Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Syrian Uprising: Part I, "The Nature of the Opposition Movement"

Syria is not Egypt, is not Tunisia, is not Libya, is not Iraq, is not Afghanistan. Getting a sense of the nature of the uprising will require a relatively detailed analysis that requires us to more-or-less throw out any preconceived model we have based on these previous uprisings. Let's take a look.

What we'll discuss over the next few posts:
1) The nature of the opposition movement.
2) The military reality on the ground.
3) Prospects for opposition victory.
4) Options for foreign powers and the directions the conflict could go.

Today, we're discussing: 1) The nature of the opposition movement.
Libya's opposition was largely regional: the east and west were largely separated by vast desert, and had developed very separate identities.
Bahrains was largely religious (Shiites dominated by Sunnis).
Afghanistan's is ethnic (mostly Pashtuns).
Iraq's was both ethnic and religious (Sunni Arabs dominated Shiite Arabs and Sunni Kurds).

Of course, the above descriptions are grossly oversimplified (Tripoli had major protests until they were quashed, for example), but give us an idea of where the base of power of the opposition movements come from.

The opposition movement in Syria appears to be primarily Sunni in nature (which is interesting in that Sunnis are the largest ethnic group in the country and the largest group represented by the government), and regionally diverse. If we use protester deaths as a proxy for the intensity of the opposition activity in Syria, we can see below that we have intense protests in all of Syria's major geographical areas, and that they do not focus on a particular religious area. Interestingly, we also don't see significant unrest in areas of Kurdish majority, which has been the case in neighboring Iraq & Turkey (although the Kurds are demanding greater rights & protection under the government).

There are scattered reports that the protesters have an anti-minority bend, particularly against Christians and Alawites. The opposition is, in turn, accusing the Assad government of inciting religious violence. It's not clear how much sectarian violence is actually happening, and how much of it (that is happening) is government-caused.

The demographic diversity of the movement helps us understand the nature of its political aims. The opposition, beyond calling for Assad to step down, is apparently seeking wider democratic reforms and civil rights. This has, of course, been the banner of the opposition movements in other countries, though the opposition groups do seem to be keeping in line with their original ideas so far.

The question for The West will be: is this an opposition that wants a liberal democracy, or one that wants a more Islamist democracy? The former will tend to be more Western-friendly, and the latter tends to be more at odds with US allies like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Israel. It'll be tough to say--the Muslim Brotherhood definitely has a strong showing in the area, but in Syria, many other faces make up the various oppositions, and all sorts of strange alliances might arise (and, to be fair, the Muslim Brotherhood is relatively moderate).

So, to some extent, there is a wait-and-see on the political reality of this opposition movement, just as there has been in previous revolutions across the Middle East.

But before we think about it too hard, we need to get a good sense of the military reality on the ground in Syria, which we'll discuss next time.
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