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Syria: Why Do We Care?

With 72 percent, Sunni Muslims are a majority in Syria. But the country is ruled by the Alawites, a Shi'a offshoot that makes up only 11 percent of the population. Most of the rest are other varieties of Shi'a (7 percent) and Christian (10 percent). The Sunni majority includes 2.5 million Kurds, who by law are denied citizenship, barred from public schools, and hindered from working. The entire happy lot add up to 22 million people.

President Bashar al-Assad's family has been running things for five decades, ever since the Syrian Ba'ath Party (more fascism with sand dunes) came to power in a coup in 1963. The other minority groups generally support Alawite rule as preferable to rule by the Sunni majority. That majority, however, has long chafed under the arrangement, with sympathy from Sunni regimes—especially Saudi Arabia—that would like to see an end to Alawite control. Iran and Iraq, being Shi'a, favor continued rule by the Alawites, as does Iran's ally, Russia.

It's an entirely nondemocratic dynamic. For years, the Sunni majority tolerated rule by the Alawites because the Alawites seemed too few in number to impose the worst of tyranny. From their side, the Alawites were committed, all-in, to holding on to power because ceding it to the Sunni majority would invite extermination. When you are a small minority bent on maintaining control over vastly greater numbers, only one strategy is available: measured brutality until you are challenged, and unrestrained brutality when you are challenged.

Today the country's president is following in the footsteps of his father, Hafez al-Assad, whose 30-year rule was marked by an event described by former British Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind as the "single deadliest act by any Arab government against its own people in the modern Middle East." In 1982, Hafez sent his army to crush an opposition movement led by Sunni Muslims in Hama. His troops leveled much of the city with artillery fire and killed at least 10,000 and perhaps as many as 80,000 people.

For almost 20 years after the Hama massacre, dissidence in Syria was muted. Hafez died in 2000, and the presidency passed to his son. The younger Assad promised reform but has delivered little of it; he continues his father's zero-tolerance policy for opposition.

While Syria is nominally a republic, it has been in an officially declared state of emergency for the past half-century. The government is free to arrest and hold anyone. Torture is a standard police method. Anyone who is inconvenient for the regime risks joining the thousands who have simply disappeared.

The Syrian army is staffed with Alawites. Unlike in the armies of Tunisia and Egypt—whose soldiers couldn't be counted on to follow orders to kill protesters during the Arab Spring—the ranks of the Syrian army know that their fates are tied to Assad. If he goes, they go, and probably not in a nice way. Thus the military is unswervingly loyal to the president and will inflict whatever horror on the Sunni majority he orders.

The country's tensions bubbled below the surface for two decades. Then, in 2011, they boiled over.

Early that year, judging that civil war was about to explode in Syria and unsure that Assad could hang on, Vladimir Putin tried to bring both sides to the bargaining table, along with Russia and the United States. He attached two stipulations to Russian participation: Russia would be treated as an equal by the United States, and decisions about the future of the country and the composition of any transitional government would be made by Syrians alone, regardless of whether those decisions fit the American agenda.

Because of Assad's closeness with Iran and also to mollify the Saudis, Washington spurned the offer. Instead, it chose to encourage revolt and began funding selected anti-Assad insurgents. But the longer the war dragged on and the more terrible the list of atrocities grew, the greater the pressure became for the United States to wade in deeper. In 2013 President Obama, amid indications that Assad had killed thousands with chemical weapons, seemed about to order missile strikes against the Syrian government.

Putin neither wanted to confront the United States in the matter nor stand idly by while the United States bombed an ally of Russia. At the last minute, he proposed a deal under which Assad would divest himself of all chemical weapons and the United States would pledge not to take direct military action. The deal was struck, and Obama backed off.

It was a masterful bit of diplomacy. Putin averted a confrontation with the United States and in the same stroke positioned himself as friend and peacemaker to the Arab world.

So why do we care about this little country at all? Why back one side against the other? Why does the West green-light Turkey's involvement in cross-border clashes with Assad's troops?

The United States cares about Syria because the country is involved directly or indirectly in nearly every conflict in the Middle East. Syria is a clearinghouse for Mideast strife—Sunni versus Shi'a, Arabs versus Israelis, Persians versus Israelis, and Persians versus Arabs. Even Christians get to participate, as allies of the Alawites. Every Mideast player has a proxy or a natural ally or a natural enemy in Syria, so what happens there influences the security of every country, including Israel, Saudi Arabia, and its fellow Persian Gulf oil producers.

First and foremost, Syria is the third arm of the Iran-Hezbollah-Syria alliance, a consortium of Shi'a regimes that are congenitally hostile to Saudi Arabia and other Sunni-led powers and, for separate reasons, are hostile to Israel and the West in general.

