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A Syrian soldier waving a flag at a rally in support of President Bashar al-Assad, Damascus, March 29, 2011

“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.

Mike King

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].


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