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Setting Up Triage in Syria: Strategies to Save a Struggling Nation's Minorities

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In a February post, I discussed the precarious situation of Syria's religious minorities in light of that country's now year-old uprising. I argued that 1) decisive humanitarian intervention would best position the U.S. and its allies to assist the opposition against the increasingly brutal regime, 2) gain the future cooperation and partnership of those who eventually lead after Assad, and 3) ameliorate the worsening threat against Syria's minorities. I continue to stand by these positions.

However, two months later, direct intervention remains an elusive option, even as the international community appears to be steadily (if slowly) moving toward a consensus regarding the need to clearly demand -- but not yet force -- an end to the country's violence. Meanwhile, Assad's government, its army, and its paramilitary shabiha squads appear unfazed by this diplomatic shift and continue their repression unabated. The Syrian opposition remains internally divided and spread across the spectrum from peaceful protest to armed resistance, including the mostly-exiled Syrian National Council (SNC), in-country Local Coordination Committees (LCCs), and a myriad of ragtag militias, comprised mainly of army defectors and collectively known as the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

In other words, the uprising perseveres, the regime's repression continues, and the specter of violent, sectarian-fueled chaos still threatens the existence of the communities that form Syria's rich, unique, and diverse socio-religious landscape. It is crucial, then, to lay out a clear and definitive strategy by which the international community can decisively act to assure the survival of these communities within their homeland, alongside the broader debate regarding Syrian intervention.

The following items, then, lay out three key issues related to the nation's religious minorities, and briefly describe potential strategies to address each. None of these options, it should be noted, would necessarily require American "boots on the ground."

1) The greatest threat facing Syria's religious minorities is a breakdown in social order and descent into armed sectarian violence -- especially for Alawites, the regime's base of power, and Christians, who have been among its "allies of fear."

This concern represents a very real and dangerous possibility, and so the first priority of the international community in this regard should be prevention. As we know from the sectarian-militia example of Lebanon's 1975-1989 civil war, this sort of violence is impossibly difficult to subdue once it has begun. This is why time is of the essence. The world must not allow the Syrian crisis to "play itself out," as some analysts have suggested: This threat to the country's minorities (many of whom are unarmed) is simply too great, and the consequences too severe, to play this sort of Russian roulette on a national-societal scale.

The second priority is to prepare now, not after-the-fact, for a worst-case scenario in which the country simply falls apart, and the violence escalates into a full-blown civil war with ethno-religious overtones. In that scenario, a likely outcome would be that Sunni rebels, increasingly radicalized by regime repression and funding from unsavory sources, retaliate against Alawites and the regime's fearful Christian allies. In case the crisis plays out this way, the U.S. should closely ally with Turkey, Iraqi Kurdistan, and Syria's Kurds -- especially those sympathetic to and/or joined in the opposition -- to create a "safe zone" in the north and northeast of the country, to which at-risk communities may flee. We will likely hear more of this concept in the weeks to come, and I strongly encourage policymakers to pay careful attention to the formation and evolution of its related strategies.

This option will necessitate marginalizing the Kurds' more controversial groups -- such as the PKK, who of course will not cooperate with Turkey, and vice versa -- and it may require limited use of force to maintain and protect the area. I will not presume to know the finer intricacies and logistics involved in such an effort, but I am certain that it is a better option than arming the unpredictable divisions of the FSA or implementing an undesirable, all-out invasion and occupation. And it will provide a short-term strategy to preserve Syria's minority population by preventing their slaughter in the civil war crossfire while lessening their need to permanently flee from the country.

2) The nation's non-Sunni Arab minorities (30 percent of the population) fear that Syria will follow the path of Egypt, Tunisia, and other countries in falling into the hands of Sunni Islamists if the secular Assad regime falls.

There is no question: Syria's Islamist parties will play a role in Syria's future, and chief among them is the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood which comprises, for example, the single largest bloc of the SNC. What, then, to do with this reality? Again, time is of the essence: Apart from segments of the FSA who are already armed, Syria's Islamists have shown some willingness to work in political cooperation with others for a pluralistic future -- but this may change if a protracted civil war pushes them in a more radical direction. If the U.S. and its allies cooperate with them now, not dealing with them as "the" head of the opposition but in tandem with a cross-section of opposition members, it will be far better placed to engage with them post-Assad. And if the U.S. and its close allies do not assume this role, others will: The Saudis and the Qataris are already working on establishing their respective roles in support of the opposition.

It is also worth noting that Syria already has the benefit of a more diverse society than, say, Egypt's more consistently religious and overwhelming Sunni majority. Thirty percent of the country is made up of Sunnis, Christians, Alawites, Druzes, and Kurds; its Sunnis, meanwhile, are spread across a spectrum from secular to Islamist and everything in between. Let us not make the mistake (à la Egypt) of naively assuming a secular, liberal future for Syria in six months' time. But let us also recognize that its unique ethno-religious makeup is likely to at least lessen the Islamists' prospects for complete domination, while still realistically giving a nod to their inevitable role in the country's future.

3) Regardless of the strategic, moral, and/or humanitarian issues at stake in the broader Syrian context, it is clear that many (if not most) members of Syrian's religious minorities continue to support the Assad regime.

I will not presume to speak directly for Syria's religious minorities, and I cannot pretend to more than cognitively understand their perfectly legitimate, deeply-held anxieties. But I can offer the follow truths in well-reasoned confidence. First, there is no turning back to clock to 2010: Assad's regime may yet survive for months or perhaps years, but it will be crippled, isolated, and more repressive than it has ever been. It will have no hesitation in throwing Christian minorities and others "under the bus," if it hasn't already, especially when faced with its survival. Its past, Faustian protections and old alliances are already dead, and there will be no resurrecting them anytime soon.

Second, given this stark reality, Syria's minorities must distant themselves immediately from the regime's brutality, and those among them who can voice their support for the uprising must do so. The risk is too great to remain in alliance with Assad, whether actively or tacitly: when the regime eventually collapses, or if the country simply falls apart, the greatest risk will be for those perceived as "friends of Bashar." Choosing to side from now with Syria's future rather than with its past may mean facing Islamists in parliament -- but it will mean surviving to join with others in that struggle.

Syria's religious minorities may have a long-term struggle ahead of them in an uncertain future political landscape, but they are in need of a strategy to ensure that they survive to struggle another day. The international public can do its part to contribute to their survival by highlighting those minority voices that speak up against the regime (see here for one such effort). Meanwhile, U.S. policymakers and the Obama administration must more decisively and proactively move to form a safe zone in Syria even as they work to erode the regime's legitimacy and bolster global condemnation of its atrocities. They must also strongly encourage the Syrian opposition to more boldly and explicitly call the country's minorities to their side, especially Alawites and Christians, while reassuring them that they will do everything in their power to protect them and secure a place for them in Syria's future.

The next "Friends of Syria" meeting will be held in Istanbul on April 1; it will be the perfect opportunity for the U.S. to lead from the front, and to be a true friend to the people of Syria -- including their at-risk minorities.