Both Iraq and Syria saw massive violence on Sunday. But there is a key difference between the two, and therein lies a cautionary tale for Syria.
In Iraq, guerrillas of the so-called “Islamic State of Iraq,” an al-Qaeda affiliate, set off car bombs in almost every single important town and city in the country, leaving about 100 dead. The bombs hit the deep south river port of Basra, the deep south city of Nasiriya, but also the northern, disputed city of Kirkuk. Targets included police recruits and oil facilities, and a French consulate.
These periodic bombing campaigns in Iraq, however, have never resulted in the opposition gaining control over territory. In the absence of territory, they remain small rebel bands playing spoilers. Ultimately, they are sectarian in character and cannot hope to unite the masses.
Also on Sunday, the Iraqi Supreme Court sentenced Iraqi vice president Tariq al-Hashemi to death for allegedly running death squads. Al-Hashemi is a Sunni and a figure in the main party that represents Sunnis. Regardless of his innocence or guilt, the decree bodes ill for the al-Maliki government going forward. That government cannot thrive without reconciliation with its political enemies, including the Sunnis.
Iraq is deeply divided all these years after the American overthrow of Saddam Hussein. The US and Iraqi-Shiite approach has been vindictive toward former regime elements (whether Sunni or Shiite). The more radical Sunnis, whether Baathi secularists or believers in political Islam, are unreconciled to the rise of a new, Shiite-dominated government. They manifest that discontent vocally, and a minority of them do so violently.
The radical Sunnis are just playing spoiler in Iraq. They take no territory, and to my mind have little prospect of doing so. The bombing campaigns always cause some pundits to wonder if it was a good idea for the US to withdraw; but they forget that the bombs went off with much greater frequency all the time the US troops were in country. Al-Maliki’s counter-terrorism capabilities are not very good, but the violence is way down from the levels of the American heyday. Iraqis will have to solve their own problems.
Syria also saw nationwide violence on Sunday. Its violent clashes, however, seem to be going someplace. In Iraq, each of the four-times-a-year bombing campaigns is hard to distinguish from the other. In Syria, the fight is over territory. The regime tried to dislodge revolutionaries from a neighborhood in Damascus and in Aleppo.
In Aleppo, the rebels attacked a military base with bombings. A little later, the regime launched an aerial bombing raid against them. The Arabic press alleges that the aerial bombing raid was intended to turn the people of the neighborhood against the rebels.
I don’t think the conflict in Syria is primarily sectarian, though it has a sectarian dimension. It seems to be mostly about class. If you attend to where the opposition has been fiercest it has been in working class neighborhoods and in districts that have seen labor immigration from the countryside. Lots of Sunnis are still on the fence or are supporting the regime.
Just to underline, I am not saying that there is no sectarian element to the Syrian civil war. Since Alawis (folk Syrian Shiites) have disproportionately benefited economically from their dominance of the regime, and many Sunnis outside the charmed circle of government patronage are poor, there is an obvious overlap here.
The Alawis are only about 10 percent of the population, and although they are present disproportionately in the officer corps, there have to be lots of Sunnis supporting the regime or it would already have collapsed. They are supporting it because they derive economic patronage from the government, which is more important to them than whether it is Alawi-dominated or not.
When I hung out with young Syrian activists in exile this summer, they were singing the praises of the minority of Alawis who had joined in the rebellion, and could name the villages and incidents. Their discourse was one of national unity against the regime, not of sectarian hatred. Inside Syria, and especially in the more radical units of the Free Syrian Army, the sectarian attitude does exist. I just didn’t encounter it personally.
And, if Syria is to avoid Iraq’s fate, its revolutionaries have to avoid the sectarian reprisals that have marked the latter, and they will have to fashion an encompassing post-revolutionary identity on the basis of the solidarity of workers and the middle classes.
The conflict in Syria is likely to grind on for a long time.
I have to say, I don’t think it is in US interest for the fighting to go on and on in Syria. The civil war is clearly (further) destabilizing Lebanon and Iraq, and the impact on our NATO ally Turkey could ultimately be severe. Little Jordan is also being blown like a leaf in the wind. I suspect the Israeli security establishment is deeply divided about whether it is good for them for the Baath to fall. The longer the conflict goes on, the more likely it is for the opposition to become radicalized, and a raw, radical group in Damascus could prove unpredictable. While some Free Syrian Army units have fundamentalist tendencies, the revolution as a whole does not (being a mass phenomenon it comprises all kinds of people). But in a long marathon of a revolution, the least attractive elements could come out on top.
On the other hand, I don’t foresee US intervention any time soon, and I don’t think unilateral US action is desirable.
A caveat: although the Syrian regime seems to control less and less of the country over time, it still does have substantial military assets and thousands of loyal troops, and many city quarters have not risen. I’d say there is a 30% chance of an Algeria outcome, in which the regime fights a dirty war and ultimately prevails, though shakily.
In contrast, the likelihood that the Iraqi guerrillas can succeed in overthrowing the Nouri al-Maliki government is almost nil. They would have to stop being so anti-Shiite and would have to craft a broader coalition of have-nots, as apparently is the case in contemporary Syria. Otherwise, they’re just extremists who can terrorize people for a few hours every three or four months.