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There are possibilities, but none are attractive. The Assad family are Shiite Muslims of the Alawite sect, and the overwhelming majority of Syria’s population are Sunni, setting the stage for a split of the country along religious lines (though it should be said that the protests thus far have not taken on overtly sectarian tones). There are other large minorities in Syria, including a tenth of the population that is Christian and nearly as many that are ethnically Kurdish. It should also be noted that according to early reports, the crackdown by security forces has been conducted by units dominated by Alawites — furthering concern that the collapse of Syria into civil war could rapidly become a fight along religious and ethnic lines as military units of one religion or ethnicity turn against other units composed of members of a different sect. Such a civil war would raise the grim specter of widespread ethnic cleansing along the lines of what was seen in the Balkans during the 1990s.
The possiblity of an ethnic or religious civil war is alarming, but is not the only unpleasant possibility to consider. The Muslim Brotherhood has long been an enemy of the ruling regime and the Assad family. In 1982, the Syrian military attacked the Brotherhood stronghold of Hama, virtually destroying the city. Civilian deaths in that operation ranged from a low estimate of 10,000 to a high of 80,000. The annihilation of Hama marked the end of the Brotherhood’s terrorist insurgency against the Assad family and drove its leadership into hiding or exile. But it has continued to call for an end to Assad’s rule (even receiving funds from American taxpayers) and for elections to replace him — elections it would of course participate in. CNN has reported that witnesses to the fighting in and around Jisr al-Shoghour claim the violence involved members of the Muslim Brotherhood attacking government forces. And the Canadian Press reports that a recent meeting of Syrian opposition leaders in Turkey included a representative of the Brotherhood. While its strength is unknown, the Islamist organization is clearly interested in a role in a post-Assad future that many believe to be imminent.
In an excellent column, The New York Times’ David Brooks heaped scorn upon the brutal Syrian regime, whose depravity is now on full display to the world. He also singled out for ridicule those who would have expected Israel to ever reach a fair and lasting peace treaty with those who machine-gun their own civilians or torture small boys to death and send the body to the family. Mr. Brooks is exactly right. But if Assad should fall in the days to come, and should Syria collapse into civil war or fall under the control of the Muslim Brotherhood, Israel will be no better off.
Matt Gurney is a columnist and editor at Canada’s National Post. He can be reached on Twitter @mattgurney.
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