Thursday, May 31, 2012

Is Syria becoming the new Iraq?


(CNN) -- For four decades, consecutive generations of the Assad family -- Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father as Syrian president in 2000 -- have interfered in Lebanon to the west, and Iraq to the east. Syrian agents assassinated rivals and pumped in fighters.

Now, the irony is that with every passing week, Syria increasingly resembles its war-torn neighbors. The government is hemorrhaging cash, Damascus is scarred with suicide bombings, and sectarian enmities are worse than ever. Syria is a lot better off than Lebanon in 1975 or Iraq in 2007, but it might not stay that way.

What makes Syria particularly volatile is its complex sectarian and ethnic makeup. Sunni Muslims comprise three-quarters of Syria's 22 million people. Christians make up another tenth, and the Druze a few percent. But it's the Alawite sect of the Assad family -- a syncretic offshoot of Shia Islam -- that, despite being only 12 percent of the population, has dominated the state since the 1960s.

It's reported that 70% of Syria's full-time soldiers, 80% of officers, and the entirety of some elite units, are Alawite. The Shabiha (from the Arabic for "ghosts"), locally recruited Alawite militias, have also been crucial over the last year. Shabiha from neighboring villages -- allegedly with "Shia slogans" on the foreheads -- were likely responsible for last week's Houla massacre. Read More