Syria's civil war is now strongly characterised by militias identifying along sectarian lines. The growing divide between Sunnis and Alawites has profound implications for Syria, and the Middle East.
The transformation of the Syrian Revolution from a nonviolent and inclusive pro-democracy protest movement into a civil war, pitting majority-Sunni and majority-Alawite militias against each other in deadly daily clashes throughout the country, has been a slow and complex process driven in equal measure by domestic as well as external factors. But while much analysis has addressed the role of external factors, there are certain aspects of the domestic dynamics that remain unexamined, in particular the evolving ethos driving Sunni and Alawite fighters.
Indeed, the very nature of the ruling Assad regime that the protesters challenged contributed to the increasing sectarian character of the conflict. The Alawite community, from which the Assads hail, is a minority sect that mixes Shiite doctrine with indigenous tribal beliefs and Christian rituals, representing 10-12% of Syria’s population. The sect has long been considered heretical by the majority Sunni community, and was actively marginalized and persecuted by the Ottomans who never included the Alawites in the famous millet system that regulated the lives of all confessional minorities under their rule. Indeed, for centuries Alawites lived a very sheltered existence in the coastal mountains of northern Lebanon, Syria and southern Turkey (Hatay Province). Their access to state services, including education, was quite limited, rendering the overwhelming majority illiterate. Moreover, in time, Alawite doctrine became secretive and reserved only for male initiates, creating an additional layer of separation between Alawites and their neighbors and adding to the mutual distrust.
In that “splendid isolation,” at least, in the psychological sense, an Alawite culture that is inimical to change and deeply suspicious of otherness evolved. In the modern era, Alawite women often worked as farmers and servants in the households and plantations of more privileged Sunni and Christian families, while men worked as laborers and smugglers.
Growth of a system
This state of affairs lasted until the advent of the French occupation in 1920. The French found the Alawites more willing to join the ranks of the “national” army they tried to create for Syria. Minority communities in general found cooperation with the French to be productive, but Alawites in particular found in the army an avenue for socio-economic advancement they had never had before. As the French prepared to grant Syria independence, many Alawite tribal elders lobbied for a separate state along the coast, but Sunni leaders from the coast and other parts of Syria managed to convince them to remain part of a united Syria. In the province of Hatay, however, Turkish and Alawite inhabitants voted to join Turkey in a popular referendum held on June 29, 1939. Although the Turkish army had expelled many of the Arab inhabitants of Hatay back in 1938, including Christians, Sunnis and Alawites, Turkish authorities later managed to create an alliance with the remaining Alawite inhabitants.
After Syria’s independence on April 17, 1946, Alawites continued to flock to the army. Following a series of coup d’états, a group of Alawite officers affiliated with the Baath Party mounted a coup that brought them to power on March 8, 1963. In time, one of these officers, Hafiz Al-Assad, emerged as the strongest and consolidated his grip on power in a new coup on November 13, 1970.
Under Assad's rule, Alawites emerged for the first time as a political and social force in the country. Assad relied on them heavily to man his military and security apparatuses. All key positions were assigned to Alawites, and all elite units were almost exclusively made up of Alawite recruits. In time, and through the usual system of nepotism, Alawites became over-represented in all public sector jobs. The slow economic openness and reforms introduced in the 1990s allowed Alawite businessmen and the children of Alawite generals to win state contracts and become part of the economic power elite as well. The power transfer to Bashar Al-Assad that took place in 2000 after the passing of his father, Hafiz, accelerated and consolidated this trend allowing the Assad family and its immediate allies in the Alawite community to assume direct control over the most promising economic sectors in the country.
Still, and as a result of an intentional policy on the part of the Assads, the Alawite mountainous heartland remained underdeveloped as part of a strategy meant to encourage Alawites to move into major cities far from the coast. While some Alawite “settlers” ended up joining the ranks of the urban middle classes in Homs, Aleppo and Damascus, most came as members of the security apparatus and military units and were settled in ramshackle neighbourhoods and suburbs encircling major urban centres, serving as a security belt meant to safeguard Assad’s hold – a strategy that is currently unfolding.
