While the foreign policy community has finally begun to delve into the Syrian crisis with full attention, it has become immediately clear just how far the world is from a consensus on responding to the Assad regime's bloody repression of dissent (which has claimed up to 7,000 lives so far). U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton responded to last Saturday's failed United Nations Security Council's measure, which would have directly demanded an end to the violence and called for Assad to step down, by warning that "the endgame, in the absence of us acting together as the international community, is civil war." Members of the U.S. Congress have also begun discussing options for American military involvement (although such options are clearly far from agreement or implementation). In contrast, Russia's foreign minister confirmed its support for the Assad regime by flying to Damascus for an amicable meeting with Bashar al-Assad on Tuesday. American foreign policy experts, meanwhile, disagree over the question of direct, foreign military intervention in Syria, but they are mostly in agreement that the regime's legitimacy is bankrupt and Assad's fall must be hastened.
A fundamental question has remained largely absent from the Syria conversation, however: regardless of how or when the Assad regime falls, what will happen after that? What are the possible scenarios for a post-Assad Syria, in both the short- and long-terms, and how is the global community -- particularly the U.S., Europe, and regional allies such as Turkey -- prepared to deal with them? Lost in this equation is the fundamental humanitarian issue of Syria's diverse and numerous religious minorities: they will be in a specially vulnerable position if the country is allowed to fall into the chaos of sectarian bloodshed.
It is a real possibility that the already-tenuous sinews of the Syrian socio-religious order may snap altogether in the months to come, particularly as sectarianism has long played a central role in the Assad regime's Alawite base of power. There have been reports trickling out of Syria for months that small scale acts of violence and retaliation have been taking place between Alawite and Sunni communities, increasing the likelihood that a protracted civil war may take on dangerous religious overtones (à la the sectarian militias of Lebanon's 1975-1989 civil war). It is unrealistic to imagine that Assad's ouster will guarantee an end to this danger (especially if he lingers in power for much longer), or that Syria's disjointed and dysfunctional opposition groups -- as earnest as they may be -- would have the means or authority to effectively stem such violence from escalating.
The nation's Christian sects, comprising around 10% of Syria's 20 million inhabitants, are trapped in an unusually dangerous predicament. Since the early 1970s, Assad's Alawite regime has fostered strong relations with other religious minorities in the country, as a strategy to counter the Sunni Muslim majority. In seeming contradiction to its notorious and oppressive authoritarianism, the regime has protected Syria's Christian communities (Syrian Orthdox, Greek Catholics, Armenians, and others), afforded them considerable freedom of worship, and continually assured them that it alone stands between them and the rise of Sunni Islamism. Their vulnerability is clear: if they are loyal to the regime, they may incur the wrath of Sunni militias striking back against all of Assad's traditional allies; if they voice support for the opposition, they -- like residents of Homs and elsewhere -- risk immediate retribution from the regime itself. Unlike the Alawites, most of Syria's religious minorities (Christians, Yazidis, Isma'ilis, and others), including Iraqi refugees who fled religious violence in their country, will be left utterly defenseless: only the Druzes' mountain enclaves and the ethnic Kurds' northern strongholds have a tradition of robust and organized self-defense.
In the long term, who will ultimately rise to power? As we learned in the Egyptian model, wishful thinking regarding genuinely brave protestors and liberal revolutionaries may not translate into reality. We should not consider Assad's brutality an acceptable alternative to the Syrian Islamists, for example, but we should be far better informed about their intentions and the extent of their present involvement in opposition groups. For example, the Syrian National Council (SNC), the most prominent opposition group to emerge from the Syrian uprising, has shown some promising signs: its program includes explicit calls for a pluralistic, civil state, including unqualified equality among the nation's religious and ethnic groups. But this seems an uncomfortable match with the disproportionate number of its members who identify with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist organization that the Syrian Army decimated and ran underground thirty years ago. We have certain clues to their regional politics and some of their leaders speak out publicly from time to time, but they are generally less well known than their counterparts in the Egyptian MB or Palestinian Hamas, for example.
Just as I wrote in an earlier post about the Egyptian context, legitimate reservations regarding the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood's ideology should not preclude U.S. diplomats and others from engaging in dialogue with the SNC. It should, however, require a thorough and critical assessment of extant materials and intelligence on them before doing so. Now is the time to push for the SNC to remain committed to its democratic, civil, and pluralistic vision for a future Syria: the Obama administration cannot be caught flatfooted again by drawn-out turmoil, bloodshed and brutality against democracy advocates, religious minorities, and women.
The U.S. and its allies should immediately assume a decisive and informed stance on Syria, including an explicit policy of direct intervention or other inventive means to halt the country's escalating violence and facilitate the fall of Assad's regime in the process. But they must also be prepared to deal with the aftermath, including preventing the spread of sectarian violence and assuring Syria's long-term prospects for fair and pluralistic governance. A failure to recognize the potential, catastrophic consequences of the loss of the country's only axiom of power for several decades, and the resulting breakdown in social order, may cost tens of thousands of lives, devastate Syria's fragile religious minorities, and cause irreparable damage to the nation's prospects for success.