Sunnis do indeed make up at least a 70 per cent of the population. But within that ratio exist ethnic, tribal and class distinctions that split the population and in some cases and favor the ability of Assad to withstand the rebellion against his rule. Understanding those divisions goes away to explaining why the war has moved into its fifth year without an end in sight.
Let’s take the religious division first. It’s true that Sunni Islam considers the Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, heretical. And it’s also true that the patriarch of the al-Assad dynasty, Bashar al-Assad’s father the late Hafez al-Assad, cracked down harshly on a Muslim Brotherhood-led revolt of Sunnis in the 1970s. And some Sunnis certainly feel that the secular state ideology, Baathism, favors the Alawites and others (including Christians) over the Sunni majority that should rightly hold power.
But other complex issues are at work in Syria. Kurds, who are Sunni, want at least autonomy in their northwest region, if not independence, and fear ethnic cleansing by radical Islamists. Turkoman, another minority ethnic group, have long had touchy relations with Arabs.
Some Sunni tribes also oppose radical jihadists like the Islamic State and have paid heavily for battling them in distant, impoverished provinces.
But al-Assad’s main Sunni support is class-based. Sunnis in the urban centers of Damascus and Aleppo are generally more open to secular politics and have benefited more from the Assad regimes, father and son, than the mainstays of the revolt: rural people. It is impossible to understand the spark for the uprising without noting that it followed upon a five year drought in the Sunni countryside that displaced hundreds of thousands of peasant farmers to the cities. The government, enamored of market economics and mesmerized by the growing opulence of city life, ignored the problem.
This issue did not effect Sunnis in the big cities.
Moreover, the urbanites do not particularly welcome the repressive social rule of the Islamic-led factions of the rebellion, neither the Islamic State nor the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front. And there is a strong component of Sunnis in the army, security services and state apparatus generally operating under Assad.
So the Assad support base includes Sunnis as well as Alawites (up to 18 percent of the population), Christians (around ten percent) and others. All these groups would probably be content with ending the conflict with major reform and even an easing out of Assad from power. Of course, Iran seems not to be contemplating such a thing–power-sharing might obstruct its weapons supply route to south Lebanon and its ally, the Shiite Hezbollah army. During the early months of the uprising, both pressured Assad to stay in power.
In any case, while making calculations of how to end the war (and undermine the radical Islamists) it’s important to understand Assad’s depth of Sunni backing.
The Combatting Terrorism Center explains.
A sad tale of a Sunni tribe that fights ISIS.
From The Atlantic, this is a good history of Syria’s journey to its current disaster and what to expect from now on.