What Syria’s Power Struggle Means
While some describe the uprising in Syria as a fight for democracy against an authoritarian regime, Islamic politics expert Vali R. Nasr argues that it’s much more “about the implications for redistribution of power between communities in Syria.” Syria’s struggle is between the majority Sunni population and the minority Alawite (Shiite) regime that is also backed by other minorities, Nasr says, comparing the situation to Iraq, where ousted Sunnis fought the majority Shiites until U.S. forces intervened and guaranteed the Sunnis some power. Nasr foresees continuing struggles, and perhaps open civil war, unless the international community can come up with “a plan for an orderly transfer of power from a minority to the majority.”
Is the continued turmoil in Syria a fight between an authoritarian regime and democracy advocates? Or is it more complicated, due to the country’s sectarian divisions?
The uprising in Syria was inspired by the same set of issues and forces that animated protests in Tunisia, in Egypt, and in Libya. The Syrians watched those protests unfold on al-Jazeera, followed it on Facebook, and were inspired by it. The way in which the Syrian regime handled the very first tensions in Daraa kept adding fuel to the fire and has continued to do so. There is no doubt that the uprising in Syria is being animated by pent-up frustration against the way in which the regime of President Bashar al-Assad has monopolized and exercised power.
But the Assad regime is not just a simple, authoritarian regime. It is an apparatus that has maintained minority rule over the majority of the population. And therefore any change in the structure of the regime implies a redistribution of power away from the Alawites and their allies among Christians, the wealthy bourgeois Sunnis, and the Druze, in the direction of the majority population that are Sunnis. That would be a net loss for those in the ruling position, much as the transfer of power in Iraq from Sunnis to Shiites meant a net loss for the Sunni community. And now that there’s been so much bloodshed in Syria, there is palpable fear of a reprisal if the minorities ever lose power to the majorities. The fight is much more about the implications for redistribution of power between communities in Syria than it is about constitutionalism and democracy.