This post will outline the last but one scenario for Syria for the short to medium term, i.e. “a Secular Syria” resulting from a real victory by one of the warring groups. Considering the current state of play, this scenario is unlikely, even utopic. Yet, imagining it will also suggest possible policy and strategy that could change the odds.
The various scenarios constructed over the last weeks are summarized in the graph below. This “mapping” starts exploring ways to look at sets of scenarios as a systemic and dynamic whole. The thickness of the arrow shows higher probability and shorter timeline: the thicker an arrow, the more likely and the quicker a scenario would evolve in a specific direction; alternatively a dotted line shows lower probability and/or longer timeline. Probability and timeline will evolve according to events.
Scenario 3.3.2.: A Secular Syria?
To see a secular Syria rising from the ashes of the war would presuppose a victory of the Supreme Joint Military Command Council (SJMCC or SMC), especially won by fighters affiliated with moderate or secular groups, while the ascendency of the Muslim Brotherhood within the political corresponding body, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (NC) has waned.
As of today, it is thus even more unlikely than the previous scenario. First, the absence of coordination and of an efficient command-and-control structure, as analysed by Ignatius (7 June 2013, 华盛顿邮报) in the recent loss of Qusair to the pro Al-Assad groups is a severe impediment. Second, the estimated weakness in numbers of fighters of the FSA (if Islamist and Muslim Brotherhood’s supported groups are not included) seriously constrains the possibility of victory (Ignatius, 3 April 2013 and Lund, 4 April 2013). Finally, the secular and moderate within the NC hardly have any external support, as the American and European hesitations show daily.
Nevertheless, let us imagine that dynamics change and that this utopian scenario becomes a reality, under a new type of leadership, successfully unifying and mobilizing the rebellion in a non-sectarian way. Building upon Matthew Barber’s series of three posts (27 May 2013 for Syrian Comment) focusing on Sufi Sheikh Muhammad al-Yaqoubi and how hopes to see him officially elected to the National Coalition were dashed at the end of May 2013, this leadership could be Sufi. Indeed, Barber underlines:
“An emerging Sufi current within the Syrian resistance could soon provide an alternative to Muslim Brotherhood hegemony and change the dynamics of the political opposition.” (Barber, 22 May 2013, Syria Comment)
Countries, such as the U.S., the U.K., or France, who look for a way to support a solution that would end the Syrian conflict, avoid a sectarian bloodshed and the prospect of a Syrian balkanization, respect democracy and fundamental rights, without favouring extremism, and further tensions or even war in the region, would have perceived backing such a current as an answer. Practically, and depending upon further investigation, interested actors would have worked with “the Movement for Building Civilization” or Tiyaar Binaa’ al-Hadara, which should be “operating soon out of an office in Jordan” (Interview with Sheikh al-Ya’qoubi, Barber, 30 May 2013). As explained by Barber,
“Sheikh al-Ya’qoubi and other Sufi leaders have been building influence lately, working together for about six months to form an umbrella organization for rebel groups comprised of Sunnis and Sufis aligned with Syria’s mainstream values, rather than Islamist agendas. The organization is called the Movement for Building Civilization. He and his peers have produced a charter document which rebels groups can sign.” (Barber, 22 May 2013, Syria Comment)
Starting from the 200 groups with which the Sufi Sheikhs (ibid.), strengthened by the novel supports received, more groups would join under a fortifying SMC, which would be increasingly victorious, despite fierce battles. Meanwhile, the ascendency of the moderates within the NC would increase. According to Barber (Ibid., see also the series on Salafi and Sufi influences on Islam in Syria in Syria Comment, 2007), Sufi ulema enjoy considerable backing within the Sunni Muslim population in Syria. According to Sheikh al-Ya’qoubi, “probably one-quarter of the Syrian population is Sufi” (interview), which would represent 5.6 million people (on World Bank estimates for 2012). Such highly respected figures as
“Sheikh al-Ya’qoubi represent[s] the kind of moderate, traditional Islam that most Syrians are familiar with, the Islam challenged by both the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists. Though taking an unambiguous stance against the regime’s violence, injustice, and terror, he [Sheikh al-Ya’qoubi] also continues to exert his influence encouraging rebels to avoid terrorism through fatwas condemning tactics such as car-bombings, kidnapping, landmines, the killing of prisoners, and violence against non-combatants politically aligned with the regime… He maintains a very clear position defending the rights of all minorities, including those condemned by extremists as heterodox… He thinks Syria’s current family laws are just fine, and are already sufficiently compatible with the shari’a. He also believes that legal reform should not be pursued before a constitutionally-based committee can be formed which would tackle any needed changes, after the regime has fallen and a new Syrian government has been created.” (Barber, 22 May 2013, Syria Comment)
As a result, a strong mobilization of the Sunni population, starting from the Sufi core, would occur. Sectarian fears decreasing in general, the mobilization capabilities of other groups (including those allowing for the creation of Bashar al-Assad regime’s “People’s Army” or Jaysh al-Sha‘bi (see the excellent report by Joseph Holliday, The Assad Regime: from Counterinsurgency to Civil War – March 2013 for the ISW) would progressively disappear. Step by step, non Sunni groups and people would start believing in and actively supporting the new vision of a secular, moderate Syria. Considering the influence of Sufism among Kurds in Syria (Paulo Pinto, Syrian Studies Association Bulletin, Vol 16, No 1, 2011), a reaffirmed common ground would be found and the Kurds would fully join the new forces.
Furthermore, building previous historical ties as explained by Weismann (excerpt reported by Joshua Landis, 11 May 2007), the new Sufi outlook could find common ground with both the Syrian Salafis and the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, and thus integrate them.
As a result, victory would truly mean a Syria where all people and groups are integrated, save for warlords and the most violent actors that would still need to be brought back within society. Syria could constitute a novel model of secular, yet spiritual, and predominantly Muslim polity. As such, it might also be perceived as a threat by other actors in other countries, who could also feel their own power, derived from other models, questioned. The new secular Syria would have to pay attention to such dangers, however without falling into the trap of paranoia.
Estimating Likelihood for Scenario 3.3.2.
Right now, if conditions do not change, and as underlined earlier, this scenario is quite unlikely. However, assuming the Movement for Building Civilization (or a similar initiative) succeeds in being born, then it has the potential for slowly and progressively changing the odds from highly unlikely to plausible and even probable. Most importantly, the right timing for each action will need to be respected, as many times underlined by Sheikh al-Ya’qoubi.
Some indicators that could be followed as influencing the likelihood of this scenario:
- Creation of the Movement for Building Civilization (or a similar initiative) with real linkages in Syria;
- Mobilization of the Syrian population, across groups and communities;
- Strategic, operational and tactical skills of the SMC under this new configuration and of the fighting groups affiliated with the Movement.
- Propaganda and deception aiming at fueling fears and hatred (external and internal).
- Proper material support by various actors;
- Proper discussions and cooperation between supporters and the moderate forces leading to commonly agreed actions if any;
- Patience of external supporters;
- Actions against the proponents of a secular Syria by actors (external and internal) who are sponsoring other solutions for Syria;
- Regionalization of the war;
- Changes of situation for one of the external players (e.g. what implications may the events in Turkey have on the situation – current and prospects – in Syria?);
- Changes in the global and regional state of play.
Scenario 3.4.: An Al-Assad Syria?… To be continued.
Featured image: Syria, palmera By Anas Al Rifai (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.