Indeed, the issue of the Sunni-Alawi Divide, or the Alawi-Everyone Else Divide if you like, is one of the main issues, if not the main issue, that needs to be addressed if peaceful change is to have a chance in the country. I have dealt with this issue on this blog repeatedly before, but I have to say that, oftentimes, the comments have tended to be too general and, hence, uninspiring.
I now believe that the best way to debate this issue is to hold a closed forum of well-known intellectuals and dissidents with the purpose of coming up with a draft for a national pact or charter where all these issues are directly addressed. We can, then, demand that Syrian opposition groups sign on to it. Those who do will be invited to attend a general conference (independent figures will come by themselves, while groups will be asked to send a delegation made up of no more than 10 representatives) where elections will be held to form a government-in-exile consisting of a parliament, a PM and a small cabinet.
The combination of a national charter and an elected government-in-exile might prove a good formula for attracting popular attention and support from across the political and communal spectrum in the country.
But, and in the process of discussing the relevant issues we need to take heed of several points:
* Despite the suspicion that many Alawites have vis-à-vis the Sunnis, in reality few Sunnis are actually anti-Alawites. Indeed, most of the dissidents in Syria are Sunnis, and for the first few years of Bashar rule, they would have been more than satisfied had he simply enacted some necessary political reforms. Since many of these Sunnis are actually secular, albeit rather conservative on many social issues, the continuation of the Alawite rule for a few more years would have served as a guarantor against Islamist rule. In reality, however, this was quite a delusional line of thought, and a way for Sunnis leaders to cop out on their responsibility towards their own community. For no one can really contain somebody else’s fanatics. Be that as it may, the window has closed on this matter now. Most Sunni dissidents and opposition figures, inside the country and out, has moved on to adopt a full-fledge commitment to regime change.
* We also need to bear in mind that the perceptions with which we are dealing, while popular in their relevant quarters, are not necessarily historically accurate. Take the Alawite complaint about Sunni maltreatment of their ancestors for instance. This is simply a gross generalization. Indeed, both the abusing feudal lords in question and the abused peasants came from various communal backgrounds, including Christian, Ismaili and Sunni in addition to the Alawites. In fact, to this very day, relations among Ismailis and Alawites tend to be rather strained on account of this legacy, as evident by the various clashed that took place in late 2004. But demographics being what they are, Sunnis, on both sides were overrepresented. We still have to deal with the popular perceptions, of course, but we, the community leaders, whether elected or happy with this designation or not, cannot afford to subscribe to them ourselves. Otherwise our ability to hold meaningful discussions amongst ourselves will be severely undermined.
* It should be obvious here that should democratic elections eventually take place, they are bound to pave the way for a greater, even dominant, Sunni role in the decision-making process, demography being what it is. So, if people cannot deal with that, then, they’d better stop saying that they are really interested in democracy. But, and rather than betting on developing a system that will continue to sideline the majority, and hence increase their communal identification, we need to come up with certain new arrangements that are meant to prevent the rise of any form of authoritarian rule whether perpetrated in the name of a certain majority or a minority, however defined. A system of checks and balances based on public accountability, transparency, rule of law, and respect for basic freedoms is required here.
* A role for army meant to preserve the above system, as is the case in Turkey, might need to be envisioned here, even mandated for a certain period of time, to alley the fears prevalent among the various minority communities, not to mention the secular Sunnis, their political affiliations notwithstanding. But even this cannot be tolerated forever. In the final analysis, we all need to learn how to trust each other again and to build bridges between various communities and institutions that are meant to improve inter-community ties (our activities at the Tharwa Project come to mind here).
* The status quo is not going to hold forever, change is going to come sooner or later, and it will, in fact, be coming sooner than any of us might expect. After all, this 2006 AD not 1006 AD, things tend to happen at a rather faster pace. Dynasties do not last for 100 plus years anymore. So, the Alawites should advantage of the fact that they are in control at this stage, and should attempt to design the best possible deal for themselves. The more they wait, the more frustrated and radicalized the Sunnis will get, and the harder the possibility of holding talks and reaching agreements. Indeed, we should be mindful here that just as there are currents within the Alawite community that are suspicious of change, there are also currents within the Sunni community that want it at any price, an are wiling to wait for the right moment to get it all. These Sunni currents are currently flourishing in the country thanks to the patronage of the Assads who think that they can control them. This is quite delusional of course. The only people who can contain these Sunni fanatics, as we have noted above, are the Sunni moderates, and the only way for the Sunni moderates to be empowered to do so is through a deal with the Alawites that will give them the role in the decision-making process that is more commensurate with their demographic and economic realities. Just as the Sunnis cannot get rid off the Assads on their own, the Alawites cannot contain the fanatic Sunnis on their own. Now more than ever, the moderates on all sides need each other.
In the struggle to contain the looming crisis ahead we need to learn that time is not on our side, and that the only way it could come to our side is when we initiate the right process and take charge of our lives. We have not done that in quite a while now, and look where we ended up!