Iranian authorities have realized that their longtime ally in Syria is on the way out and have held talks with members of the opposition about a transitional regime, reports the Los Angeles Times. From the piece (with excellent reporting from Ramin Mostaghim and Alexandra Sandels) it appears that Iran’s government is still not willing to break with Assad, but is increasingly and reluctantly coming to conclude that efforts to save him are doomed.
For those concerned about a possible US-Iranian military conflict — which is to say everyone in the world who cares about war, peace and the price of oil and gas — this is an important moment of truth. The loss of its key ally in Syria will bring dramatic changes to Iran’s position. Will the ruling mullahs and their allies decide that it’s time to call off the confrontation before Tehran is even weaker and more isolated, or will they double down on nukes and a hard line in the belief that nothing else can save them? One way or another, the course of the war in Syria will help determine whether the US finds itself in yet another Middle East war, and watching the Iranians process what looks like the downward spiral in Assad’s fortunes offers clues as to how the larger drama will go.
We aren’t at the decision point yet. At this point the Iranians don’t seem to have completely accepted that their ally cannot survive and the debate in Tehran over Syria policy isn’t over. The government looks to be floundering around hoping to save something out of the wreckage. Experts and officials talk about preserving the “structure of the Syrian state,” presumably hoping for Assadism without Assad: an Alawite dominated state structure that would continue to align with Iran while offering restive Sunnis more economic and political space. The current situation on the ground makes it unlikely that the Sunni opposition would settle for this now, but if the government’s military situation stabilizes, Tehran seems to hope that international pressures for a negotiated, compromise solution would grow.
The Alawites emerged in the 9th century. Led by Muhammad ibn Nusayr, they broke with the Shi’ites, who now form majorities in Bahrain, Lebanon and Iran, embracing doctrines that remain largely obscure to this day. For centuries the Alawites were marginalized, deemed heretics by the larger Islamic community. To avoid persecution, they established villages in the remote mountain chains of Lebanon, Syria and Turkey, far from the coastal areas and plains dominated by Sunnis. When the French moved to give Syria independence, some Alawites agitated for their own state — in vain. However, in 1963, Hafez Assad, an Alawite, along with two other military officers, brought the sect to power in Syria.
The Alawites, also known as the Alawis, appeared to coalesce around the new regime, which promoted members of the sect to positions of influence and power in the government and, more importantly, the military. When Hafez Assad died in 2000, his son Bashar Assad succeeded him as President. Since March 2011, Bashar Assad has been trying to suppress an uprising that has become a civil war. For the most part, his fellow Alawites have stuck by him in the increasingly bloody fighting. But not all.
Sect members are increasingly breaking rank, as defections swell along with mounting uneasiness about the government’s crackdown against what started as a peaceful protest movement.
Syrian government forces intensified efforts Thursday to seize control of parts of the capital and its surrounding areas from rebel fighters.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the military bombed Daraya, on the edge of Damascus, and nearby Moadamiyeh. The London-based group also reported house-to-house raids in Daraya and fierce clashes in the Hajar al-Aswad district of Damascus.
The Observatory said about 100 people were killed in violence across Syria Thursday, including nearly 50 civilians in Damascus and its surrounding areas.
The death toll also included more than 20 government troops.
Fighting also continued in the northern city of Aleppo, where some foreign fighters are reported to have joined the opposition.
Fresh fighting between pro- and anti-Assad gunmen erupted for a fourth day Thursday in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, leaving one dead and at least two wounded. The clashes breached a truce agreed to by political leaders less than 24 hours earlier in a bid to halt fighting fueled by tensions in neighboring Syria.
Sunni Muslims have led the revolt against Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, whose minority Alawite sect has mostly stood with him. Sunni-Alawite tensions have been growing in parts of Lebanon as well, like Tripoli, where the two groups live in neighboring districts.
Muhammed Muafak decided he had had enough when Syrian Army mortar shells struck near his house while his family was having the iftar meal to end the daily Ramadan fast. He packed up his 10-member household in Bukamal, the Syrian border town where they lived, and fled here to this Iraqi border town.
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He expected a warm welcome. After all, his country had taken in 1.2 million Iraqis during their recent war, far more than any of Iraq’s other neighbors, and had allowed them to work, send their children to public schools and receive state medical care.
Instead, Mr. Muafak found himself and his family locked up in a school under guard with several hundred other Syrians, forbidden to leave to visit relatives in Iraq or to do anything else.
“We wish to go back to Syria and die there instead of living here in this prison,” said Abdul Hay Majeed, another Syrian held in a school building, along with 11 family members. Mr. Majeed was refused permission for that either, he and other refugees said.
