Nasser Rabbat (PhD), Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
In the summer of 1992, I took a “luxury cab” from Damascus to Amman. The cab’s class was important, for luxury cabs provided extra services at the border crossing, which could help preventing the usual humiliation reserved for Syrian men every time they left the country.
When we reached the Syrian border, the driver went down and promised to stamp the documents in five minutes. He came back sooner with an apologetic look on his face. “I am afraid you have to come down for they are asking about your draft status.” I went in without any worry: my passport stated that I was exempt from military service, which should clear the issue. But the officer demanded to see my official draft book. “I don’t have it on me,” I said. “Well, you cannot leave the country then,” he firmly replied. I tried to explain, but he would not listen. The driver took me by the hand and said, “let us speak to the chief of the border center.” We went into a large office with an army major sitting behind a big desk under the ubiquitous picture of President Hafiz al-Assad.
I approached him and explained my situation while handing in my passport. He barely looked at it then looked at me and sternly said in a Damascene accent, “This document is not enough. You will have to bring your official draft book or you will not cross the border.” “But Damascus is more than two hours away,” I replied. “That is not my problem,” he retorted and turned to speak to the two men sitting across from him indicating the end of our discussion.
On our way out, the driver asked, “Do you have any wasta (connection in the government)?” “I do, but he is in Damascus and I don’t know how I can contact him?” My resourceful driver went to speak to a security agent and pointed me to a telephone on a desk. I called my wasta, an army general whom I knew well. He promised to call the major at the border crossing and told me to go back to his office in ten minute to have my passport stamped. I did, and as I entered the office for the second time, the major stood up, went around his desk and came to me with a big smile on his face. “Why didn’t you tell me that you are a friend of General X?” he exclaimed with an unmistakable Alawi accent with its emphasis on the letter qaf, “Please accept our apologies and give our greetings to the general.” He ordered his assistant to get my document in order right away and accompanied me to the door where he shook my hand goodbye.
I was taken aback by the major’s change of accent. He first spoke to me in a Damascene accent, and his name on the door clearly indicated that he was not an Alawi. But when my wasta intervened, the major switched to the Alawi accent, the dialect of most of the top officers in the army and intelligence services in Syria as if to proclaim, “I too belong to that structure of power.”
Many high-ranking non-Alawi officials shared the major’s anxiety as they had to assimilate the dominant Alawi character of the regime. Sometimes they simply had to change their accent. At other times, they had to accept a reversal of rank, such as when the generals among them who headed army divisions had to yield power to their lower-ranking Alawi adjutants. Several commentators saw in these and other similar practices signs of the Assad regime’s pervasive sectarian structure, which depended on a formidable control system, based on exploiting the fear, loyalty, and support of the Alawi minority to rule the Sunni majority. But the regime also proffered a secular ideology based on the principles of the Baath Party, the pan-Arabist political organization that theoretically ruled Syria since 1963. Secularism and Pan-Arabism have allowed the Assad regime to mask its sectarian tendencies and to offer the Syrians a promise of equality as well as a grand cause to believe in.
This equation was disrupted after the eruption of popular protest in March 2011 and its escalation into a devastating civil war still raging today. But it has not lost its relevance. The rebels are made up mostly of Sunni fighting groups, covertly supported by conservative Sunni regimes and an international network of fundamentalist Sunni organizations. The Assad regime relies primarily on its elite Alawi-majority army divisions, aided by Shi‘ite troops recruited through sectarian solidarity from Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. But it also benefits from the enduring acquiescence of the urban middle-classes, worried about the expansion of the brutal Islamic State (IS) in the east of the country, as well as the loyalty of large numbers of non-Alawi businesspeople and functionaries, whose fortune is tightly tied to members of the regime’s inner circle. This complex situation is the result both of a long history of Alawi victimhood and a shorter history of manipulation of power by the Assads and their cronies.
The Alawis or Nusayris are a small sect that has lived in small villages on the coastal mountains of Syria for more than a millennium. Today, with the absence of any reliable census, the Alawis constitute about 11% of Syria’s population, or a bit over two millions. Many have migrated to the large cities, especially the capital Damascus, where they can easily find jobs in the army or the security services. A smaller group has distinguished itself in recent years as the vanguard of Syrian culture, occupying prominent positions in academia, the media, arts, and literature. And of course, an Alawi pair, father and son, has held the highest position in the country, namely the presidency, since 1970.
