“Damascus has seen all that has ever occurred on earth, and still she lives,” wrote Mark Twain after visiting Syria’s capital in the 1860s. “She has looked upon the dry bones of a thousand empires, and will see the tombs of a thousand more before she dies.”
The turmoil in Syria, where hundreds of unarmed protesters have been mown down by the forces of President Bashar al-Assad, who comes from the country’s Alawi minority, is much more menacing than the generally peaceful revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, from which the Syrian protesters drew their initial inspiration. The regime of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia capitulated in the face of spontaneous demonstrations sparked by the self-immolation of a twenty-six-year-old man who had been reduced to scratching out a living as a humble street vendor. Ben Ali, along with his hated wife and family, chose to go into exile before a single shot had been fired.
In Egypt, if press reports are to be believed, the generals unseated President Hosni Mubarak after tank commanders refused his orders to fire on civilians. The Egyptian revolution, which has seen some resistance from the military and police, has now taken a constitutional turn, with the country approving a series of amendments that could lead to the emergence of a parliamentary democracy. Much will depend on the willingness of the military to allow an open political process to take place.
The Syrian government’s response to the Arab world’s turbulent spring, by contrast, has been both violent and vacillating. Its initial response was to characterize the protests across the country as the result of a global conspiracy fomented by a clutch of unlikely allies, including the US, Israel, and Arab enemies in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, working with former regime officials and homegrown Salafists, or fundamentalists. Then President Assad tried to defuse the opposition by receiving protest delegations and announcing the lifting of long-standing emergency laws, apparently acknowledging the existence of legitimate grievances. But this proved no more than a gesture. In effect the government’s response has been contradictory to the point of incoherence: as the Brussels-based International Crisis Group points out in a report released on May 3:
The regime has lifted the emergency law but has since allowed the security services to conduct business as usual, thereby illustrating just how meaningless the concept of legality was in the first place. It authorises demonstrations even as it claims they no longer are justified and then labels them as treasonous. It speaks of reforming the media and, in the same breath, dismisses those who stray from the official line. It insists on ignoring the most outrageous symbols of corruption. Finally, and although it has engaged in numerous bilateral talks with local representatives, it resists convening a national dialogue, which might represent the last, slim chance for a peaceful way forward.
Over seven hundred people have been killed so far, more than a hundred of them in the southwestern city of Deraa, near the Jordanian border, where the Omari mosque—a center of resistance—has been closed to worshipers after being shelled by tanks and taken over by snipers. Some ten thousand people are now said to have been detained by elite security forces backed by the army. According to Amnesty International, detainees have been beaten with sticks and cables, and sometimes deprived of food. Unlike in Libya there are no NATO forces to protect Syria’s cities or parts of the country from the murderous attacks inflicted by a regime that is now losing the last threads of international legitimacy. Assad has a more effective army than Qaddafi and powerful friends in Iran, Lebanon, and Iraq.
In contrast to Libya, military action in defense of Syria’s beleaguered population would barely attract a shred of international support. While the Arab League voted unanimously for the no-fly zone to protect the people of Benghazi, in the case of Syria it has not even mentioned the country by name, merely declaring that pro-democracy protesters “deserve support, not bullets.”
As The New York Times pointed out in an editorial, the UN Security Council “hasn’t even been able to muster a press statement. Russia and China, as ever, are determined to protect autocrats.” Israel has been watching and waiting with alarm as the outcome of the unrest in Syria becomes more and more uncertain. Despite his alliance with Iran and refusal to recognize the Jewish state, Assad is the devil it knows best. Prolonged instability or a Salafist regime could only make matters worse.
On the ground it is far from clear what is happening, since foreign reporters have been banned from entering the country, Internet service has been shut down, and cell-phone coverage limited to satellites or systems outside government control. Nevertheless the protests—spurred by funerals of victims and gatherings at Friday prayers, the only occasions on which large numbers of people are permitted to assemble—have spread from Deraa to at least a dozen other cities including Baniyas and Latakia on the Mediterranean coast, as well as to the northern city of Homs and some suburbs of Damascus.* With the Alawi-dominated regime under threat, the struggle is showing ominous sectarian overtones. At Baniyas, where the army moved scores of tanks and armored vehicles into the city’s southern outskirts, paramilitary groups were said to have massed in Alawi-populated northern suburbs. The city centers of Damascus and Aleppo, however, remained relatively quiet, as the government appeared to be organizing rallies of its own supporters, with activists claiming that efforts were being made to bus pro-government demonstrators from Alawi-dominated regions. Grainy cell-phone images sent in clandestinely from Homs to the al-Jazeera TV network showed a speech by a senior defector from the ruling Baath party being greeted with shouts of Allahu Akbar (God Is Greater), often regarded as the jihadist war cry.