The revolution has indeed challenged this state of affairs, constituting an existential threat in the political as well as the socio-economic sense, not only to the Assad family but to the Alawite community as a whole. The adherents to a way of life that for centuries was premised on fear of and hatred towards the oppressive majority, have, under Assad rule, come to be in charge of the very power structure that keeps this majority in check. A challenge to this structure could not but be perceived as posing an existential threat to its keepers and beneficiaries. From the perspective of the Assads and most Alawites, the showdown with the protesters could only be perceived in strict sectarian terms irrespective of the inclusive slogans raised by the protesters and their nonviolent tactics. The violent crackdown was, therefore, a preemptive “moral must.”
For the Sunni Arab population of Syria, it’s the overt sectarian and violent nature of the crackdown, underscored by the willingness to kill unarmed protesters, including women and children, and to defile mosques and Sunni religious symbols, that have in time posed an existential threat. While in terms of the demographics involved, the Sunnis are under no real threat of being physically wiped out by Alawites, in reality, over the last 20 months, the very structure of their existence has been severely undermined. With millions of Sunni refugees now on the run inside and outside the country, and entire Sunni towns, villages and neighborhoods laid to waste, entire ways of life and a worldview that used to be more encompassing and tolerant have been, perhaps irrevocably, shattered.
The Syrian Sunni identity is changing. Sunnis see that they are being treated as if they were all extremist Salafists, as indicated by the pejorative term “Ar’ouris” (after the Salafi Sheikh Adnan Ar’our) concocted by Alawite militias. They see that the majority of members of other confessional minority groups seem to remain sympathetic to Assad, that Kurds seem to have been spared the brunt of the crackdown through their adoption of a more nuanced stand, for the most part expressing vocal sympathy with the revolution while maintaining operational neutrality. And they see that the international community remains undecided in terms of its approach to the revolutionaries, at a time when some of its members, especially Russia and Iran, have clearly opted to support Assad by all available means including provision of arms and diplomatic support. From this, a common albeit battered Sunni identity is emerging, uniting Islamist and secular elements, bestowing an “official” Sunni garb on the armed rebellion.
Jihadism and national pride
The fact that the Sunni community has for years harbored within its fold movements that were ideologically and psychologically primed to embrace such a development, namely the Muslim Brotherhood, Hizb Al-Tahrir, the Salafi community and other Jihadi elements, made this transformation somewhat inevitable.
There are two forms of Jihadism clashing in Syria today. The first is exemplified by Jabhat Al-Nusra, the Islamist rebel group that was recently designated as a terrorist organization by the US Treasury Department, due to its affiliation with Al-Qaeda. Jabhat Al-Nusra emerged on the scene in the context of growing despair among rebels and local populations, increased sectarian massacres on the part of pro-regime militias, the all too visible dysfunction of Syria’s political opposition groups, and continued international dithering and indifference.
By showing the usual bravery expected from Jihadi elements during battle; by meting out their brand of harsh justice against captured loyalist militias and soldiers while supporting the local communities through the provision of basic goods such as bread and heating oil; by downplaying their international Jihadi agenda, for now, Jabhat Al-Nusra and its affiliates managed to win hearts and minds in rebel towns and villages throughout the country, emerging as the strongest rebel faction on the ground and gaining praise even from some secular elements in the opposition. They have become the unlikely spokespeople for a battered majority who feel betrayed by all those countries and groups believed at one point or another to represent their natural allies.
During the brief civil war of the early 1980s, which, in many ways, has set the psychological and ideological scene for the current conflagration, no one seemed to have noticed the suffering of Syria’s Sunnis, or so runs the current litany. But what’s the excuse today, when all massacres seem to take place in full daylight and are covered around the clock by activist networks and international media? And why do world leaders continue to express their concern over a potential future retribution against the Alawite community, while ignoring the all too real crimes currently being perpetrated against the Sunnis by Alawites? Inquiring and increasingly suspicious Sunni minds want to know.
The other form of Jihadism on the scene is of course Alawite. In fact, in the context of the Syrian Revolution, Alawite Jihadism seems to have emerged first, before actively encouraging the emergence of a Sunni counterpart within the ranks of the revolutionary movement by providing a justification for its existence and tactics. Indeed, the release of Sunni Jihadi elements from state prisons within weeks of the launch of the Syrian revolution in March 2011, and the leaking of videos showing Alawite soldiers defiling mosques, mocking Sunni beliefs, torturing their Sunni prisoners and praising Assad as a god seem to have come as part of a tactic aimed at soliciting a response in kind. The tactic worked. Today, Jabhat Al-Nusra members, led in some cases by those who were amongst the prisoners released in March 2011, usually kill their Alawite prisoners and have, on several occasions, defiled Alawite and Shia shrines.