Neither the origin nor the exact dogma of the Alawis is very clear, and this seems to be deliberate. Like most offshoot sects, the Alawis practice taqiyya (caution), a term used to describe concealing one’s true beliefs to assuage the castigation of a dominant religion. What is known of the Alawi creed, however, underscores its syncretism and esotericism, combining elements of Islam in its extreme Shi‘ite form, Sufism, Christian symbolism and ceremonials, Gnosticism, and even ancient religions of Syria. The dominant Shi‘ite component finds its root in the developments following the death of the eleventh Shi‘ite imam and the consequent occultation of his son the twelfth imam, al-Mahdi (the Savior), in Samarra, Iraq, in 873. The eponymous founder of the Alawi (Nusayri) sect, Muhammad ibn Nusayr, is believed to have been the bab (gate, i.e. spiritual representative) of both imams, before starting his own sect. But with the establishment of the Alawi community in Syria, a vastly different interpretation of imam evolved. The Shi‘ite connection, however, was never severed. It was in fact renewed in 1973, when Musa al-Sadr, a charismatic mulla who came from Iran to revitalize the Lebanese Shi‘ite community, recognized the Alawis as true Shi‘ites.
With such a colorful legacy, the Alawis suffered from rejection and even hostility by the majority Sunni population. Moreover, the remoteness of their territory and their secrecy left the door open for exaggerations of their beliefs and habits. Many Sunni religious authorities in fact never accepted them as real Muslims. Consequently, several rulers sent punitive campaigns against them between the 12th and the 20th century. Many were brutal and vindictive. They killed the men, enslaved the women and children, and destroyed the villages. The psychological scars left by this history of oppression can still be detected in sayings attributed to major Alawi figures today, who vow never to allow the subjugation of their people again.
Things only changed after the French occupied Syria in 1920. In the typical colonial manner of divide and conquer, the French divided the country into four statelets, Damascus, Aleppo, the Alawite state, and the Druze state, in addition to annexing territories to the recently created state of Grand Lebanon, and the autonomous District of Alexandretta, which was brazenly ceded to Turkey in 1939. The relative autonomy granted by the French furthered the desire among a segment of the Alawi leadership to concretize their region’s separation. It also fostered a fear of a future state in which the Alawis will again be a despised minority. But the sense of belonging to Syria won the day and the Alawite state finally rejoined the Syrian Republic in 1936.
Another practice initiated by the French had a much greater effect on the future of the Alawis in Syria. This was the policy of recruiting members of the minorities to the newly formed Troupes Spéciales du Levant, which served as auxiliary forces to the French army in Syria. Alawi regulars and officers made up one third of the ten thousand strong troops. The Troupes Spéciales became the kernel of the nascent Syrian army after independence in 1946, which thus began with a disproportionate percentage of minorities in its ranks. Although there was no official policy to favor the conscription of minorities in the army under the national governments between 1946 and 1963, they still constituted the bulk of the troops, with the Alawis concentrated primarily in the infantry.
A post-independence political development was to ultimately clinch the hold of the Alawis on power in Syria. Two parties, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), which advocated a Syrian Nation that included the Lebanese, Palestinians, and other groups in the Fertile Crescent, and the Arab Socialist Ba'ath Party, which aimed at the unification of the Arab Nation from Morocco to Oman, tried to appeal to marginalized minorities with their inclusive ideologies and their preference of a historical or linguistic rather than a religious framer of identity. The Ba’ath party in particular, founded in Damascus by a group of French-educated intellectuals of mixed religious background in 1947, keenly pursued the recruitment of minorities, especially in the disenfranchised rural communities. Dr. Wahib al-Ghanim, an Alawi founding member of the Ba‘ath Party, was very active in enlisting Alawis. Hafiz al-Assad was one of his young recruits.
The Ba‘ath Party rose in the mid 1950s to challenge the traditional parties of the bourgeoisie in the parliament and compete with other radical parties in the street. But having suffered a few setbacks, the party realized that depending on the ballots would be a long and uncertain way to rule. It is not clear at what level of leadership the decision was taken to actively recruit from the army, but the party’s ranks became swollen with eager military members, mostly minoritarians. The new policy soon changed the balance of power within the party. Serious disputes ensued between the founding generation, made up mostly of educated urbanites, and the base of rural and military recruits, which reached a nadir after the leadership went along with Gamal Abdel al-Nasser’s decision that all Syrian parties self-dissolve as a precondition of the country’s union with Egypt in 1959.
