Middle East historian William W. Harris described the Levant as the “eastern Mediterranean littoral between Anatolia and Egypt,” a geographical zone that includes most of modern Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Israel, and the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and a “fractured cultural mosaic” of ethnic and religious groups.

Modern Syria, the largest Arab state to emerge from the formerly Ottoman-ruled Levant, was seen by Westernized politicians and intellectuals in the Middle East as a model of a secular state where language (Arabic) and geography would help fuse the Arab-Sunni majority that makes up over 90 percent of the population with the non-Arab ethnic minorities, like the Kurds and the Turkmen, and a cluster of sects, including Shi’ites (Alawites and Ismailis), Druze, and Christians (Antiochian Orthodox, Greek Catholics, Assyrians/Syrians, and Armenians), into a modern nation-state.

In fact, both Michel Aflaq and Antun Saadeh, respectively the founders of the socialist Ba’ath movement (that currently rules Syria) and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (which called for the establishment of a Greater Syria in the entire Levant and Cyprus), were secular Christians who assumed that the archaic ethnic, religious, and tribal identities of the Levant would evaporate in a Syrian melting pot and a wider pan-Arab federation.  (The Ba’ath Party and the SSNP have regarded Lebanon as part of Greater Syria.)

In reality, the secular nationalist socialism of the Ba’ath Party allowed members of the minority Alawite sect led by the Assads, a Borgia-style familia (without the art), to establish military rule in Syria for five decades, while recruiting political and business allies in the other non-Sunni Muslim and Christian communities, repressing challenges from Islamist political groups affiliated with the Sunni majority (including the killing of close to 40,000 people in Hama, Syria, in 1962 to quash a revolt by the Muslim Brotherhood), and trying to pursue an astute realpolitik regional and global foreign policy.

But the house that the shrewd and brutish Hafiz Assad built, and his clumsy and brutish son Bashar inherited, may not survive the political upheaval that is now sweeping parts of the Arab Middle East, and that has already led to the collapse of the military dictators who had ruled Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya for as long as the Assads were in power.

Pundits in the American mainstream media continue to refer to eroding political order in the Arab World as the “Arab Spring,” comparing it with the political and economic liberalization in the former Soviet Bloc in the aftermath of the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989.  But much of the opposition to the ruling regimes is led by Islamist political parties, including the Ennahda Movement, which has won the first open election in Tunisia, the most secular Arab country.

Sunni Islamists are also leading most of the demonstrations, peaceful and violent, against the Assads and their allies.  That the Assads are members of the off-shoot Shi’ite sect and have allied with Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah only helps to accentuate the Sunni versus Shi’ite division in Syria.  Together with the post-Saddam regime in Baghdad, these constitute a rising Shi’ite Crescent that poses a threat to Saudi Arabia and the other ruling Sunni regimes in the Persian Gulf (where a Sunni minority rules over a Shi’ite majority in Bahrain).

Indeed, the Sunnis in Syria despise the ruling Alawites and hope to eject them and their allies from power; they have no patience for a “peaceful” transfer of power and are fantasizing about revenge against these “infidels.”  Like Bahrain and Lebanon (where Hezbollah is facing a political backlash from a Sunni-Maronite coalition), Syria could become a regional arena for testing the balance of power between Sunnis and Shi’ites.

Moreover, as Middle East analyst John Myhill pointed out recently in the Jerusalem Post, the developments in Syria are creating a new reality in the Levant.  “Sunnis consider the western Levant—the area within about 75 km. of the Mediterranean, including Israel, Lebanon, southwestern Syria (primarily Druze) and northwestern Syria (primarily Alawite), but excluding Gaza and the West Bank—to be an inseparable part of their patrimony, even though in this area Sunnis constitute less than 20 percent of the population.”

In a way, the western Levant, which includes Israel and parts of Lebanon and Syria, now has a non-Sunni majority: Jews, Alawites, Shi’ites, Maronites, and Druze.  As Myhill notes, the only way the Arab Sunnis have managed to maintain their control in the region is by keeping these groups fighting among themselves.

The idea of a political and military alliance between the non-Muslim minorities of the Levant may sound far-fetched, especially when the Shi’ites in the region, with support from Iran, have embraced a radical anti-Israeli and anti-Western agenda.  But this is also a time when the balance of power in the Middle East is being transformed, and old alliances are collapsing while new ones are evolving.  So is it too early to consider the prospects of a Non-Sunni Spring?