The chaos in Syria, Israel’s northern nemesis and a major geopolitical actor in the Middle East, has taken a dramatic turn for the worse. The situation is rapidly approaching that of an outright civil war, and in such an eventuality, it is unclear who would replace the Assad regime, if it can be pushed from power at all. Although nature of the Syrian opposition movement is deeply uncertain, recent reports have demonstrated that the Muslim Brotherhood is definitely within its ranks.
Over the last several weeks, largely nonviolent protests against the ruling regime of Bashar al-Assad have been brutally put down by professional troops and security forces, with heavy casualties to civilians. Current estimates put the number of civilian dead at approximately 1,100, though that number is impossible to verify. As if that were not bad enough, on Monday, news broke that Syrian military forces were ambushed while responding to a call for help from a town where fighting had broken out. Again, the death toll cannot be verified, but state-run media reports 120 soldiers were killed. The government has vowed to respond with force to this attack, which, if true, represents the first major attack on Syrian forces by the protest movement. Whether or not the government’s death toll is accurate, the fact that there was fighting in the town of Jisr al-Shoghour has been confirmed by anti-regime activists and residents of the town. Who is responsible is unknown, but none of the possible answers are reassuring.
According to residents of the town, the troops were sent to Jisr al-Shoghour after fighting broke out among units of the security forces. Defections of officers and men into rebel units have also been reported — including some in other nearby towns. While it is important to stress that none of this can be confirmed, if the reports are accurate, it would appear that at least some units of the Syrian military have broken away from the government. Having reportedly equipped themselves with heavy weapons from local military armories, they then wiped out the military reinforcements sent to put an end to their insurrection.
This is a familiar story. It was only several months ago that a popular uprising in the Libyan city of Benghazi quickly drew over several units of Muammar Gaddafi’s armed forces. A Libyan rebel government, with a military composed of defectors and deserters from Gaddafi’s forces, quickly formed, and has been fighting a civil war against Gaddafi for several months. The rebels are now backed by the air and naval forces of the NATO alliance. The uprising against Gaddafi was triggered when security forces loyal to the regime used violence to put down peaceful protests. The comparisons to the deteriorating situation in Syria are strong indeed.
Much like the situation in Libya, there is uncertainty over the goals and motives — even identity — of those who would stand against the Assad regime in a civil war. Syria has been ruled by the Ba’ath Party, which itself is headed by the Assad family, for 40 years. No opposition has been permitted, no democratic movements allowed. Who would speak for Syria’s rebels?
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.