Does The Arab Spring Mark A Darker Chapter?

The conflict in Syria has dangerous implications well beyond its borders. Melissa Block speaks to Middle East scholar Vali Nasr, who wrote a recent New York Times op-ed, "If the Arab Spring Turns Ugly." Nasr is also the author of The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host: The conflict in Syria has dangerous implications well beyond its borders. As Middle East scholar Vali Nasr writes, every clash is pregnant with risk for regional stability. Nasr is the author of "The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future."

Professor Nasr, welcome to the program.

VALI NASR: Thank you.

BLOCK: You see Syria as really crucible for a power struggle in the Middle East. Why don't first we lay out the forces at play within Syria itself?

NASR: Well, Syria is a country in which you have the majority of the population belong to the Sunni sect of Islam. But its politics, its business, its military and security forces have been dominated by a small minority of Alawites, which are about 12 percent of Syria's population and which are a subset of Shi'ism, which is the other big branch of Islam, which is dominant in Iran, in Iraq and also in Lebanon. And therefore, you have a country, which has very clear sectarian divisions within it.

The Syrian dictatorship has reinforced these sectarian divisions. And what we're seeing is that as the Syrian state is beginning to unravel, these sectarian divisions are also coming to the fore.

BLOCK: Now, the main regional powerbrokers, as you call them, are Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia vying for power in the region. How does that rivalry play out in the struggle within Syria?

NASR: Well, this rivalry is actually fairly old. It's been playing itself out for the past 30 years since the Iranian Revolution, where both Iran and Saudi Arabia have claimed leadership of the Islamic world; one as a Shia power and the other one as a Sunni power. So what we're seeing is that while Arab Spring is unfolding, at one level bringing peoples' power to challenge dictatorships, at another level, you're seeing Iran and Saudi Arabia each looking at how this will impact their relative regional power and taking sides accordingly.

BLOCK: One thread here then seems to be the dictatorships or authoritarian regimes, however repugnant, were successful in tamping down, suppressing sectarian divisions. Now, those tensions are boiling over as part of this Arab Spring.

NASR: Well, they were good at tamping it down, but they also aggravated it. Whether it was Iraq under Saddam Hussein or Syria under Hafez Assad, these are regimes that empowered minorities and relied on this suspicion between minorities and majorities to keep the dictatorship going. So even today, we see in Syria that the government very deliberately is trying to stoke sectarian violence by organizing Alawite militias attacking Sunni targets hoping that that would preserve the lifetime of the dictatorship.

BLOCK: Vali Nasr, you have advised the White House, you've advised the State Department. What are the implications for U.S. policy here? How would the U.S. balance the pressures for democratic change in the Middle East with fears about the darker outcomes that you foresee in the region?

NASR: Well, in the long run, I think what has happened in the Arab Spring is hopeful for the region. In other words, we really do have a strong momentum for democracy. But that doesn't mean that there is a straight line from dictatorship to democracy in this region. There are short run conflicts that have to be resolved. It requires us to have an understanding of the dynamics in each case.

And then we have to engage the oppositions as well as governments. We have to coordinate our allies in order to put pressure on various parties in this to make sure that we don't have a sectarian blowup of the kind that we saw in Iraq. It is possible for oppositions, for different divisions in the society to have a much more congenial and consensual way forward, but that at times requires those who have influence on the various actors to exercise them, and that has to begin with recognizing what the problem at hand is.

BLOCK: Professor Vali Nasr, thank you very much.

NASR: Thank you.

BLOCK: Vali Nasr, professor of International Politics at Tufts University. He's also a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

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