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Storm Over Syria

Ed Kashi/VII
A portrait of Hafez al-Assad hanging above the main market street in the Old City of Damascus, 1995

Moosa suggests that like other schismatic groups residing in Syria, such as the Druzes and Ismailis, the Nusayris do not take their beliefs literally, but understand them as allegorical ways of reaching out to the divine. While this may be true of the educated naqibs, or spiritual elders, such belief systems may have different ramifications for semiliterate peasants, reinforcing a contempt or disdain for outsiders who do not share these beliefs. Like the Druzes and some Ismailis, Nusayris believe in metempsychosis or transmigration. The souls of the wicked pass into unclean animals such as dogs and pigs, while the souls of the righteous enter human bodies more perfect than their present ones. The howls of jackals that can be heard at night are the souls of Sunni Muslims calling their misguided co-religionists to prayer.

It does not take much imagination to see how such beliefs, programmed into the community’s values for more than a millennium, and reinforced by customs such as endogamous marriage—according to which the children of unions between Nusayris and non-Nusayris cannot be initiated into the sect—create very strong notions of apartness and disdain for the “Other.”

The great Arab philosopher of history Ibn Khaldun, who died in 1406, elaborated the concept of ‘asabiyya—variously translated as clannism or group solidarity—that provides a more adequate explanation of the political systems operating in many Arab countries than notions based on imported ideologies such as communism, nationalism, and socialism. Ibn Khaldun’s analysis was based on his native North Africa, but it can be adapted to the conditions of the Mashreq, or Levant—where similar historical conditions prevailed. As Albert Hourani explained in his magisterial History of the Arab Peoples (1991), ‘asabiyya is a force that informs the patriarchal family order that still underpins the structure of power in many Arab societies.

In the past, as Hourani pointed out, a ruler with ‘asabiyya was well placed to found a dynasty, since the merchant classes of the cities, untrained in the military arts and without powerful corporate structures, tended to lack this quality. Moreover, when dynastic rule achieved in this way was stable and prosperous, city life flourished. But in Ibn Khaldun’s time every dynasty bore within itself the seeds of decline, as rulers degenerated into tyrants or became corrupted by luxurious living. In due course power would pass to a new group of hardy rulers from the margins after a period of turbulence often described as fitna, or disorder (a term with overtones of sexual disharmony, for in the family context, fitna is seen as the outcome of sexual misconduct).

The rise and possible fall of the Assad dynasty would provide a perfect illustration of the Khaldunian paradigm under recent postcolonial conditions. Under Ottoman rule the Nusayris were impoverished outsiders struggling on the social margins. In addition to feuding among themselves, they were fierce rivals of the Ismailis, whom they expelled from their highland refuges and castles, forcing them to settle in the more arid lands east of Homs. The Ottoman governors regarded them as nonbelievers and tools of the Shiite Persians: they were not even accorded the dignity of a millet, or recognized religious community.

When the French took over Greater Syria after World War I (including modern Lebanon and parts of modern Turkey), they flirted briefly with the idea of creating a highland Alawi state of 300,000 people separate from the cities of the plains—Homs, Hama, Damascus, and Aleppo—with their dominant Sunni majorities. The French rightly believed that the Sunni majority would be most resistant to their rule. Like other minorities the Alawis, as they preferred to be called, saw the French as protectors. In 1936, six Alawi notables sent a memorandum to Leon Blum, head of France’s Popular Front government, expressing their loyalty to France and their concern at negotiations leading to independence in a parliamentary system dominated by the Sunni majority. The memorandum includes the following points:

• The Alawi people, who have preserved their independence year after year with great zeal and sacrifices, are different from the Sunni Muslims. They were never subject to the authority of the cities of the interior.
• The Alawis refuse to be annexed to Muslim Syria because in Syria the official religion of the state is Islam, and according to Islam the Alawis are considered infidels.
• The granting of independence to Syria…constitutes a good example of the socialist principles in Syria…. [But] as to the presence of a parliament and a constitutional government, that does not represent individual freedom. This parliamentary rule is no more than false appearances without any value. In truth, it covers up a regime dominated by religious fanaticism against the minorities. Do French leaders want the Muslims to have control over the Alawi people in order to throw them into misery?
• We can sense today how the Muslim citizens of Damascus force the Jews who live among them to sign a document pledging that they will not send provisions to their ill-fated brethren in Palestine. The condition of the Jews in Palestine is the strongest and most explicit evidence of the militancy of the Islamic issue vis-à-vis those who do not belong to Islam. These good Jews contributed to the Arabs with civilization and peace, scattered gold, and established prosperity in Palestine without harming anyone or taking anything by force, yet the Muslims declare holy war against them and never hesitated in slaughtering their women and children, despite the presence of England in Palestine and France in Syria. Therefore a dark fate awaits the Jews and other minorities in case the Mandate is abolished and Muslim Syria is united with Muslim Palestine…the ultimate goal of the Muslim Arabs.

