The Battle Within Syria: Who Will Win?

Bruce Riedel explains the complex religious differences within the country and its army. At stake is the future of Syria— and the region.

The future of the revolution in Syria depends on the cohesion of its military. If the Sunni majority in the army’s rank and file revolts against the Alawi minority that has controlled the army and the country since 1966, the regime of Bashar al-Assad is finished. If not, he will hang on longer. The stakes are huge. If Assad falls, Iran loses its key ally in the Arab world, and Israel will face a much less predictable neighbor to its north.

Syria has been ruled by a succession of dictators belonging to the minority Alawi Islamic sect since a coup in 1966. Alawis are a very unique and distinct Muslim group, which mixes elements of Shiism and Christianity together. It is highly secretive; believers are sworn not to reveal the intricacies of the faith to outsiders. Only some 10-13% of Syrians are Alawi, mostly living in the mountains along the Mediterranean coast. The French colonial leadership deliberately sought to divide Syria along sectarian lines before World War II to better control it, and they recruited heavily among the country’s minorities for their loyalist army. Two decades after they left, and after a succession of more than a dozen coups and coup attempts, Alawi officers were in charge.

Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, who came to power in a coup in 1970, was a master at recruiting support among the Sunni majority (about 75% of Syrians) and the small Christian community into the regime. But real power was always in Alawi hands. They control the key armored divisions of the army, key air force units, and especially the multiple secret intelligence services (the Mukhabarat) which spies on every Syrian and on each other. Alawis ran the intelligence apparatus in next door Lebanon, and oversaw key terror plots, like the attempt in 1986 to blow up an El Al airliner in flight.

The regime almost collapsed twice: the first time was in 1982, when the Sunni city of Hama rose in revolt led by the Muslim Brotherhood. Hafez al-Assad’s brother, Rifaat al-Assad, led the elite Republican Guard—composed almost entirely of Alawis—in a brutal crackdown that killed thousands. Then, in 1984, Rifaat tried to overthrow his brother who had taken ill. A tense standoff ensued, as various Alawi factions of the army took control of different parts of Damascus. Hafez recovered his health, and Rifaat backed down and went into exile.

Now the Syrian people are demonstrating incredible courage in demanding change and protesting in the face of another brutal crackdown. Their protests did not begin along sectarian lines, but inevitably the struggle for power is becoming a sectarian battle. The regime is using the Alawi-dominated Mukhabarat, the elite Special Forces, and troops from two loyal Alawi divisions—the Republican Guard and the Fourth Armored—to suppress the protests. Bashar’s brother Maher is leading the repression, playing the role Rifaat did in 1982.

Nine of Syria’s eleven army divisions are primarily Sunni. They are not allowed anywhere near Damascus, and are heavily monitored by the Mukhabarat for loyalty. A few cracks have begun to appear. A member of the influential Tlas family has come over to the revolution. Mustafa Tlas was Hafez’s defense minister, a token Sunni who was powerless but popular and eccentric (he wrote a book on the ten most beautiful women in the world). There are reports of some Sunni troops fleeing to Lebanon.

If the army splits on Alawi-Sunni lines, the revolution will triumph. A blood bath could ensue, as decades of hatred leads to sectarian reprisals. The Alawis know they must hang together—or literally be hanged separately. There are already reports of captured rebel soldiers being hanged.

Hafez al-Assad also brokered Syria’s alliance with revolutionary Iran in the 1980s. He invited the Iranian Revolutionary Guards to build bases in Syria and Lebanon, which created the Hizballah terror machine in the mid-1980s and now dominates Lebanese politics. Bashar has been an enthusiast for Hizballah, and an admirer of its tough anti-Israel militancy. If Bashar’s Alawi regime collapses, Iran loses its position in Syria, especially if the Muslim Brotherhood takes power, and its protégé in Lebanon will be in a much more difficult position. It could face a more emboldened Sunni resistance, armed by the new boys in Damascus.

Syria’s neighbor Israel has no love of the Assads or the Alawis. Hafez launched the 1973 war on the Golan Heights, and his Hizballah creation drove Israel out of Lebanon. But he maintained the cease fire on the Golan, and was predictable. His son has started to chip away at the ceasefire since the revolution began by sending protestors to their deaths at the Israel-Syria border, but he has also been predictable. When Israel destroyed his nascent nuclear power reactor in 2007 in an airstrike, he did nothing to fight back, understanding Israel’s immense military superiority. The Israelis are always skeptical that change is for the better in the Arab world; they prefer the known to the unknown. But the Arab Spring does not favor the known. It is the most unpredictable and dynamic moment in modern Middle East history.

Bruce Riedel, a former long-time CIA officer, is a senior fellow in the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution. At Obama’s request, he chaired the strategic review of policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2009. He is author of the new book Deadly Embrace: Pakistan, America and the Future of the Global Jihad and The Search for Al Qaeda: Its Leadership, Ideology and Future.