The alliance is busy. It supports Hamas in Gaza with money and weapons and Hezbollah in Lebanon with the same. Both organizations border on Israel, for which each has a seething hatred. Hezbollah has dispatched fighters to Syria to oppose anti-Assad rebels. Iran has committed combat troops for the same purpose.

Russia has its own reasons for caring about Syria.

One of them is Tartus. Russia is committed to supporting the Alawite regime because it allows the Russian navy to use the Tartus naval base, which is the only military port available to Russia outside of the former Soviet Union. Russia also sells $150 million worth of arms to Syria every year, and it provides military and technical advisers to help repair and maintain those weapons and to train Syrian soldiers to use them.

In January 2014, Putin stepped up cooperation with Assad by sending armored vehicles, surveillance equipment, radars, electronic-warfare systems, spare parts for helicopters, drones, and guided bombs. Russia maintains that those sales are just part of a long-standing commercial contract.

The Russians also may be manning Syria's air defense systems. The capability of the systems would make any direct Western campaign— such as enforcement of a no-fly zone or the launch of punitive air strikes against Assad—slow and costly. And the presence of Russian personnel would make such a campaign very risky. Russian casualties would have unpredictable geopolitical consequences.

And of course there are energy connections for Russia.

First, the little stuff. In December 2013, a Russian oil and gas company, Soyuzneftegaz, signed a $90 million deal with Syria's oil ministry for exploration and production in an 845-square-mile block of Mediterranean waters off the Syrian coast.

Far more important is Syria's position as a key continental crossroads, between the energy riches of Eurasia and the Middle East and the energy-hungry markets of Europe. If Assad loses control, the new regime could allow cheap Qatari gas to flow via Syria to the Mediterranean, which would undermine Gazprom's dominance of the European gas market.

Even more important to Russia is Syria's involvement in the affairs of the Mideast. Putin plays chess. He knows that by moving the right piece in Syria, he can influence the game in any energy-producing country in the region.

Further, for Russia, Islam is a source of civil conflict and terrorism. Moscow is predisposed to be anti-Islamist, and it keeps a wary eye on growing Islamist sentiment in Turkey. The prospect of an Islamist alliance between Turkey and a post-Assad Syria, so close to Russia's borders, is worrisome. As far as Putin is concerned, protecting Assad's control of Syria protects Russian national security.

The Russians don't want Assad to lose the civil war, but they are in no hurry to see it end. The longer it goes on, the longer any pipeline through Syria gets postponed, and hence the bigger Putin's head start will be in building yet another pipeline to deepen Europe's reliance on Russian natural gas. And the longer the civil war continues, the more arms Russia can sell to Assad. This is another example of how Russia benefits from every problem in the Middle East.

Russia is nearing completion of South Stream, a pipeline to move gas from Russia to Italy (via the Black Sea, Romania, and Greece). Like the Nord Stream pipeline, it will bypass Ukraine and all of its problems. The main competitor to South Stream gas would be gas delivered by the proposed Trans-Anatolian Pipeline (TANAP), which would run across Turkey to connect Europe to Azerbaijan's massive Shah Deniz gas field.

With the civil war raging and shells straying across the border into Turkey, TANAP won't see much progress—and Putin will move closer to beating out Azerbaijan in supplying gas to Southern Europe.

For its part, the United States wants Assad to go just as much as Putin wants him to stay. Weakening the Shi'a axis has long been an American goal, primarily because the alliance supports Iran's ability to threaten Saudi Arabia.

Undermining the Shi'a axis has meant participating covertly in the civil war. The CIA is operating in southern Turkey to help its allies, chiefly Saudi Arabia, determine which anti-Assad forces should be the designated good guys who receive arms and other materiel. The supplies are paid for by Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, which allows Washington to deny providing guns to the rebels.

This operation requires fluffing the pillows of more strange bedfellows—such as Syria's Muslim Brotherhood. But the United States has to try to avoid supplying weapons to outfits that are even more hostile to it, like al-Qaeda, the jihadist al-Nusra Front, and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which wants to run the whole region as an Islamist caliphate. All of these have been sending battle-hardened veterans of the Iraq War into the fray.

It has been important for Washington and the media to portray Russia as the villain in the Syrian mess and Putin as one ruthless dictator siding with another. But the situation is rather more complicated.

Both major powers find themselves on thin ice in Syria. The United States runs the risk of succeeding. If Assad's enemies take power, they could turn out to be far more trouble than Assad. For his part, Putin struggles to wear his Arab-friendly face even as he props up a Shi'ite dictator hated by most of his subjects as well as by the rest of the Sunni Muslim world.

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