Alone among Syria’s Muslim neighbors, Iraq is resisting receiving refugees from the conflict, and is making those who do arrive anything but comfortable. Baghdad is worried about the fighters of a newly resurgent Al Qaeda flowing both ways across the border, and about the Sunni opponents of the two governments making common cause.
The Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki in Iraq, while officially neutral, has been supportive of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, whose ruling Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Last week, for instance, Iraq abstained from supporting a resolution by the Arab League calling for Mr. Assad to step down, calling it unwarranted interference in Syria’s internal affairs.
Firing assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, Lebanese gunmen clashed in street battles Monday as sectarian tensions linked to the 14-month-old uprising in Syria bled across the border for a third day.
At least five people have been killed and 100 wounded in Lebanon’s second-largest city since the gunbattles erupted late Saturday, security officials said. Residents say differences over Syria are at the root of the fighting, which pits neighbor against neighbor and raises fears of broader unrest that could draw in neighboring countries.
(The Syria Crisis: Is Al-Qaeda Intervening in the Conflict?)
Lebanon and Syria share a complex web of political and sectarian ties and rivalries, which are easily enflamed. Tripoli has seen bouts of sectarian violence in the past, but the fighting has become more frequent as the conflict in Syria worsens.
The fighting camps break down along sectarian and political lines. On one side are Sunni Muslims who support the rebels trying to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad. On the other are members of the tiny Alawite sect, followers of an offshoot of Shiite Islam who are Assad’s most loyal supporters.
On March 6, 2011, a group of fifteen schoolboys in the southern Syrian town of Daraa were arrested by local security forces. Aged ten to fifteen, the boys were caught spray-painting the slogan “As Shaab Yoreed Eskaat el nizam!”—“The people want to topple the regime!” They had taken the words from satellite television coverage of the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.
The boys’ parents were members of Daraa’s most prominent families: Sunni tribesmen from the Haroun plains, which run from the Golan Heights along the Jordanian border. Their captor was Atef Najib, the head of local security, a first cousin of President Bashar al-Assad and a member of his minority Alawite sect. When the families approached him with a local Sunni sheikh, seeking the release of the boys, Najeeb responded with crude insults, according to an account by an Al Jazeera reporter. He told them to forget their children, go home to their wives, have sex, and make more.
On March 18th, with their boys still in custody, the furious families and local clerics marched on the offices of Faisal Kalthoum, the local governor—another Assad intimate from Damascus. Security forces opened fire, killing at least four persons. When the boys were freed several days later, they were disfigured with marks of torture, including extracted fingernails. Another demonstration erupted; the governor’s office was burned. Syria’s uprising had begun.
WHEN protests against Bashar Assad’s regime began, official propaganda portrayed the opposition as Islamist fanatics bent on punishing secular Syrians and religious minorities. This was aimed especially at Alawites and Christians, groups that each make up around 10% of Syria’s 22m people. In fact, the protesters have come from all classes and creeds, and activists have worked hard to stress the need for sectarian unity. Other even smaller minorities have taken part. Ismailis, concentrated in Salamiya, north-east of Homs, have joined the anti-Assad fray. The Druze have become more hostile. So have young Kurds, though their political leaders have been wary of speaking out.
But the regime’s propaganda may be getting closer to reality in Homs, Syria’s third city and the revolution’s current centre, which has a very mixed population. There and elsewhere, sectarian hatred seems to be on the rise, with protesters expressing increasingly fierce hostility to the Alawites, in particular. This is because Alawites, a heterodox offshoot of Shia Islam, are disproportionately represented in the civil service, the armed forces (especially the senior ranks) and thuggish militias sponsored by the regime. They have overseen the bloody crackdown on the protesters.
Many Alawites have not done well out of the regime. Mr Assad’s people have now instilled fear in them by predicting dire consequences were the regime to fall. They have handed out sandbags and weapons in Alawite villages and Alawite districts in cities, including Damascus and Homs. Tit-for-tat killings in Homs by Sunnis and Alawites have been reported. Rumours of gruesome killings of Alawites by dissidents have spread like wildfire. An Alawite graduate in Damascus whispers of her fear of being “sent back to the mountains”, referring to the sect’s coastal homeland in the north-west. Mahmoun Homsi, a former member of parliament, now a dissident in exile, has said—to the dismay of fellow opposition figures—that Syria would be “the graveyard of the Alawites”, unless they change sides.
The bombing of the Syrian city of Homs has resumed, less than a day after an estimated 95 civilians were killed, as artillery and mortar shells have been launched by Assad forces towards the neighborhood of Bab Amro.
