Syria Defections Expose Sectarian Agenda
By: Karl Sharro
Published Friday, August 24, 2012
The significance of Syria’s high-level defections has been so far largely misunderstood in the analysis of the Syrian uprising. Unlike other uprisings such as in Libya, where the immediacy and pace of defections rapidly undermined the legitimacy and control of the regime, high-level defections in Syria came very late and have remained few and far between. Crucially, rather than speeding up the disintegration of the regime, they appear to have a contained effect, but require costly and complicated operations. The nature of those defections represents a strong indication of the emerging divisions that will influence the path of the Syrian uprising.
Currently the whereabouts of Syria’s Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa remain unknown, amid feverish speculation that he had defected from the regime. While Syrian officials deny that he has defected, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) claims that he is under their protection in Syria. As Syria’s most senior Sunni politician and a prominent member of the Syrian regime’s old guard, Sharaa’s defection would be a serious development, and not necessarily for the obvious reasons.
If confirmed, Sharaa’s defection would represent the high point of a series of defections that began with that of Manaf Tlass, and included Prime Minister Riad Hijab and several ambassadors. Notably, all these defections involved Sunni officials and required long negotiations beforehand and complex operations to execute them. Yet despite the effort and risks, it seems that there is no clear role for any of the defectors to play within the opposition or in directing the uprising.
There is speculation that these defections are an indication of regime insiders trying to save themselves because they sense the nearing collapse of the regime. Yet it is not clear why, if this is the case, convincing them to defect would require so much effort. Additionally, it’s worth asking why non-Sunni high-ranking officials have yet to make the same calculations.
A more convincing explanation is that the controls that the Syrian regime had employed to overcome confessional divisions within Syrian society, and within its ranks, have finally collapsed. The Syrian regime managed to control sectarian divisions in the aftermath of the bloody suppression of Islamists at the beginning of the 1980s, but those divisions have resurfaced sharply during the uprising and particularly since it turned into an armed revolt.
This is not to say that the uprising itself has become exclusively a sectarian conflict, but what it certainly means is that it has become impossible for Sunni politicians to defend their position within the regime. Much like what happened during the Lebanese Civil War, at a certain point the pressure to respond to group affiliation overcomes individual choice. This tendency is also reinforced by the redistribution of power within the ruling clique in response to the uprising, as it shifted from civilian to military leaders, most of whom are Alawis.
Sharaa’s defection would confirm this “confessional turn.” Unlike Hijab, whose credentials and position with the regime were not sufficiently robust for withstanding pressure from his community, Sharaa was resilient enough to withstand the cull of the old guard under Bashar al-Assad’s presidency. Although some interpreted the vice presidency as a demotion, Sharaa continued to play a strong role and represent the regime after he assumed that office. His inability to withstand the pressures of the uprising becomes even more telling of the new dynamics emerging within Syria.
The implications of this confessional turn could represent the “Lebanonization” of the Syrian conflict. In other words, an increasing political role for confessions (and ethnic groups) and not the simplistic “sectarian war” tag. Given that neither side can expect an imminent military victory and that no alternative political frameworks have emerged during the uprising to tip the balance against the regime, a political settlement is increasingly likely to mean a negotiated confessional power-sharing agreement.
It is likely that figures like Sharaa, Tlass and Hijab have already understood this and are acting to avoid becoming redundant in a future confessionally-aligned political system. Abdel Basset Sayda’s statement this week that there is no place for Tlass and Hijab in a future transition government seems to be a preemptive attempt to forestall this emerging confessional formation, which will come at the expense of the organization that he leads, the Syrian National Council (SNC). As a broad umbrella body, the SNC will disintegrate quickly once confessional dynamics become more prominent.
One aspect of the defections that shouldn’t be ignored, however, is that the countries sponsoring the defections and providing financial and political support for the defectors (thought to be Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey), are not approaching Alawi and Christian officials to convince them to defect. This is a real possibility and it might explain why only high-ranking Sunni officials are defecting. It’s equally possible that non-Sunni officials would consider defecting to be political suicide.
It’s too early to tell whether this confessional turn is an irreversible trend, but there are indications that it will dictate the nature of the political conflict in Syria in the coming years. Should this trend prevail, confessional division will be further entrenched. The Alawi ruling elite in Syria will have to come to the realisation that it has to sacrifice its monopoly on power, much like the Maronite elite did in Lebanon at the end of the 1980s, in order to bring about a political solution.
Such a settlement would be a far cry from the aspirations of the thousands of people who took to the streets in peaceful protests demanding change, but Syria’s march towards freedom and democracy was always going to be long and difficult.
The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect Al-Akhbar's editorial policy.