At first sight the defection of more than three hundred members of the ruling Baath party in protest at the crackdown would suggest that Syria’s one-party state, in place since 1963, is beginning to unravel. What some people are calling the Facebook Revolution, an unprecedented wave of visible public protest, is led by a generation of media-savvy young people, more aware of the outside world than their parents were, who are demanding an end to the system of repression, corruption, and privilege that has been the hallmark of the authoritarian Arab regimes lying between the Atlas Mountains and the Persian Gulf.
Yet unlike the Muslim Brotherhood’s rebellion in Hama, which shook the government of Bashar al-Assad’s father Hafez in 1982, the Facebook rebellion seems curiously faceless. There are some signs of opposition violence with “plausible reports of security forces being ambushed by unidentified armed groups, as well as of protesters firing back when attacked,” according to the International Crisis Group. But these appear to be small and random incidents. The vast majority of casualties are the consequence of the regime’s brutality. The protests are largely spontaneous. There seem to be no controlling organizations or identifiable leaders, and the opposition’s ideological focus is unclear, beyond slogans calling for an end to corruption and repression.
Optimists see this as an implicit acceptance of democratic values and assumptions. Despite the increasingly desperate efforts of the region’s authoritarian governments to keep their people in the dark about the realities of the outside world by restricting information, the younger generation identifies with its peers in the liberal West and it knows what it is missing in access to material and educational benefits as well as civil and democratic rights. The problem is that while the Facebook generation knows what it doesn’t like, it is far from clear that there are structures in place, or being planned, that could provide the basis for an alternative political system if the regime collapses. Pessimists envisage a scenario encapsulated in the phrase “one man, one vote, one time” leading to a Salafist takeover and a settling of scores against minorities (including Christians) who were protected by the regime or benefited from its pluralist approach. More than 70 percent of the Syrian population are Sunni.
How did Syria come to this pass? While some observers see in recent events a parallel with 1989, with the break-up of the East European–style system introduced by the Baathists in the 1960s, this is no velvet revolution, nor is Syria like Jaruzelski’s Poland. The regime’s violence is not ideological. It is far from being the result of an emotional or philosophical commitment to a party that long ago abandoned its agenda of promoting secular Arab republican values and aspirations. The regime’s ruthless attachment to power lies in a complex web of tribal loyalties and networks of patronage underpinned by a uniquely powerful religious bond.
The Alawis of Syria, who make up only 12 percent of its population, split from the main branch of Shiism more than a thousand years ago. Before the twentieth century they were usually referred to as Nusayris, after their eponymous founder Ibn Nusayr, who lived in Iraq during the ninth century. Taking refuge in the mountains above the port of Latakia, on the coastal strip between modern Lebanon and Turkey, they evolved a highly secretive syncretistic theology containing an amalgam of Neoplatonic, Gnostic, Christian, Muslim, and Zoroastrian elements. Their leading theologian, Abdullah al-Khasibi, who died in 957, proclaimed the divinity of Ali, the Prophet Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, whom other Shiites revere but do not worship. Like many Shiites influenced by ancient Gnostic teachings that predate Islam, they believe that the way to salvation and knowledge lies through a succession of divine emanations. Acknowledging a line of prophets or avatars beginning with Adam and culminating in Christ and Muhammad, they include several figures from classical antiquity in their list, such as Socrates, Plato, Galen, and some of the pre-Islamic Persian masters.
Nusayrism could be described as a folk religion that absorbed many of the spiritual and intellectual currents of late antiquity and early Islam, packaged into a body of teachings that placed its followers beyond the boundaries of orthodoxy. Mainstream Muslims, both Sunni and Shia, regarded them as ghulta, “exaggerators.” Like other sectarian groups they protected their tradition by a strategy known as taqiyya—the right to hide one’s true beliefs from outsiders in order to avoid persecution. Taqiyya makes a perfect qualification for membership in the mukhabarat—the ubiquitous intelligence/security apparatus that has dominated Syria’s government for more than four decades.
Secrecy was also observed by means of a complex system of initiation, in which insiders recognized each other by using special phrases or passwords and neophytes underwent a form of spiritual marriage with the naqibs, or spiritual guides. At this ceremony three superior dignitaries represent a kind of holy trinity of the figures who feature in other Nusayri rituals, namely Ali, Muhammad, and Salman al-Farisi (the Persian companion of Muhammad who in several Islamic traditions forms a link between the Arabs and the wisdom of ancient Persia). Nusayri rituals, performed in private homes or out-of-the-way places, include a ceremony known as Qurban—almost identical to the mass—where wine is consecrated and imbibed in the Christian manner. As Matti Moosa, a leading scholar of the Nusayris, states in his seminal study Extremist Shiites: The Ghulat Sects (1988):
The Christian elements in the Nusayri religion are unmistakable. They include the concept of trinity; the celebration of Christmas, the consecration of the Qurban, that is, the sacrament of the flesh and blood which Christ offered to His disciples, and, most important, the celebration of the Quddas [a lengthy prayer proclaiming the divine attributes of Ali and the personification of all the biblical patriarchs from Adam to Simon Peter, founder of the Church, who is seen, paradoxically, as the embodiment of true Islam].