Nibras Kazimi suggests in the pages of the New Republic that the Middle East’s violent Islamists might go after the Syrian government after they’re finished in Iraq and Afghanistan. “On jihadist online discussion forums,” he writes, “they have been authoring what amount to policy papers calling on the jihadist leadership to take the fight to Syria.”
It would make a certain amount of sense if they did decide Syria ought to be next. Most of the country’s leadership is from the Alawite minority sect, which branched off Twelver Shia Islam in the 10th century and became something else almost entirely. Both Sunnis and Shias have long considered them heretics. When French Mandate authorities ruled the area after World War One, many, if not most, Alawites yearned for their own sovereign homeland along the coast of the Mediterranean apart from Damascus and the largely Sunni interior.
“The Alawites refuse to be annexed to Muslim Syria,” Suleiman Assad, grandfather of Syria’s President Bashar Assad, wrote in a petition to France in 1943. “In Syria, the official religion of the state is Islam, and according to Islam, the Alawites are considered infidels. … The spirit of hatred and fanaticism imbedded in the hearts of the Arab Muslims against everything that is non-Muslim has been perpetually nurtured by the Islamic religion. There is no hope that the situation will ever change. Therefore, the abolition of the mandate will expose the minorities in Syria to the dangers of death and annihilation.”
Western foreign-policy analysts rarely seem to take this into account, but the most dangerous people in the Middle East always do. “Islamists arguing for a jihad in Syria believe that they have hit the trifecta,” Kazimi writes. “In the Syrian regime, they have an enemy that is at once tyrannical, secular, and heretical.”
One of the worst massacres in the modern Middle East occurred in 1982 when the Muslim Brotherhood mounted an armed insurgency against the government of Hafez Assad, the father of Syria’s current president. Assad killed thousands in a single weekend in the city of Hama and then boasted about it. Not once since then have the Muslim Brothers declared war on the state, but they’ve been quietly nursing their grievances and patiently waiting for the chance of revenge. The only thing that keeps the Syrian government safe, aside from its demonstrated willingness to respond with the utmost brutality, is its championship of terrorist organizations in Lebanon, Gaza, and Iraq as a way to purchase street cred with its sworn Sunni enemies.
If Assad were to work with the United States by promoting stability instead of terrorism, freelance jihadists all over the region would have every reason to bump him to the top of their to-do list. A secular non-Muslim Arab government at peace with Israel and the West and an enemy of the “resistance” movements would make an obvious next stop for roaming insurgents. That’s why Assad won’t likely ever do what Washington wants unless the region as a whole changes drastically or the United States threatens his survival more than the Islamists do. All we can really do in the meantime is try to contain him.