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Who’s Fence-Sitting in Syria?

By Taylor Marvin

Writing at Political Violence @ a Glance, Barbara F. Walter poses an interesting puzzle (note: I contribute to PVG). Citing Eli Berman, Walter outlines a problem facing Syria’s urban Sunni Muslim population living along the country’s western strip that is for the most part controlled by the regime. These Sunnis are understood to be the “swing voters” in Syria’s civil war; while they could benefit from a complete rebel victory bringing a new regime dominated by Sunni Muslims to power, they have also historically benefited from the stability enforced by the Assad family’s Alawite Muslim-dominated government. In Berman’s view these urban Sunnis are waiting to see who appears likely to win the war; when this information is revealed they will then side with the likely victor.

Many Syrians, especially urban Sunnis, are reluctant to choose sides in the Syrian war. In a January New York Times piece Anne Barnard and Hwaida Saad related the dilemma of a Damascus Sunni Muslim civil servant quietly pondering “his own private endgame, toying with defecting to the rebels, yet clinging to his post, increasingly sure there are no fighters worth joining.” However, it is worth noting that Berman’s argument that Syrian “swing voters” will decide the war is not universally accepted; an April 2013 Rand report claimed that “the remaining fence-sitters inside Syria are not in a position to tip the military balance” (it is also worth noting that elements of this report have been passed by events since its publication).

However, Walter has a problem with this logic, which presumes that Syria’s urban Sunnis have the option of laying low and emerging from the war in good condition. What if they are instead locked in a “lose-lose” situation? A rebel victory would subject these well-educated urban moderates to a new government dominated by Islamist extremists, an outcome not in their interests. But if Assad should win, these Sunnis could be grouped with their co-sectarians who had rebelled against the government and targeted for reprisals.

Source: The Economist.

Source: The Economist.

I think this interaction is more complex. While Syria’s urban Sunnis may face a lose-lose situation now, in 2011 it was plausible to suspect that a rebel victory could lead to a Sunni-dominated but largely secular government; today, as Islamist rebels appear more and more ascendant within the rebel movement, this is much less likely. Not only are today’s rebels more dominated by jihadists, the inability of the rebel movement to coalesce into an operationally-unified force and frequent incidents of rebel infighting in the three-sided civil war make further civil war in the aftermath of an Assad regime defeat a very real possibility. If we accept that Syria’s western urban Sunnis have for the most part so-far declined to definitively chose sides — a key assumption of the “swing voter” theory and one that appears to be true — then the fact that the outcome of a rebel victory appear to be growing less amenable to their interests suggests that they will continue to fence-sit.

The most obvious answer is that Walter’s logic is correct, and there is no puzzle at all: Syria’s urban Sunnis have, for the most part, already made their choice because in the context of the Syrian civil war their fence-sitting for all practical purposes serves the regime. While contested by the rebels, large cities like Damascus, Homs, and Hama all lie within the western strip held by the regime, which is centered on the country’s smaller Alawite-dominated coastal strip that is the Assad regime’s heartland. A large-scale rebellion by this region’s Sunnis would be disastrous for the regime, depriving it of its base, threatening its Alawite backers, and eating up military resources that could otherwise be employed in the hinterland and central Euphrates valley that for the most part is held by the rebels. If the regime loses control of this region its ability to eventually win the war — or, more importantly in the context of a civil war with fence-sitters, ability to appear likely to win the war — would be cast into much greater doubt. Barring situations where western villages are forced to choose, fence-sitting can still be considered valuable for the regime.

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