The protests in Syria have spread to Hama, a city with a rebellious past. In 1982, it was the bastion of an Islamist uprising against the secular Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party rule of Hafez alAssad, father of current Syrian president Bashar alAssad. The elder alAssad’s brother was put in charge of the pacification campaign. The city of Hama was levelled under an artillery barrage and up to 20,000 were killed. It is cruel irony that Maher alAssad, Bashar’s brother and head of the elite Republican Guard, is leading the latest siege against Hama. An estimated 2,000 men, women and children have been killed since the Arab Spring came to Syria.
It is also ironic that Bashar has become his father. Youthful, reformist and with little apparent desire for power, Bashar enjoyed enough popular legitimacy to turn Syrian protests into a rallying cry for much needed political reforms. That he did not do so reflects a number of political gambles and constraints.
First, the primary lesson that Bashar drew from other Arab autocracies is not that they must change or die, but that offering too many concessions betrays weakness. Thus, he has played at appearing in control. The Syrians are not buying it.
Secondly, in brutally squelching dissent, Bashar may have also banked on the geopolitics of stagnation in Syria. No regional power wishes for a regime change in Damascus. However, this will change if regime violence continues unabated, with Syria potentially becoming a proxy battleground.
The main constraint on Bashar is that Syria’s secular and socialist veneer masks the ethnic underpinnings of Ba’ath Party rule. The party came to power in 1963, but the current Syrian regime was crafted by the alAssad patriarch Hafez, an air force general who took control of the state and the Ba’ath Party in a military coup in 1970. Hafez belonged to the Alawi community, a small, closed and syncretistic sect of Shia Islam that had faced historical discrimination and marginalisation at the hands of the majority Sunnis. The Alawis today account for about seven per cent of Syria’s population. Other non-Sunni Muslims, Christians of various stripes and Druze make up nearly another 30 per cent. The remainder of the population is predominantly Sunni. Syria also has a mostly Sunni Kurdish minority thinly spread across religious lines that faces heavy state-sponsored discrimination.
The Alawis were heavily recruited into the military by French colonists who preferred to keep military power in the hands of a minority rather than the Sunnis who had been favoured by the Ottomans. The Alawis also benefited from the Ba’ath Party’s purges of hundreds of Sunni military officers, and this provided Hafez with much of his military backing. A breakdown of the forces even today is telling. Seventy per cent of the 200,000 career soldiers in the Syrian army are Alawi, as is 80 per cent of the officer corps. The elite Republican Guard is an entirely Alawi formation. The community also controls the main intelligence agencies.
The expectation that Bashar would be a radical reformer who would dismantle the Ba’athist state was misplaced to begin with. He is in effect the point person for the Alawi clans and is limited by their myriad regime interests. These include the vast state-held sectors of the economy controlled by those within or close to the Ba’ath Party and the Alawi community, in conjunction with an urban Sunni merchant class.
Syria’s ethnic politics make it a country where hopes for quick and peaceful change come up against the reality of underlying power structures. Already the anxieties of minorities about the potential loss of Syria’s secular socialism are being stoked by the state. The regime meanwhile sits in fear that any democratic opening would place it on the wrong side of Syrian demography and unravel the Ba’athist state. Unlike some other Arab countries, ethnic politics appear to unify the Syrian regime and military enough to continue their bloodbath in the absence of appropriate foreign pressure. On the other hand, in the words of prominent Middle East analyst Gwynne Dyer, “If the Alawis should ever lose power, after four decades of making decisions and enemies, it could be a night of many long knives”. Change will come to Syria. One can only hope its communities are not divided by rivers of blood when it does.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 12th, 2011.
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