Syria’s opposition will be buoyed by reports that President Bashar Al Assad’s sister has defected, hinting at factional struggles within the ruling elite. The news comes as an international coalition comprising the United States, the European Union and the Arab League meets to consider new measures to isolate the Baathist regime.
“The group called Friends of the Syrian People was set up in February after the U.N. Security Council was unable to reach agreement on a resolution condemning Syria’s government, due to opposition from Russia and China,” AP reports:
On Thursday, financial experts joined representatives of the group at their meeting in a coastal suburb of The Hague, Netherlands, to help member countries understand how Syria may be relying on dual-use technologies and front companies to get around the existing sanctions, which include an embargo on oil and arms. Twelve more countries have joined the 60-member coalition, committing also to block Syrian financial transactions and to enforce a travel ban on the country’s top leaders.
Syrian democrats are concerned that the anti-US violence in Libya, Egypt and across the Muslim world will only reinforce Western reluctance to intervene in the conflict. Western anxiety that a post-Assad Syria will empower radical Islamists is in danger of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, observers suggest.
“The groups currently vying for influence across the Middle East include many pro-democracy forces with widespread support, but they are competing with others who often do not share our goals,” says Radwan Ziadeh of the Damascus Center for Human Rights and a former Reagan-Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy.
“The vacuum created by relatively weak central governments in places such as Libya makes it easier for extremist elements to attempt to exert their will. Only continued strong diplomatic and humanitarian engagement and support by the United States will thwart those forces.”
“We know very little about the armed opposition,” says Syria expert Andrew Tabler, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who just returned from a month talking to Syrian rebel leaders on the Turkish border:
When it comes to helping Syrian fighters with weapons, the administration has outsourced that task to Gulf countries. The result: Gulf money and arms are flowing to Islamist groups and hard-line Salafis, while non-Islamist militias go begging for weapons and communications equipment. This makes more likely the result that everyone fears.
What to do? Tabler says the administration should be making a massive effort to “directly track and engage with Syrian armed groups and see whom we could work with.” If we can identify such groups, he believes we should supply them with “what they need.”
The regime’s historic claim to legitimacy was rooted in its Baathist ideology, which – as Paul Berman notes in the New Republic – was fashioned by Baathism’s founder Michel Aflaq from a noxious blend of fascism, communism and Islamism. But it is now increasingly resorting to naked sectarianism in a desperate attempt to shore up its support base within the minority Alawite sect.
Assad’s efforts to stoke sectarianism and religious radicalism are outlined by Syrian writer Samar Yazbek, herself an Alawite, in her new book, A Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution (above):
He seeks to frighten minorities and moderate Sunnis into believing they must support him. Regime thugs, known as shabiha, move around the country spreading rumors amongst Alawites that Sunnis are coming to rape and kill them – and vice versa. Their aim is to goad one sect to fight the other, in a sectarian war that will spread across Syria’s borders.
Yazbek was told by an Alawite member of the security services that “Assad won’t leave power before Syria is destroyed,” Trudy Rubin reports.
Alawite identity is rooted in “a minority complex and fear of Sunni domination,” Middle East analyst Nir Rosen writes in a must-read essay in the London Review of Books:
Alawites like to rehearse the story of their oppression. ‘The lot of the Alawis was never enviable,’ the Palestinian historian Hanna Batatu wrote. ‘Under the Ottomans they were abused, reviled and ground down by exactions and, on occasion, their women and children led into captivity and disposed of by sale.’ They were practically serfs to the Sunni feudal lords put in place by the Ottomans. It was only when the French mandate began in 1920 that the traditional Sunni elite was eroded and minorities, Alawites among them, began to enjoy a measure of social mobility. The Alawites pleaded in vain with the French to grant them a separate state that would protect them from a Sunni ascendancy.
