Even if Bashar al-Assad doesn’t want to publicly acknowledge it, the al-Assad dynasty is coming to an end. The big question is, what will the al-Assad-led government be replaced with? Perhaps another secular government that will almost immediately be opposed by the Syrian rebels and Islamic State? Putin and Obama have plans to implement a draft constitution by August, 2016.
A secular Islamic government that has been hastily implemented by foreign governments is doomed to fail. True legitimacy can only come from the people of Syria. However, with all the foreign and domestic stakeholders fighting to get a piece of Syria and a grasp of power, how will a successful government form? Will Syria choose to be a secular state or one committed to religious conservatism? Have the past several decades pushed Syria into supporting a conservative theocracy? Will Syria lean more toward a Russian-backed socialist or a U.S.-backed democratic government?
The only identity Syria has known following the fall of the Ottoman Empire and end of the French Mandate has been a secular Islamic and socialist government ruled by fear and the constant threat of violence. The Baath Party rose to power after the secession from the far reach of Egypt and Nasser’s United Arab Republic. Originally, the Baath party gained popularity based on a newfound sense of Arab nationalism and unity. The Baath party ruled Syria with the help of a council of military officers. One by one, they were eliminated by coups, murders, prison, and suicide, until only Hafez al-Assad was left to rule. Eventually reaching the position of president, he turned the country into a quasi-monarchy that was ultimately passed down to his son, Bashar al-Assad. Bashar was never groomed like his eldest brother, Bassel al-Assad, to take control of the government, but was thrust into the position following the deaths of his brother in 1994 and his father in 2000. Hafez al-Assad and Bashar al-Assad have both controlled and ruled over the Syrians through fear and violence.
Bashar al-Assad originally brought the promise of ushering Syria into the next generation, as many of the original generation of Baath party members had passed away or were too old to maintain power. He promised to revive Syria by bringing in democracy, yet failed to deliver. His reign was hindered by economic struggles, a failed occupation of Lebanon, and growing hostility among the population. Compared to his father, Bashar’s time in office has been relatively short. After five years of war, he will be forced to step down and a new Syrian government will be formed.
What are the options moving forward?
Comparative and theoretical politics is a complicated subject to broach when regarding countries in the Middle East due to one main factor: Islam. Islam, with its sociopolitical aspects of sharia law, can interfere with secular governments and rule of law. Islamic conservatives argue that the answer should be a theocracy where sharia law prevails, however, civil liberties and human rights can suffer as a result. A modern-day example is ISIS; they claim to be the caliphate, which is traditionally a title given to the Islamic governing body and leader of the ummah (collective Islamic community). ISIS enforces their form of sharia law with violence. Due to the different sects within Islam, realistically there can never be a fully functional Islamic state or caliphate without one sect oppressing the other through sectarian violence. A conservative theocracy would be a police state just as the secular, autocratic al-Assad-led government was, just on the other end of the spectrum. Is there a happy medium?
One of the more pragmatic and controversial solutions for Syria is to split up the country into regions or states based on ethnic and sectarian lines, giving a portion to the Kurds, Sunni Muslims, and Shia Muslims. Other smaller minorities will have to be incorporated within the three larger states. All three states or regions come together to form a centralized secular government. A “sectarian free” government in the Middle East in probably not possible, as there will always be divisions. Yet, the UN Resolution S/RES/2254 (2015) does not seem to acknowledge the sectarian tensions at all, as it pursues a transitional government with “non-sectarian character:”
Urging all parties to the UN-facilitated political process to adhere to the principles identified by the ISSG (International Syria Support Group), including commitments to Syria’s unity, independence, territorial integrity, and non-sectarian character, to ensuring continuity of governmental institutions, to protecting the rights of all Syrians, regardless of ethnicity or religious denomination, and to ensuring humanitarian access throughout the country…”
This concept goes against Western norms, but when you have a religion that cannot be separated from the state, adjustments have to be made and incorporated into the governmental framework. Everyone will need to have representation in the new government.
Additionally, Syria has to decide if the centralized government will continue to lean toward the socialist policies that were established during the al-Assad regime or toward the democratic policies supported by the U.S. Syria is the prize in the middle of a big tug-of-war between Russia and the U.S., as they are both invested in the outcome of the new Syrian government.
A secular government, no matter which type, that is supported by the UN will not be successful unless all of the stakeholders are acknowledged and involved. If we have learned any lessons from our campaigns in the Middle East, it is to seek out and find the true power-brokers within the country instead of artificially manufacturing them. Find out who has the real power and why. If the UN thrusts someone into power without popular support, they will ultimately be rejected and replaced by either a violent coup or strong political opposition. As the United Nations continues to facilitate the formation of the temporary government, all eyes will be on Syria and what the government will eventually look like.
Almond, G. A., Powell Jr., G. B., Strom, K., & Dalton, R. J. (2004). Comparative Politics: A Theorethical Framework (4th Edition ed.). New York: Pearson Longman.
Diamond, L., Plattner, M. F., & Brumberg, D. (2003). Islam and Democracy in the Middle East. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
Hallaq, W. B. (2007). The Origins and Evolution of Islamic Law. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Image courtesy of AFP