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Syria's Explosive Crumbs

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Late last week, Syrian Prime Minister Riad Hijab denounced his boss, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, fled to Jordan and pledged allegiance to the anti-Assad rebellion.

When asked at a news conference to evaluate the significance of Hijab's defection, U.S. State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell declared that the defections of many former Assad loyalists indicate "that the (Assad) regime is crumbling."

Ventrell described other recent defectors: a senior intelligence officer, three brigadier generals and two other government ministers.

Defections by senior political and military personnel do politically damage the Assad regime. They indicate that Assad's political base within Syria is shrinking.

But erosion of the core of the Assad regime? That remains an open question.

Assad's own ethno-religious group, the Alawites, provide the political and security bedrock of his regime. Though comprising only 10 percent of Syria's population, the Alawites control the key positions in the police and military forces. They are nominally Shia Muslims, but most sources describe their faith as theologically heterogeneous, Islam with a dash of Christianity and (possibly) a trace of ancient Levantine or Canaanite pagan practices.

A reporter at the State Department press conference, after noting that Prime Minister Hijab is a Sunni Muslim Arab, asked Ventrell if any recent defectors were Alawites and wondered "...are we actually seeing any of the real (Assad) inner circle defect?"

Ventrell admitted he didn't know "about the different ethnic and sectarian backgrounds" of the defectors, but that U.S. policy focuses on the future, a democratic, pluralistic future, one that will be shared by all Syrians, regardless of ethnicity and sect.

That's the vision, and it sounds good. The State Department, however, could not produce any evidence that Alawite sect support for Assad is fading. Another reporter referred to claims by Syrian refugees that Alawites man the "shabiha" militias, which attack rebel neighborhoods. Alawites may be desperate, but they aren't crumbling.

Rebel organizations like the Syrian National Council (SNC) contend that defections like Hijab's demonstrate that Syrians regard the rebels as the legitimate political alternative to Assad. Perhaps. The rebels have demonstrated resilience. They have not, however, forged a coherent political organization capable of governing Syria. Despite 15 months of prodding by Turkey and its NATO allies, the rebels remain politically fragmented.

Fragments are the product of, well, crumbling, to use the State Department's word.

Syria, like its neighbor, Lebanon, is an ethnic and religious mosaic, the demographic legacy of shattered empires, divided tribes and fractious religious faiths. Over the centuries, heretical sects and obstinate clans living in its rugged mountains and desert valleys have successfully resisted first elimination, then assimilation.

The ethnic and religious hodge-podge includes Arabs, Kurds, Armenians, Druze, numerous Christian sects and the Alawites. Sunni Muslim Arabs constitute 65 percent of the population, but they are not a political bloc.

Syria's Kurds, like Iraq's, Iran's, and Turkey's Kurds, are predominantly Sunni Muslim. Many Kurds would prefer to have their own independent state. The Turkish government says an independent Kurdistan is a "red line" issue, meaning it won't happen because creating it would "crumble" what is now south-eastern Turkey, northern Iraq, northeastern Syria and a slice of Iran.

From the beginning of the rebellion 17 months ago, regional "crumbling" and ethno-sectarian bloodbaths in the wake of the collapse of the Assad regime have been nightmares every responsible leader has sought to avoid. Preventing them requires political buy-in from all Syrian citizens, including Alawites. The Assads will eventually go. The Alawites will have to accept that. Gaining Alawite acceptance will require deploying an international security force inside Syria, to counter revenge attacks, Iranian subversion, and al-Qaeda trouble-making. The State Department needs to have its Syrian futurists focused on creating it.

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