These two manifestations of Jihadism continue to feed off each other to date. Indeed, it is rather apt that the US Treasury Department designated two manifestations of Alawite Jihadism as terrorist organizations just as they did Jabhat Al-Nusra: the Jaish Al-Sha’bi (the popular army) and the infamous Shabiha movement.
But there is something unique about Alawite Jihadism. Rather than developing as a strictly religious phenomenon, as is the case with other Shia Jihadi movements such as Hezbollah and the Mahdi Army, Alawite Jihadism is more of a national Alawite pride movement. Indeed, by taking part in Assad’s bloody crackdown, Alawite youths, irrespective of their level of education, seem to be expressing pride in who they are. In their leaked videos, Facebook pages and twitter accounts, young Alawite men in particular seem to feel quite empowered, liberated even, by the acts of brutality being perpetrated in their name by their “patriotic” militias, or which they themselves are directly perpetrating. The leaked video of the Alawite soldier who called his mother and had her listen in as he executed a “terrorist” is a grisly and poignant example. For the first time, young Alawite men are now able to celebrate their identity and declare the superiority of their ways and beliefs, while expressing publicly what they must have felt for so long vis-à-vis their Sunni compatriots. Young Alawite men are now telling the world that they are followers of Amir Al-Mu’mineen Haydarah Ali Bin Abi Talib and believers in the Divine Wisdom of one Bashar Al-Assad for whose sake they are willing to set the entire country on fire, and have in fact been doing so.
In a sense, Alawite youths have awoken and are leading their own revolution (or counter-revolution) in a manner commensurate with their own vision and understanding of where their interests lie. Far from the limelight, they are leading their own Jihad against history, the very history that has always conspired against them, so they believe, and continues to do so. The fact that their suffering is not as well-publicized as that of their Sunni “enemies” makes it seem even more authentic. After all, their suffering and sacrifices have always taken place far from the limelight, and the history books, and are alive only in their collective memory, their oral traditions, and their imagination.
The civil struggle
Far from the limelight as well, other communities in Syria feel equally threatened. There are Arab Christian communities of different denominations, there are Christians of Armenian and Assyrian descent, there are Druzes and Ismailites, and there are Cherkessians and Kurds. All are looking on with horror as the two main protagonists in the current conflagration become more and more radical and out-of-control. Although so many members from these communities have previously voiced support for the idea of democracy, citizenship and change in the country, when the hour of truth came they found the issue of identity to be more relevant at the visceral level that trumps all ideas.
Most minority communities have either assumed a neutral stand, or sided with the regime, despite its by now overt sectarianism, allowing both sides of the conflict to become more and more radicalized: the Sunnis as a result of being abandoned, and the Alawites as a result of the endorsement they received, no matter how tacit. Through the filter of communal identity, deployed by the country’s myriad minority communities, one side (the Sunnis) can do no right, while the other side (the Alawites) can do no wrong. So it seems that the glue that used to keep these communities together through thick and thin, that element of trust, that live-and-let-live ethos stemming from centuries of relatively peaceful coexistence under the millet system, has dried up under the Assad regime's continuous and vindictive assault on civil society. But there is nothing to replace it today: neither a covenant nor an accord, nor even a respected elite that can put something together then sell it to the people.
But what of the erstwhile leaders of the pro-democracy movement, one might wonder? Can they rise to the task?
Those of them left alive and still somewhere in the country will have the onerous task of trying to salvage something out of the unfolding mess to keep a semblance of hope alive for the next few decades of struggle. They will still dream of ways to put the pieces back together, and will undoubtedly dedicate the rest of their lives to the task. They will work far from the limelight, and always against everybody’s cynicism, including their own.
They made an impossible revolution happen, now they have to pull an impossible victory out of it. In the current unfolding of clashing insanities, theirs is the only one that makes any sense. But it will take years, decades even, before common sense prevails in Syria and people realize that their basic rights and sense of identity can be guaranteed by agreement on specific covenants, institutions and pragmatic arrangements, not by a misplaced faith in leaders unaccountable for their failures, nor by some vague references to equality, justice and citizenship intermixed with references to the divine law. Until we are all weary enough to accept this, no solution is possible. Even should one side end up prevailing somehow, this unlikely development will only mark a prelude for another conflagration, just as the conflict of the 1980s paved the way to this one.