Heavy bombardment of the Syrian city of Homs resumed on Tuesday after at least 95 civilians were killed on Monday in an offensive to put down a popular revolt against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule, activists and residents said.
“The bombardment is again concentrating on the Bab Amro (neighborhood). A doctor tried to get in there this morning but I heard he was wounded,” Mohammad al-Hassan, an activist in Homs, told Reuters by satellite phone.
“There is no electricity and all communication with the neighborhood has been cut,” he added.
Eyewitnesses told the BBC that at around 6 am security forces loyal to Assad began launching mortar and artillery shells towards Bab Amro.
The authorities say the military is fighting “terrorists” in Homs bent on dividing and sabotaging the country. Syria, a majority Sunni Muslim nation, has been since 1970 under the rule of the Assad family from the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
The attack was renewed on the day Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was due to meet Assad in Damascus and discuss ways to try to end the uprising, although Moscow has vetoed a resolution against Syria at the United Nations Security Council.
Catherine al-Talli, a senior member of the opposition Syrian National Council, said the attack on Homs was aimed to show Moscow that Assad was in control and he could serve until his term expires in 2014.
“Assad needs to look strong in front of the Russians. He has not managed to control Homs since the eruption of the uprising and now that he has seen that he faces no real threat from the international community it appears that he wants to finish off the city,” Talli said.
“There are live television feeds from Bab Amro and the whole world can see indiscriminate shelling of civilians. This has not stopped him.”
An estimated 7,100 people, including 460 children, have been killed to date since the start of the uprising in the Syrian cities.
The sectarian fault line in Syria is growing more apparent as the conflict steadily intensifies between the Alawite-dominated regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the mainly Sunni rebel Free Syrian Army.
The regime’s reliance on Alawite militiamen, known as the Shabiha, to help suppress the 10-month uprising is mirrored by elements of the armed rebel forces rallying around their Sunni identity through religious and sectarian motifs and language. The minority Alawite sect draws upon some Shiite traditions and is considered heretical by conservative Sunnis.
With the Assad regime showing no sign of caving to domestic and international pressure, the confrontation risks becoming defined less as a popular uprising against a secular autocracy and more as an armed sectarian conflict pitting Sunnis against Alawites and their Shiite allies: Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
“I think there’s more and more evidence of that and it’s almost unavoidable given how things have developed around the entire region,” says Rami Khouri, director of the Issam Fares Institute of Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. “Iran, Hezbollah, and the Syrian regime have been rolled into one” as an enemy of the mainly Sunni Syrian opposition.
Syria’s neighbors: How 5 border nations are reacting to Assad’s crackdown
Symbols of Sunni affirmation and religious observance are easily found within the ranks of the FSA from examples as mundane as headbands inscribed with quotes from the Koran to heated anti-Hezbollah and Iran rhetoric. Some of the battalions that comprise the FSA are named after prominent historical Sunni leaders. They include Hamza al-Khatib, a companion of the prophet Mohammed who was a noted military strategist, and Muawiyah bin abi Sufyan, the founder of the Damascus-based Ummayyad dynasty and a figure reviled by Shiites.
“In Syria [sectarian identity] is there. All you have to do is scratch the surface,” says Andrew Tabler, a Syria specialist with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and author of a book on Syria under the presidency of Mr. Assad. “Until now, I don’t think you have seen a tremendous amount of organizing along sectarian lines…. But it is natural that the main divide is going to be between Alawites and other Shiite off-shoots versus Sunnis.”
Opposition claims 40,000 fighters
The FSA is composed of deserters from the regular Syrian army and is commanded by Col. Riad al-Assad who defected last summer and lives in a refugee camp in Turkey. Its strength is unknown although FSA leaders and Syrian opposition figures have claimed numbers as high as 40,000. Others say the figure is much lower.
In November, Colonel Assad told Turkey’s Millyet newspaper that the FSA sought to make Syria a “Muslim country and a secular democracy” like Turkey. He admitted that all his fighters were Sunnis but denied regime allegations that the FSA was allied to the Muslim Brotherhood, the outlawed main Islamist force in Syria.
Still, there was no mistaking the staunchly Sunni identity and religious convictions of the six Syrians, five of whom were serving FSA officers and soldiers, sheltering last week in the home of a radical cleric in a dilapidated apartment block in the impoverished Sunni neighborhood of Bab Tebbaneh in Tripoli, a city in northern Lebanon. Two of them claimed to be sheikhs and all but one were from Homs, the flashpoint city lying 20 miles north of the border with Lebanon.
“We’re deserting because the regime makes us kill civilians. The Alawite officers stand behind us and they shoot anyone they see not firing at protestors,” says Ahmad, who said he deserted six months ago from a military intelligence unit in Damascus.