, Hillary Clinton at one point was quoted saying, "President Assad is a reformer." Once Assad began experiencing difficulty surrounding the protests, the administration began labeling him a barbaric dictator. How an individual can go from being a reformer to a barbaric dictator in under a year is a question that has remained unanswered.

The Lasting Effects

With this ethnopolitical landscape in mind, one can see how a sudden regime change similar to the one that took place in Libya could negatively impact millions of individuals currently living in Syria. The country stands as a strategic player in the Middle East peace process. Syria has taken steps towards mending the rivalry between Fatah and Hamas, the rival political parties within the Palestinian territories. Most importantly, the government of Syria has no ties with al-Qaeda and has repressed other Muslim fundamentalist groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood. Allegations of chemical warfare have steered the current debate over Syria. However, history shows that President Bashar al-Assad is not another "mad dog" of the Middle East. Furthermore, the international community has a strong interest in restoring stability in Syria as soon as possible.

The Washington Institute, an organization aimed at improving Middle East policy, published a report which expresses the concerns associated with a post-Assad Syria: "rather than surrendering their hard-won gains to some faraway central authority, [the rebels] might prefer to forge alliances with other local leaders (including members of different ethnosectarian communities) and/or external powers, as occurred during and after Lebanon's civil war." This raises concerns that the future of minority groups such as Christians and Alawites in a post-Assad world would remain uncertain, and the events surrounding regime change may ignite a mass exodus. The Washington Institute also points out that the rise of Sunni's in Syria may also spark political movements in countries such as Jordan, Iraq and the West Bank, rocking the "political balance of power in these societies."

Professor W. Michael Reisman, a Professor of International Law at Yale Law School, offers ten guidelines for a successful regime change [PDF] and Syria falls well outside these guidelines. The suggestions include ensuring a significant amount of domestic and internal support for the regime change, ensuring the individual or elite group that is the target of regime change does not have an effective internal base and making certain that the costs of a regime change remain low. The list goes on to recommend that "an acceptable alternative government be readily available and that the UN be responsible or prominently involved" - two impractical expectations surrounding any military intervention measure in Syria.

There must be alternatives to regime change. The US reacted quickly to the 2011 uprisings by rejecting the Assad regime and supporting the opposition. Instead of analyzing the situation thoroughly and determining the most efficient way to prevent an escalation, the US decided to inadvertently prolong the war by funding the rebels. The US should have instead maintained a relationship with the current regime in order to understand the complex nature of the Syrian ethnopolitical landscape and prevent further escalation. Also, the US should have accurately assessed the nature of the opposition before declaring its legitimacy. Why the US continues to aid the rebels is difficult to understand, as this aid only has the effect of prolonging the war and causing more death and destruction.

Furthermore, the US has been quick to recognize the Syrian Coalition as the "legitimate representative of the Syrian people." However, is this truly the case? With al-Nusra Front and the Muslim Brotherhood on the ground in Syria, it is difficult to believe that the Coalition has control over all the opposition forces. If the US wishes to end the conflict in Syria, it should take steps to do so - either maintaining an Assad type regime, albeit without Bashar al-Assad, or relinquishing aid to the rebels and assisting in the speedy restoration of order.

Paul Juzdan received his BS from the John C. Whitehead School of Diplomacy and International Relations. Juzdan was the 2013 winner of the Eugene Gressman Moot Court Competition.

Suggested citation: Paul Juzdan, Ethnopolitical Consequences of Regime Change in Syria, JURIST - Dateline, Sep. 30, 2013, http://jurist.org/dateline/2013/09/paul-juzdan-syria-regime.php.


This article was prepared for publication by Elizabeth Hand, a senior editor for JURIST's student commentary service. Please direct any questions or comments to her at studentcommentary@jurist.org

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