Are Syria’s Urban Sunnis Screwed?

By Barbara F. Walter

Aleppo, 2012. Screencap from Voice of America News report, via Wikimedia.
Aleppo, 2012. Screencap from Voice of America News report, via Wikimedia.

Last night I gave a presentation to a large audience at UC San Diego’s School of International Relations and Pacific Studies about what was likely to happen in Syria. Four other distinguished professors gave presentations including Eli Berman, an economist and expert on terrorism and counter-insurgency. He made one main point. The outcome of the Syrian civil war, he argued, was going to be determined by moderate Sunnis living in urban areas close to the Mediterranean. These people represented the “swing voters” in the conflict between the existing Alawite regime and the more radical Islamic groups likely to come to power if Assad loses the war. Berman argued that these Sunni moderates — sophisticated, well-educated people living in cities like Aleppo and Damascas — had yet to decide who to support. On the one hand, they benefited from the stability that the incumbent regime had provided, but on the other they were Sunni, not Alawite, and could benefit from having a majority Sunni government in power. According to Berman, these urban Sunnis were waiting to see who would appear likely win the war and then shift their support in favor of the winning side.

This presented a puzzle to me, since it suggested that urban Sunnis were in a relatively safe position, with the option of laying low for a while and emerging from the conflict in good condition. But it struck me that these individuals might instead be in a lose-lose situation. If the rebels win, these moderate Sunnis would be subjected to a government pursuing a radical form of Islam not in their personal interest. If the Alawites maintained control, however, these moderate Sunnis were likely to be grouped with the Sunni majority that had taken up arms. Here life is not likely to become easier for them.

So today’s puzzler is this: Am I missing something, or are Syria’s urban Sunnis screwed either way?

Last week I asked why the Ayatollah Khamenei, through Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s recent overtures, essentially offered to negotiate with the United States over the elimination of Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Each of our three commenters agreed that the answer had a lot to do with the painful economic sanctions that the US, the European Union and the UN had placed on Iran for refusing to suspend its uranium enrichment program. I completely agree. Sanctions, however, have been in place for quite some time so the question is that still needs to be answered is why now?

Here I think Taylor Marvin is correct. Iran is playing a game with the sanction-enforcing countries. Khamenei needs the US, EU and UN to eliminate their sanctions. Agreeing to negotiate ensures that these sanctions will not be tightened, as commenter papick argued, and creates the opportunity for sanctions to be removed entirely. But is Khamenei sincere in his willingness to forgo nuclear weapons over the long term? The answer to this question will depend on how influential hardliners are in the Iranian government and whether their preference for nuclear weapons will trump pressing economic concerns. My guess is that they will not. As our Persian Gulf resident MrB pointed out, there are “plenty of closed up Iranian Banks in the region,” and my prediction is that Iran is aiming to make whatever concessions are necessary to convince President Obama to lighten the sanctions and they’ll worry about domestic politics later.

  1. In regard to Iran, it seems to me that the US and its allies/satellites in Europe and the Middle East would prefer to keep sanctions going as long as possible regardless of the status of nuclear development in Iran, since Iran is a competing power in the Middle East. It may be supposed that sanctions reduce its ability to support its allies and satellites there, such as Hezbollah. Apparent willingness to yield on any issue to the pressure of sanctions would therefore encourage the sanctioning powers to continue them if possible, on the theory that they were proved to be effective. The Iranian leadership must be aware of this consideration, unless they are remarkably foolish. Therefore I would assume some other game is being played.

    I do not see much benefit in nuclear weapons for Iran. The quasi-imperial powers who possess them do not seem to get much good out of them. On the other hand smaller states may regard them as some kind of insurance, however expensive against arbitrary Iraq-style invasion.

  2. My own guess is that post-Assad Syria (barring a successfully negotiated transfer of power, which seems unlikely) will see a civil war with the Islamists on one side and a coalition on the other side that includes remnants of the Free Syrian Army, remnants of the Assad regime, the Alawites, and probably these uncommitted Sunni moderates. In this scenario, the Islamists would take the place of Assad as the prominent threat that drives the other elements together. This is, to be sure, a simplified scenario. In reality the distinction between Islamist and non-Islamist isn’t as clear cut as we like to tell ourselves, and those identified as Islamists don’t all get along. Right now, al-Nusrah and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria–both commonly identified as linked to al-Qa’ida–appear to be staking each other out. Nonetheless, some reshuffling of alliances along these lines strikes me as likely.

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