Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is facing immense pressure to step down from power to end the conflict in his country. Unfortunately, ending the Syrian conflict is not that easy. Syria, like most countries in the Middle East, has kept a precarious balance of power between religious and ethnic groups for centuries. Assad stepping down may be the drastic change that the Syrian people need, but it could also have disastrous consequences for some of these groups.
Let us examine two of the largest minority groups in Syria-- Alawites and Kurds-- and see how they fit into the scene of this ongoing conflict.
The ruling al-Assad family is part of the Alawite community, which is a minority religious group in Syria and constitutes about 12 percent of Syria's population (2.1 million people). The term Alawite or Alawi comes from the name "Ali," referring to the fact that they are followers of Imam Ali bin Abi Taleb, a cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammad.
While Alawites are classified as a distant branch of Shia Islam, many Muslims consider Alawite practices, such as drinking wine and believing in reincarnation, to be heresy. As such, Alawites have long suffered persecution, and have taken to keeping their beliefs behind a veil of secrecy.
Alawites have held a disproportionate amount of Syria's political and economic power since Bashar's father Hafez seized power in the 1970s. Sunnis, who comprise about three-quarters of the population and ruled the area for centuries, have resented this imbalance. However, the mostly-Alawite Assad government has been largely tolerant of other ethnic and religious minorities. The government has also enjoyed the support of neighboring Shiite political groups, such as Lebanon's Hezbollah and the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Aside from Damascus, the Alawites of Syria are concentrated in the country's northwest, along the Mediterranean coast, in the provinces of Latakia and Tartus. They are joined by significant Alawite minorities in Turkey's southern Antakya Province (formerly Antioch) to their immediate north, and Lebanon's northernmost district of Akkar to their immediate south.
South of Akkar, the Jabal al-Mohsen neighborhood in Tripoli (Tarabulus) is also mostly Alawite in a bastion of conservative Sunnis, and has experienced clashes with the anti-Assad Bab al-Tabbaneh neighborhood for decades. The fighting in Tripoli has only increased with the escalation of the war in Syria.
Many Alawites in the country fear a backlash against their community if Bashar al-Assad were to step down from power. Even if they are not pro-Assad, they fear being "massacred" by Sunnis once they are no longer under the protection of the Syrian army.
Most of Hasaka Governorate, which is in the northeastern tip of Syria, forms a small part of the geocultural region of Kurdistan. This historically Kurdish region includes the majority of southeastern Turkey, the northern border of Iraq, most of the western border of Iran, and a small portion of Armenia. There are some 30 million Kurds living in this region, making them the largest ethnic group in the world without their own country.
Kurds are also one of the largest ethnic minorities in Syria, consisting of about 10 percent of the Syrian population (2 million people). They have been regularly discriminated against by the Syrian government, and were considered stateless for decades until earlier last year, when Bashar al-Assad granted them Syrian citizenship in a bid to prevent them from joining the growing opposition against his regime. This bid was largely unsuccessful, and many Kurds have joined the uprising with the hope of securing their autonomy as a separate Kurdish state within Syria, if not establishing Kurdistan as a nation, to the dismay of neighboring countries.
When the fighting between regime forces and the Free Syrian Army intensified in western Syria this July, Syrian forces withdrew from the Kurdish northeast to strengthen their fronts against the FSA in western urban areas such as Aleppo and Damascus. The withdrawal left Syrian Kurds almost completely in control of their own region for the first time, much to Turkey's chagrin, which fears that the Kurdish region in Syria could become a haven for the separatist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).
At the moment, the region is one of the safest and most secure in the country, due in part to Kurds preventing both the Syrian army and the FSA from entering. However, many are worried that once the greater conflict is resolved, either the Syrian regime or the opposition will try to take back the Kurdish region, something that the newly-autonomous Kurds will not take kindly to.
Possible consequences of regime change
Neighboring countries fear that the fall of the Assad regime will lead to the fracturing of Syria along ethnic and religious lines, which would almost inevitably create complications in the greater region. King Abdullah of Jordan has said that the creation of an Alawite state along the predominantly-Alawite Syrian coast may be Bashar al-Assad's "Plan B." The creation of an independent Kurdish state in Syria's east may lead to more calls for Kurdish autonomy, even for a unified Kurdistan, in the surrounding Kurd-populated areas. Additionally, the influx of Syrian refugees will change the demographic makeup of the countries surrounding Syria, which could upset other precarious balances of power and lead to new conflicts years down the line.
1. Map showing the presence of Alawites in the three countries where they are found: Turkey, Syria, and Lebanon. NordNordWest and Supreme Deliciousness / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-1.0
2. Kurdish-inhabited area, by CIA (1992)