′No end to the violence in Syria′ | Middle East| News and analysis of events in the Arab world | DW | 31.07.2012
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Middle East

'No end to the violence in Syria'

There is no foreseeable end to the violence in Syria even if Assad falls from power. According to German political scientist Margret Johannsen, the divisions within Syrian society cannot be repaired quickly.

DW: Ms. Johannsen, it's still up in the air if and when the Assad government is stepping down. Assuming the president falls or hands over power, what are the chances, in your opinion, that the fighting will come to an end in Syria?

Political scientist Margret Johannsen from the University of Hamburg in Germany

Margret Johannsen

Margret Johannsen: There's an extraordinarily high possibility that the violence will continue after the Assad regime collapses. The country is ethnically and religiously fragmented. The Assad regime's resignation wouldn't eliminate this fragmentation, which is why it's also very likely that there will be serious disputes and a competition for resources after his government falls.

That would mean that the conflict would continue primarily along ethnic and denominational lines. But people also keep saying that the conflict is mainly about economic interests. How do you gauge the importance of the denominational interests on the one hand and the economic on the other?

I would absolutely interpret the conflict as a socio-economic one. But at the same time, I wouldn't separate the socio-economic interests from the religious ones insofar as distributing and denying privileges occurs along denominational lines. It would be preferable if the dispute about the share of economic wealth didn't follow those lines, but that's not the case.

Where does this fragmentation come from? Is it a product of the Assad government or does it have reasons that go further back in history?

That's really hard to say. On the one hand, fragmentation led to the preferential recruitment of the elite from specific denominations, especially the Shiites. The elite from other denominations were often at a disadvantage. But, on the other hand, if any part of society benefited from Assad's government, it was the upper class, often independently of their religious denomination. It's possible to differentiate between religious and economic motives on an analytical level, but in practice I would view them as linked together.

What do you see as the chances of the Syrian population overcoming the habit of thinking in terms of religious denominations after Assad falls from power?

A graffitied picture of President Bashar Assad in Aleppo

It is not just Assad's picture which is reviled in Aleppo

The Assad government has also been claiming to represent all Syrians, but it has not succeeded in creating a national identity. Whether it will work now is by no means certain. I fear that an attempt to unify Syria after the Assad government will encounter great difficulties.

Syria's neighbors are also directly or indirectly affected by the war. Saudi Arabia is a country that has led the way in reacting to the conflict. How do you view its role?

Saudi Arabiais pursuing multiple interests. That includes religious motives, coming in particular from the so-called civil society. In Saudi Arabia, the civil society encompasses very conservative circles, too, which are anything but liberal. But it's not so much the spread of [the Sunni movements] Wahhabism and Salafism which is leading Saudi Arabia to support the Free Syrian Army, as it is the hegemonial competition with Iran. That's why it's questionable whether Saudi Arabia or its partner, Qatar, would be happy if the Alawites [the Shiite sect to which Assad belongs] had a share in the power arrangement after the Assad government falls. This also raises doubts that violence in Syria will come to an end in the foreseeable future.

You've hinted that Iran is playing an important role in the Syria conflict. So far, the West has had difficulties including Iran in the international negotiations on and with Syria. What do you think of this hesitant attitude?

Irandid play a positive role in Afghanistan because of its own interests for regional stability, like, for example, when it came battling the drug trade. You shouldn't forget that Tehran also has its pragmatists and that ideology doesn't run every aspect of politics there. If Iran didn't have its current political problems, it would be able to put its pragmatic power and interest toward finding a solution in Syria.

If we take a quick look at Syria's other neighbors, how would you gauge their interests? There was speculations about the role of Hezbollah in connection with Syria's chemical weapons. The concern was that Hezbollah could attain these weapons and then possibly use them against Israel. How do you view these concerns?

I think it's very improbable that that would happen. It's true, Hezbollah is Israel's arch-enemy, but its interest, first and foremost, is to maintain and to consolidate its role in Lebanon. The organization isn't currently moving toward aggression toward Israel. It's more concerned with keeping its privileged role as the only armed sub-state organization. Hezbollah also doesn't want to endanger its current prominent role in Lebanese politics. So in this respect, I wouldn't necessarily regard Hezbollah as another destabilizing player in current scenarios.

How do you view the impact of the Syrian revolution on Israel? After all, Israel has occupied the Golan Heights since 1967. How important is this for the future of Israeli-Syrian relations?

Israelwon't be able to play a positive role in the region as long as it's considered an occupying state. For this reason, compromise over the Golan Heights would be welcome. On the other hand, it's questionable whether the current government would be prepared to give the land back since that would be extremely unpopular with the Israeli population - especially considering that area's significance for Israel as a source of water. That's why Israel is just waiting it out at the moment. The current position in relation to the Golan Heights is quite comfortable for Israel. For a start, solving the Golan Heights problem would mean that Israel would have to make territorial concessions, which it's not prepared to do. That kind of attitude doesn't exactly help Israel make friends in Syria. If Israel joined in the conflict in support of the revolutionaries, that could have a counterproductive effect because it could delegitimize the Syrian opposition. In that respect, Israel is wise to wait and see. At the same time, cooperation in the Golan Heights issue would be meaningful for Israel's long-term security interests.

Just to come back once more to the Syrians themselves, what would be the best conditions on the national level for the most peaceful transitional period possible after Assad's fall from power.

Residents attend the funeral of Abdelaziz, 23, a sergeant

The UN estimates that over 10,000 Syrians have died in the conflict

It would be preferable if a solution were put in terms of sharing power, but that kind of arrangement is ambitious. It requires first putting aside the need for revenge and retribution for any injustice suffered. But there are, of course, examples that show that this can work. I'm not particularly optimistic that it could happen quickly. But there aren't actually any sensible alternatives. If it's possible to support the current Syrian opposition from the outside at this juncture, that's what should be done.

Margret Johannsen is a political scientist at the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg. She's the co-author of the annual Peace Report published jointly by the German institutes for peace and conflict research.

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