One of the signatories to this document was Sulayman al-Assad, a minor chief of the Kalbiya clan and father of Hafez al-Assad.

The ‘asabiyya of the Alawis was carefully exploited by the French, who polished the Khaldunian model by giving them military training as members of the Troupes Spéciales du Levant. In the turbulent years that followed full independence in 1946, their military know-how proved valuable. Bright members of the sect such as Hafez al-Assad, whose families could not afford to send them to university, joined the armed forces and were drawn to secular parties, such as the Baath (renaissance) party jointly founded by two intellectuals, Michel Aflaq and Salah al-Din Bitar, with an agenda explicitly aimed at overcoming sectarian divisions.

It would be wrong to suppose that the Alawis deliberately sought to subvert or take over the Baath or the armed forces. Their primary impulse was their own security. After independence the Syrian parliament abolished the separate representation for minorities instituted by the French, along with certain judicial rights. Nusayri sheikhs and notables encouraged young men to join the Baath because they believed its secular outlook would protect them from Sunni hegemony and persecution. Other minorities, including Christians, Druzes, and Ismailis, tended to join the Baath (or in some cases the Communist Party and Syrian Socialist National Party) for similar reasons. The eventual dominance achieved by the Alawis may be attributed to their highland military background and the default logic by which ‘asabiyya tends to assert itself in the absence of other, more durable structures.

The first three military coups that followed Syrian independence were engineered by Sunni officers. This was followed by the disastrous union with Nasser’s Egypt in 1958 when Baath party leaders, following their pan-Arabist nationalist logic, merged their country’s identity into that of their more powerful Sunni neighbor. After Syria formally united with Egypt, Nusayri officers who had joined the Baath party became increasingly alarmed that Arab nationalism, for all its secular rhetoric, was really a veil concealing Arab Sunni supremacy. They formed a clandestine military committee led by Salah Jadid, an Alawi, which took power in a military coup in 1963. Hafez al-Assad, trained as a fighter pilot, became air force commander. Some seven hundred officers were purged, and most of their positions were filled with Nusayris. A further coup against the Baathist old guard brought Assad into the cabinet as defense minister in 1966, a position he cleverly exploited after Syria’s defeat by Israel in the Six-Day War of 1967, after which it was alleged that the regime had had secret dealings with the Jewish state. A “palace coup” inside the leadership brought Assad to power as president in 1970.

Thereafter the power of the state was firmly concentrated in Alawi hands. Of the officers commanding the 47th Syrian Tank Brigade, which was responsible for suppressing the Muslim Brotherhood’s rebellion in the city of Hama in 1982 at a cost of some 20,000 lives, 70 percent are reported to have been Alawis. When Hafez al-Assad died in June 2000, the constitutional niceties were rapidly dispensed with to ensure the succession of his son Bashar, who had studied ophthalmology in England. Fearful that Hafez’s exiled younger brother Rifaat al-Assad, who had commanded the Hama operation, would try to take over, a hastily convened session of the People’s Assembly voted to lower the minimum age for a president from forty to thirty-four, the exact age of Bashar al-Assad.

In the welter of violence now accompanying the regime’s determined efforts to suppress the demonstrations, its achievements should not be forgotten or ignored. While its massacre in Hama was horrendous and it has an abysmal record on human rights, engaging in torture and severe political repression, it had a good, even excellent one when it came to protecting the pluralism of the religious culture that is one of Syria’s most enduring and attractive qualities. Some of these virtues are captured in Brooke Allen’s engaging account of her travels in Syria, The Other Side of the Mirror, where she meets ordinary people from different backgrounds and rejoices in the natural friendliness of Syria’s people and the extraordinary richness of its past. Instead of the Soviet-style grayness she expected to find from accounts in the US media, she discovers a sophisticated cosmopolitan society where life is being lived in many different styles and varieties, “totally unselfconsciously, just as it has been for thousands of years.”

In Aleppo, a jewel among cities, with its commanding citadel and labyrinthine, covered souk, she sees fully veiled ladies, exotic bedouin women displaying bright spots of color, and wealthy Gulf Arabs wearing white robes rubbing shoulders with men riding donkeys and mixing with “trophy girlfriends” in miniskirts teetering perilously on the ultra-high-heeled shoes that Aleppans evidently consider to be the height of fashion.

Having been in Aleppo recently, I can vouch for the accuracy of her descriptions. Visiting several mosques, churches, and shrines, she provides impressive testimony of the country’s religious diversity and the regime’s commitment to religious freedom. It would be tragic if the pursuit of democracy led to the shredding of this bright human canopy, where religious and cultural differences seem to have flourished under the iron grip of a minority sectarian regime.

Rome, May 11, 2011

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