Historically, Alawites stood so far at the margins of Islam that Assad the elder had to ‘Islamise’ them in order to be accepted as the ruler of Syria by its Sunni majority. Alawites regard themselves as more ‘liberal’ and secular than mainstream Muslims. They point to their use of alcohol, the Western dress codes of Alawite women and their freer interaction with men. Sometimes they disparage the more conservative Sunnis. They remember the Muslim Brotherhood uprising of the 1980s as a time of sectarian violence in which the regime crushed terrorists; Sunnis think of it as a time of regime brutality during which they were collectively targeted. These days it’s hard to find a Sunni member of the opposition who didn’t lose an uncle or have a father or grandfather imprisoned in the crackdown that followed. The opposition has said nothing about what would or should be done with the hundreds of thousands of men in the security forces if the present regime falls. Alawites believe they have reason to be afraid.
The writer Yazbek is “considered a traitor for her activism, and was repeatedly hauled in for interrogation,” Rubin notes:
She was made to view the bloodied bodies of young prisoners mutilated by horrifying torture. She agonized constantly that the regime might harm her teenage daughter. Her life was probably saved by the fact that the murder of a well-known Alawite writer would have undercut the false regime narrative that the rebels were all Sunni religious fundamentalists.
The rise of more radical fighting groups was “a reaction to the regime’s violence,” says Yazbek. “They aren’t representative of [all] these militias, but if the regime continues, this will lead to more religious radicalism from the people.”
“To Alawites, the pan-Arab doctrine of the Ba’ath Party, which took power in a coup in 1963, was a way to transcend sectarian identity,” notes Rosen.
At its origins, Baathism was “an anti-colonial and pan-Arabist doctrine, not unwilling to ally with the Axis,” Berman writes in TNR:
It was a revolutionary doctrine. It claimed a pure blood lineage to the origins of Islam and, at the same time, invoked the mid–twentieth century ideals of socialism. Baathism was dedicated to the purification of Arabic political speech. And it was a psychological doctrine, dedicated to healing the wounded modern psyche by repulsing what Aflaq called “Western civilization’s invasion of the Arab mind.”
But in the wake of the Syrian uprising, the regime has reverted to its sectarian roots and instincts, with potentially catastrophic consequences for the Alawite community.
“What becomes of the Alawites if the regime falls, and what becomes of Bashar’s support base as a whole, are not the same question,” Rosen contends:
Bashar’s following includes other minorities besides the Alawites, not to mention Sunnis. From the outset the government has described the opposition as motivated by sectarianism – an accusation that encourages the very tendency it claims to deplore – but it has carefully refrained from any show of sectarianism itself, even if its Alawite supporters are less fastidious. Loyalists say that they are diverse while the opposition is almost entirely Sunni. Yet Sunni officers and soldiers belong to some of the most elite army units such as the 4th Division and the Republican Guard, and many opposition intellectuals have admitted that if the government’s base was confined to Alawites, it would have fallen long ago. Were this struggle to be reduced to a bald conflict between Sunnis and Alawites the government would lose its Sunni support and be left with only 10 per cent of the population behind it, plus a few stragglers from the other minorities.
The Assad regime’s sectarian strategy is not only undermining prospects for a pluralist, non-sectarian Syria but jeopardizing the ‘natural place’ of his fellow Alawites within an increasingly cited ‘Lebanese solution,’ Rosen concludes:
It is not clear what that ‘natural place’ would be. Are they meant to leave the cities and resume their traditional links with the rural areas? A new generation of Syria pundits in the West is already discussing the possibility of a separate Alawite state, but one hears of no such thing from the Alawites themselves. Syria has long been their central project, and their mode of involvement has been to leave their villages and move towards a version of modernity. It is conceivable that they will end up in some form of autonomous enclave as a result of a civil war in which the opposition gains the upper hand, but it is not their wish. They believe they are fighting for the old Ba’athist ideals of Syrian and Arab nationalism. An Alawite state would not be viable in any case: the old Alawite heartlands have never had much in the way of utilities or employment opportunities and the community would be dependent on outside backers such as Russia or Iran. A Lebanese solution for Syria, in which different areas have different outside backers, may be the end result, but it is nobody’s goal.