The union with Egypt saw a number of Syrian officers stationed in Cairo. Among them a group of Ba‘athi officers, alarmed by the imposed disbanding of their party, formed a secret Military Committee whose aim was to restore the party and to plot for an eventual coup in Syria. The founders of the Committee were all minority officers, with three Alawis out of the six original members, Muhammad ‘Umran, Salah Jadid, and Hafiz al-Assad. The Committee grew and shrank a few times, its members often changed alliances and even engaged in internecine struggles, but it was one or more of its members who effectively dominated Syrian politics between March 8, 1963, the date of the military coup that brought the Ba‘ath Party to power, and June 10, 2000, the date of Hafiz al-Assad’s passing. This is a considerable feat considering that the Committee’s existence was never publicly acknowledged and that Syria has been notoriously difficult to control. The real extraordinary achievement of course is that of Hafiz al-Assad, who managed to singlehandedly rule Syria for thirty years and to pass the reins of power to his son Bashar after him against great odds.
The period between the Ba‘ath coup in 1963 and the takeover of Hafiz al-Assad in November of 1970, which he shrewdly dubbed a “correctional movement,” was particularly unstable. The careful pas de deux with Gamal ‘Abdel Nasser, the hostile breakup with the Iraqi Ba‘ath, the humiliating defeat at the hands of Israel in the War of 1967, and the rise and metamorphosis of the Palestine Liberation Organization before its mortal fight with the Hashemite regime in Jordan in September 1970, were some of the most challenging external entanglements. Their internal repercussions on the power structure in Damascus were magnified by the ideological factional struggle within the Ba‘ath regime, which saw the most bizarre alignments forming and splitting up in the course of weeks or months. But during those seven years, the Military Committee succeeded in neutralizing all other factions within the Party. This was coupled by continuous reshuffling and outright expelling within the ranks of the Committee itself.
It is not clear whether the Alawi officers in the Committee pursued a deliberate sectarian agenda or not. Available evidence supports both possibilities. On the one hand, younger and more brazen Alawi officers were rising to the upper echelons of the army. On the other hand, in their jockeying for power, the Committee officers conspired against each other with non-Alawi collaborators. In fact, the two junior officers, Jadid and al-Assad, managed to expel their senior colleague, ‘Umran, in 1966 before he was assassinated in dubious circumstances in 1972 in Beirut. Then, Hafiz al-Assad turned against his slightly senior and exceedingly cagey comrade, Salah Jadid, and threw him in prison after his coup. He mercilessly kept him there without any trial until his death in 1993.
Yet, a trend of purging the army and security forces of their ideological undesirables while the Ba‘ath Party was consolidating its grip on the country is noticeable. Between 1963 and 1967, hundreds of capable Sunni officers, who mostly belonged to the urban middle class, were forcibly retired or moved to civilian posts, to the point that some commentators ascribed the devastating and quick defeat of the Syrian army in 1967 to its depletion of experienced officers. The practice became more pronounced under Hafiz al-Assad who established well-trained army and security brigades, staffed mostly with Alawis and entrusted with the defense of the regime, which alone were stationed around the capital.
Although Hafiz al-Assad did not create this system, he shrewdly used it to his advantage and, in time, tried to normalize it. This came in various forms; some may even appear contrary to a sectarian consolidation of power. For instance, analysts in the 1970s and 1980s, including the Lebanese journalist Salim al-Lawzi who may have lost his life in 1980 because of his penetrating writing on the Syrian regime, detected a process of “Bourgeoisification” and even “Sunnification” among the Alawi new urban classes facilitated by the Assad regime. Aspects of this process were becoming visible in gradual changes in behavior and appearance, such as praying in mosques, fasting in Ramadan, and the dropping of the accent of the mountains, which brought the city Alawis closer to the mainstream Sunnis. Noteworthy also was the rise in inter-sectarian marriages between Alawi and Sunni upper classes, with the most famous being that of Bashar al-Assad to a British-Syrian woman whose Sunni family hails from Homs.
Other forms of loosening the sectarian divide included the promotion of an Alawi mercantile and business class, which of course did not exist prior to the mass Alawi migration to the cities, and the evolution of an Alawi cultural avant-garde, which has been a boon to Syrian culture, arts, and media. The new Alawi mercantile class is made up essentially of members of the ruling family and the families of top army and security officers who did not follow the military path. It is very difficult to overlook the nepotism involved in their accumulation of tremendous wealth as they directly benefitted from the patronage of their powerful kin and as they garnered differential treatment in business and investments. The stories of their corruption are legion and they form one of the main impetuses behind the civil war rocking Syria today.
But the core of the sectarian preferential system remained the control of the army, the surest foundation of the regime. Here there was very little compromise shown in the creation of majority-Alawi choice divisions, notably the Republican Guard and the 4th Armored Division, which was formed after the dissolution and restructuring of the infamous Defense Brigades of Rif‘at al-Assad, Hafiz’s younger brother and doppelgänger, after he attempted to take over in 1984 when the president was in intensive care. A corollary was the control of the security services, which have mushroomed under Hafiz al-Assad to many overlapping agencies all of which report directly to the president to avoid any possible intra-agencies plotting against him.
