The parallels between Iraq and Syria are indeed quite instructive. Under authoritarian regimes both Iraq and Syria had a minority ruling the majority. With Saddam the Sunnis had the upper hand in Iraq. Under the Assad regime in Syria the Alawites are dominating the Sunni majority. Both Iraq and Syria had regimes with Baathist backgrounds. In both Syria and Iraq, secular Arab nationalism established a common denominator. And in both countries, the Christian minority deeply feared the alternative to secular authoritarianism. Secular authoritarianism did not provide equal rights for Christian Arabs. But it was surely preferable to an alternative such as Islamist authoritarianism. This is why Syria’s Christian communities still support the Assad regime. They just have to look next door, at the decimated Christian community of Iraq, to see the alternative to secular authoritarianism.
If post-authoritarianism in Syria evolves along the lines of post-authoritarian Iraq, civil war between Alawites and Sunnis will become unavoidable in Syria. In Iraq the civil war took place between Shiites and Sunnis. Sunnis lost the war after hundreds of thousands were killed between 2004 and 2008. Today Iraq is dominated by pro-Iran Shiites. Iraqi Sunnis feel sidelined and insecure. Similar dynamics will emerge in Syria. Just like post-authoritarian Iraq has become a Shiite regime, post-authoritarian Syria will emerge as a Sunni regime. As in Iraq, the price to pay for the emergence of majority-rule will be civil war. Tens of thousands of deaths and casualties are likely in Syria in the next few years. And eventually, when a Sunni-regime emerges, the Alawites will feel victimized, sidelined and insecure.
The big question in Syria, as was the case with the big question in Iraq, is the role of Iran. In post-Saddam Iraq, Iran has won. But in post-Assad Syria, Iran is bound to lose. But Iran will not lose without a fight. Tehran will do its best to support the Alawites in Syria. As Turkey and Saudi Arabia will support the Sunnis (as they did in Iraq) Iran will see itself as the supporter of the pro-Shiite Alawites. Syria will thus emerge as the place where regional players will settle scores through their proxies.
Despite all these parallels between Syrian and Iraqi scenarios of civil war, there are also a couple of important differences. Civil war in Syria will have a much stronger regional impact than civil war in Iraq. The sectarian warfare in Iraq between 2004 and 2008 did not destabilize Syria and Lebanon. But sectarian war in Syria is likely to quickly destabilize both Iraq and Lebanon. There is also the complicating factor of Iran. As previously mentioned, Tehran, unlike in Iraq, will be in the losing camp in Syria. But since Iran will not lose without a fight, it will create trouble for the Sunni, American and Israeli camp by destabilizing areas where it has influence. Where are the places where Iran has influence to harm Sunnis, Americans and Israel? Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Palestine are the obvious candidates. Iran has the power to create trouble in all these zones of influence. This is why it is in Washington’s interest to talk to Iran about regional issues that go beyond the nuclear question. In fact, this is exactly what Iran wants. Too bad Washington is in no mood to engage in such grand diplomacy with Iran during an election year. But sooner or later a grand bargain between Washington and Tehran will become inevitable.