Adnan A. Zulfiqar writes: Sectarian conflict might dominate coverage of Syria today, but internal Sunni dynamics will define its tomorrow. Tensions between Alawis and Sunnis won’t be settled over night, but the demographics in Syria do not suggest a prolonged conflict similar to Iraq or Lebanon.
Unlike those countries, Syria is overwhelmingly Sunni (~75%) and Bashar al-Assad’s fate rests on their support. Over the last two years, the strategic alliance between Assad and the Sunni elite has eroded significantly. Assad’s former Syrian-Sunni allies are now some of his opponent’s most important financial contributors. Russia seemingly hedging its bets on Syria’s future, and the United States attempting to raise its profile on the issue bothindicate that post-Assad preparations are being made.
After almost two years since the rebellion began, over 44,000 have been killed, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. According to press accounts and my personal observations during a recent trip to the Syrian/Turkey border as part of Truman Project’s Democracy and Human Rights Initiative, the rebels control much of Syria’s north, including most of the border with Turkey, significant portions of Aleppo, and are steadily making a push for Damascus, the final prize. Even Assad’s deputies have cynically taken to the airwaves to advocate for a political resolution, an unlikely proposition at this stage.
An impending power vacuum is inevitable so focus must shift to the competitors aiming to fill that space. The common consensus is that the opposition’s political and military factions are poised to battle for authority. In reality, this competition highlights a more fundamental confrontation: traditionalist Sunnism versus its more puritanical Salafi strain. The Syrian coalition understands this with their perspicacious selection of Mu’az al-Khatib to lead the opposition: the former head imam at Umayyad Masjid, the country’s most important religious site and the fourth holiest site in Islam. Al-Khatib, a Sunni traditionalist, can counter the growing appeal of Salafism. Rebel militias are dominated by an ideological spectrum of Salafi fighters, but are united by both the cause and their interpretive approach to Islam’s foundational texts. Despite Salafism never having mass appeal in Syrian society, there is potential for that to change. [Continue reading…]