This complex and multi-pronged structure is what Hafiz al-Assad bequeathed his son Bashar in 2000, who initially gave mixed messages about his intentions to keep it. He moved quickly to rid himself of his father’s so-called old-guards and promoted a younger crop of military supporters, most of whom were not only Alawis, but also members of his extended family. At the same time, he expanded the strange neo-liberal state capitalism hesitantly started under his father, and opened its ranks to his friends and their friends, regardless of sect. In fact, cronyism became almost a state policy, creating new types of loyalty and widening the already huge gap between the rich and disgruntled yet silenced poor. This may explain the vast spread of a ritualistic Islamic piety in the 2000s as a form of coy objection to the regime’s excesses, especially that the bloody repression of militant Islamism under Hafiz al-Assad, which resulted in the flattening of the city of Hama and the death of between 10000 and 20000 people there in 1982, was still painfully alive.
Ultimately, Bashar proved himself inferior to his father’s scheming, a shortcoming that was apparently known to Hafiz who had initially chosen Bashar’s older and more astute brother Basil as his heir and was forced to pick Bashar only when Basil died in a car crash in 1994. Where the father maintained a careful balancing act in his internal and external policies, the son’s rash and sometimes blatantly conceited pronouncements lost him the goodwill both of the Syrians, who had hoped to find in him the measured reformist he seemed to be, and the international community, which initially praised his Western education and modern outlook. In ten years, he undid most of what his father took forty years to build without replacing it with any new structured policies. He thwarted all the careful proposals of democratization by Syrian intellectuals that he originally encouraged. His army was forced out of Lebanon, controlled by his father since 1976, after his regime was openly linked to the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri in 2005. He repeatedly blundered in dealing with the American occupation of Iraq in 2003, shifting alliances and nurturing covert radical organizations, some of which came back to sting him later. And, most disastrously from the perspective of sovereignty, he relinquished the parity his father had painstakingly upheld in his strategic alliance with the Islamic Republic of Iran for small gains, effectively becoming a client following strategies designed by a foreign entity.
Bashar al-Assad also turned out to be a poor reader of momentous events. In a longwinded interview with the Wall Street Journal at the end of January 2011, he infamously asserted that Syria was immune to the kind of protest that was rocking Tunisia and Egypt because his regime ostensibly shared the people’s ideals. He was proven wrong in less than two months. After his security forces belligerently shot at demonstrators in the southern city of Dar‘a on March 18, protest burst out across the country, especially in the depressed agricultural towns and shantytowns around the big cities. True to its legacy, the regime responded in the only way it knows how: extreme violence. When he finally appeared on TV two weeks after the protests had erupted, Bashar neither acknowledged their demands nor expressed sorrow for the killings, angering the millions of Syrians who had hoped for a wiser reaction.
By May 2011, a full-fledged armed uprising had materialized, with soldiers who defected from the Syrian army shooting back at the security forces attacking the demonstrations. The militarization of the revolution soon entered a vicious cycle as more defections became organized as the Free Syrian Army and were countered by increased violence by the regime, which began using heavy weaponry against revolting cities and towns. Islamization came on the heel of militarization, fired by the sectarian reaction of the regime to the decidedly non-religious early protests, but eventually infiltrated by fundamentalist regimes, organizations, and rich foreign individuals with agendas larger than Syria. Alas, what started as a popular protest movement devolved into a savage civil war pitting not only Syrians against Syrians but also the global forces of Sunnism against those of Shiʼsm.
Still, there are deeper triggers to the militarization and Islamization of the Syrian Revolution. The anxiety felt by the major at the border crossing had been traumatically pressing on the minds and spirits of all Syrians, subjected as they were to four decades of violent oppression and sectarian differential treatment by the Assad regime. When the revolution finally exploded and the regime reacted with the same old antiques, the revolting Syrians, having been denied any political medium for so long, responded in kind. They took up arms because the regime that long tormented them never shied away from using violence to maintain its grip on power. They turned to religion partly because they loathed the masked sectarianism of the regime and partly because they felt that after the world had let them down they have no helper but God, as they chanted in their demonstrations. Thus, the militarization and Islamization painfully represent the distorted mirror reflection of the regime’s long-established practices. That they were eventually hijacked by competing global agendas has obscured their root causes, which need to be recognized and addressed if and when a new Syria is fashioned out of its ashes.
 Interview With Syrian President Bashar al-Assad; Jan 31, 2011. Available online: http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748703833204576114712441122894 [accessed on March 17, 2016].