“Death a thousand times to the Muslim Brotherhood,” said Syrian president Hafez Assad in 1982 as the veteran Islamist movement inspired a rebellion against his regime. Crushed by an artillery attack that killed at least 10,000 Syrians, the clash was understood at the time as a religiously motivated assault on a secular regime. It was more complex than that, and in a way that explains today’s civil strife in the sorry land of the Assad clan.
The revolt of 1982 happened roughly 210 kilometers north of Damascus, in the city of Hama, which indeed was, and remains, a hotbed of Islamist zealotry.
However, the city on the Orontes River which has been there since biblical times (David at one point conquered it), was also predominantly Sunni Muslim, whereas the Assads belong to the Alawite minority, which the elder Assad imposed on Syria’s Sunni majority.
The Alawites strayed from mainstream Islam shortly after Mohammed’s death, when they, like the Shiites, thought the prophet’s son-in-law Ali should be his heir. However, the Alawites are also different from the Shiites, for instance in celebrating Christmas, largely ignoring Ramadan, building no mosques and preserving some Zoroastrian traditions. Consequently, Sunnis often consider them pagan.
The Shiites also don’t see in the Alawites as members of their faith. However, due to their reverence of Ali, the Shiites see the Alawites as straying brethren rather than heretics.
This is the Alawites’ religious uniqueness. Their other distinctions lie in their numbers and location. The numbers – less than 3 million of prewar-Syria’s 21 million people – are small, and the location is remote, centering in the Nuseiriya Mountains, east of Syria’s Mediterranean coastline.
Even so, the Alawites gradually wrested most senior positions in Syria’s government, military, police, and secret services, following Hafez Assad’s seizure of power in 1970. At the same time, their presence also grew along the coast, yet in the main metropolises of Damascus and Aleppo they had to share space with large Sunni population.
„THE ALAWITES’ iron-fisted control“
This, in brief, is where the roots of Syria’s civil war lie.
THE ALAWITES’ iron-fisted control was more sophisticated than some realize.
Eager to bypass Syria’s deep ethnic and religious divisions, Assad hoped to unite Syrians around his Greater Syria ambition to expand the country into Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Iraq and Turkey.
At the same time, understanding he could not control alone a vast and hostile population, hafez Assad created a system of internal alliances with other minorities, which included a host of Christian denominations and also the non-Muslim Druze. These, together with the Alawites, added up to some 30% of the population.
While protecting these minorities and also handing some of their leaders senior appointments, the Alawites also allied with some of the Sunni aristocracy, like the family of Bashar Assad’s glamorous wife, Asma, who like her husband spent several years in London, where she was an investment banker.
Even so, Syria remained a fragile ethnic and religious mosaic, while the 60% Sunni majority felt economically suppressed, socially aloof, and politically alienated. The depth of this estrangement became apparent when Firas Tlass, son of Mustafa Tlass who was Hafez Assad’s defense minister and until 2004 also Bashar’s – defected to the rebels’ side in 2012.
On top of this, the regime also oppressed the 10% Kurdish minority, depriving it even if the right to citizenship. Such was the Syrian ethnic tower that the civil war has brought down.
Now, after more than six years of intense butchery in which more than half-a-million, mostly Sunni Syrians were killed and more than 10 million have been displaced – Assad understands that whichever Syria emerges from the war, it will not be the same one that entered it.
The regime’s strategy in the face of this is apparently to reshape the geography of Syria’s minorities.
Realizing he cannot move the vast Sunni populations of the east, Assad is trying to remove those in the west. This is the context in which he launched April’s gas attack on the mostly Sunni town of Sheikh Shakhun, which is some 15 kilometers north of Hama.
Intelligence reports indicate that Assad, with the help of his Iranian allies, is out to “ethnically cleanse” the coastline, the Nuseirya Mountains’ eastern foothills, and Aleppo, whose heaps of rubble sprawl to this continuum’s north.
Attacks like April’s are meant to make Sunnis flee east – or abroad – and replace them with Shiites from Iraq. Chances of this morbid plan being carried out successfully may seem low right now, but then again, a mere three years ago experts around the world were convinced that Bashar Assad’s days in power are numbered.