Syria: Preparing for the Post-Assad Era

06/03/2011 11:08 am ET | Updated Aug 03, 2011

The Syrian crisis may seem to be off the front page, but this is a deceiving quiet. The popular Sunni uprising is in full swing, and with it the repression by the regime, which claims a growing number of casualties.

Clearly, the Assad regime failed miserably in dealing with the protest. Its initial strategy was to quash the opposition quickly, thus minimizing international and domestic pressures for reform. That did not happen, and time works now against the regime, regardless of the ups and downs of the world media interest in what is happening.

The crisis is endemic, and the longer it lasts the worse for the Assad dynasty. A strong message was sent to them from neighboring Turkey just this week, with the unprecedented conference of opposition groups, including a delegate of the Muslim Brotherhood. Perhaps the most telling event there was the call by the conference participants to protect the rights of the Alawite minority in a future, democratic Syria.

While there are those who argue that there is no sectarian problem in Syria, claiming that talks about it are mere Zionist propaganda, the delegates who convened in Turkey know better, and they are diligently working to try and separate the Alawite community at large from the Assad regime. That will not succeed, surely not in the foreseeable future, but the attempt is significant, indicating that the delegates are seriously and honestly trying to grapple with the sectarian problem rather than ignoring it.

The same line is taken by the Muslim Brotherhood, who present a very clear anti-Alawite position grounded on religious arguments, but still implore the community to dissociate itself from the regime, in order to prevent a bloodbath when it finally crumbles.

The Brotherhood role in the evolving situation requires attention. There is no doubt that they enjoy massive rank and file Sunni support, like they always have had in times of popular resistance to the Alawite-Ba'ath regime, and this support by far transcends that of the other opposition groups, be them Left-wing or more liberal.

Yet the Brotherhood gives its support to the notion of a non-sectarian Syria in the future. Now may be the right time to change the disc relating to the Brotherhood and find out in earnest what role they can play in the post Assad era.

Traditionally, the Syrian Brotherhood was a somewhat more moderate force than their Egyptian counterparts, largely because they cooperated with and were assisted by the Sunni religious establishment, contrary to what always characterized the political behavior of the Egyptian Brotherhood.

The gathering of the opposition in Turkey points to the growing role of this country in regional affairs in general, and in Syria in particular. Prior to the conference it was reported that the leader of the Syrian Brotherhood, Muhammad Riad Shaqfa, moved his headquarters to Turkey. The Turks also have a very significant stake regarding the fate of the Alawite community, which mostly resides along the northwest border between Syria and Turkey. Turkey has its own Alawite minority, and in a time of complete chaos in Syria, they could provide protection to the Alawite community. It may seem a far off scenario, but it could become a reality in a matter of few months. According to reports whose accuracy cannot be ascertained, the Turkish government is already engaged in discussions concerning the day after in Syria.

Another country with keen interest in the situation is Saudi Arabia, which must be greatly troubled by the events in neighboring Yemen and Bahrain, but is also preoccupied with Syria. This is so because of the obvious Sunni connection, but also influenced by Saudi desire to weaken Iran. The demise of the Assad regime will clearly contribute a lot towards achieving this goal. The added bonus for the Saudis is also the inevitable weakening of Hezbollah in Lebanon, signs of which are already on display.

The Saudis are the possible link with the Syrian Brotherhood , as the two sides share vehement opposition to Iran. The Shiite-Alawite axis is the most hated symbol of the Assad regime, and the Saudi connection can be very well used in order to moderate the Brotherhood and make it a more acceptable partner to the rest of the opposition.

The Saudis traditionally work behind the scenes, and it is a safe bet that so is the case these days. They, like others in the region and in Syria, are already preparing for the post-Assad era.