Will Syria Survive?

The civil war in Syria is not only a war against Assad's repressive regime. It has taken on religious and ethnic characteristics.

It seems the most important question these days is not whether Bashar Assad survives but whether Syria survives as a state. Syria, in its present borders, is not a homogenous entity, either historically or ethnically, but the outcome of Anglo-French imperialist arrangements made after World War I. They set the borders of the countries that formed on the Ottoman Empire's ruins.

First came the Sykes-Picot Agreement and the convoluted results of Faisal's Arab Revolt. Then came France's decision to separate Lebanon from Syria and annex areas beyond historically Christian Mount Lebanon to form Greater Lebanon. Finally, on the eve of World War II, came France's capitulation to Turkey's demands to transfer control of the Alexandretta Province (the Hatay Province ) to Turkey.

In Syria, France was also responsible for encouraging the Alawite minority to serve in the army as a counterweight to the Sunni majority, using the age-old colonialist policy of divide and conquer. This legacy is apparent to this day. It is what allowed the Alawite minority to take power under the secular Baath Party. It also created the paradoxical situation in which Assad's regime drew - and still draws - significant support from the Christian minority, around 10 percent of the country's population. The Christians view him - despite his repressive nature - as their best guarantee against a tyranny of the Sunni majority.

Similar to Iraq and Egypt, secularism in Syria went hand in glove with a repressive regime, despite the differences between Saddam Hussein and Hosni Mubarak. The civil war in Syria is not only a war against Assad's repressive regime. It has taken on religious and ethnic characteristics. In this sense, it is reminiscent of what happened in Yugoslavia. The growing strength of radical Islamic elements in the opposition - at times supported by Saudi Arabia, at other times linked to Al-Qaida - shows that the alternative to Assad's regime could be far from democratic.

The minorities understand this very well. Some Christians are leaving Syria, and the Kurds in the northeast are thinking about autonomy, possibly even a link-up with the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq. If Assad falls, one cannot rule out a scenario in which the Alawites gather in their mountain stronghold, and who knows how the Turks would react; they have a long score to settle with the Syrians on all border issues. On the other hand, there may also be implications for southeast Turkey's large Alawite minority and Lebanon's Sunnis, concentrated mainly in Tripoli near the Syrian border.

The possibility of a disintegrating Syria reflects processes whose ramifications are not limited to the regimes' future but touch on the these countries' very existence. The territorial arrangement made after World War I, which political leaders until now have sought to preserve, is starting to crumble. It happened in Iraq, which is no longer a unified national Arab state. It is the case in Sudan, whose borders were drawn during the British occupation at the end of the 19th century and which has already split in two, with further divisions still to come. And in Libya, the people who toppled Muammar Gadhafi are having a hard time maintaining the country's unity.

In the current charged atmosphere, this op-ed piece could be interpreted by some Arab analysts as more proof of the Zionist plot against the Arab world; any assertion that it is only an analysis of a possible development won't convince anyone who believes in conspiracy theories. But historical processes sometimes have unexpected consequences. Just as in Russia the disintegration of the communist regime did not give rise to democracy but to Vladimir Putin, so it is in our region. The Arab Spring could be in for some surprises.