Posted by Joshua on Saturday, June 18th, 2011
The following article was first published on Syria Comment in August 2006. It is written by a Syrian Alawi friend who wrote under the pseudonym, Khudr. He authored it in response to President Bush’s pressure on Syria following the invasion of Iraq and killing of Rafiq Hariri. At the time, the US administration was casting about for a Syrian who could replace President Bashar al-Assad. Washington hoped to end Syrian influence in Lebanon, gain Syrian support for its occupation of Iraq, and extend its agenda for “Reform of the Greater Middle East.”
In particular, Bush policy makers were looking for an Alawi general who could overthrow Bashar al-Assad and replace the Assad family, while maintaining stability.
Today, Syrian opposition leaders believe a key to bringing down the regime is to divide the Alawi community. Bassma Kodmani has suggested that “Alawite leaders have sought to establish contacts with Sunni imams to seek guarantees for the community in return for abandoning the Assad regime. This, rather than defections in the army, could herald the unraveling of the regime’s powers of suppression.”
Mohja Kahf has similarly written that “four of seven major Alawite clans (Nuwaliya, Kalbiya, Haddadiya, Khayyatiya), issued statements dissociating themselves from the Assads.” (See my response to this: “Did Four Alawi Clans Dissociate themselves from the Assads, as the Opposition Claims? Not likely.”)
What do Sunnis intend for Alawis following regime change?
for Syria Comment
August 30, 2006
….. Radical change in Syria can be achieved only with the help of the Alawis themselves. Excluding a full-fledged mass uprising or a foreign invasion, Alawi rule can be terminated only if it is approved by Alawi Syrians or if they stand aside.
Why don’t Alawi Syrians terminate Assad’s rule?
It is no exaggeration to say that many Alawis are not happy, to say the least, with the present regime. The reasons that are usually given for this discontent are the following:
- Many Alawis live in poverty, such as those eking out an existence in the slums surrounding Damascus or the poor villages scattered about the coastal area, where unemployment and underemployment is so high.
- Political imprisonment awaits Alawis who dare to challenge the regime, such as befell the followers of Salah Jdeed and the Communist Workers Party in the past or Aaref Dalilah today.
There are also other important reasons that are rarely spoken of:
- Most of us have not lived the unjust circumstances that our fathers and grand-fathers were subjected to by the Sunnis. Thus, we do not have the same appreciation for the Alawi rule that the late president Hafiz Assad brought.
- Hafiz made huge improvements to our rural areas after centuries of utter neglect by successive Syrian governments, whether Ottoman or Syrian. (A negligence that the Assad regime is sadly repeating in the Jazeera and the north-eastern parts of Syria). However, these improvements, made by the Baath during its early days, have long since come to a halt. Actually, the condition of Alawis has been sliding backwards and not forwards for more than a generation.
In our fathers’ youth, cities at the foot of the Coastal Mountains, such as Tartous, Banias, Jabla, Latakia, were transformed from purely Sunni communities with some Christian inhabitants to organized multi-sectarian modern cities (of course relatively speaking). During our generation these nice cities have become run down and dirty places due to corruption, bad-planning, and patronage. We have watched them become a playground for the cowboys of the present generation, the Assad clan in Kurdaha, sometimes called the Shabbiha.
3. Our fathers’ support for Hafiz al-Assad was driven largely by their resentment against the wealthy bourgeoisie of Syria. The Baath Party claimed to oppose this wealthy class which seemed to monopolize trade and land. Most Syrians believed that they had acquired their advantages and wealth through nefarious and often violent means under the Ottomans. The Baathist movement won much of its legitimacy among the rural poor because it claimed to stand up for the little guy against the feudalists. The followers of Rifa`at al-Assad used to recount to us in the seventies how they admired him because he would pick up a dirty, used tuna can from the floor and drink tea from it.
Not any more. I wonder what those people would say about him now that he eats his foie gras with golden utensils in his multi-million dollar villas in France and Spain? An earlier generation of Alawis honestly admired the Alawis who took power. I still have not met a single person who has the slightest admiration for Rami Makhlouf or Asaf Shawkat, for example. Unfortunately, in our day, the Alawi rulers and their children are becoming the epitome of the bourgeoisie that we were taught to despise.
4. It is a fact that Alawis still control the important positions in the security systems in Syria. However, it is also a fact that this control serves only a small circle at the top of the pyramid and is becoming less and less beneficial or responsive to the poor members at the base.
5. Seeing that most of the leading members of the Assad regime have made full-fledged alliances with Sunni families. Many have done this through marriage, such as the president himself or Muhammad Nassif’s daughters; others have done it through monopoly enterprises, such as Maher al-Assad, Bahjat Suleiman, Asaf Shawkat, and many others. The regime has lost its claim to representing the Alawi sect or to defending its rights. The claims that Hafiz and his generation have used to gain our fathers’ support and admiration are largely gone.
6. The direction Syria is now heading in does not look good. The last thing Alawis want or need is to have a group of people leading Syria to catastrophe in their name, while they get so little advancement out of it. All of Syria accuses the Alawi sect of being responsible for the lamentable state of affairs.
So why then don’t Alawis do anything about the situation? Why are we silent? Why doesn’t an Alawi Army General carry out a coup?
Reasons general to all Syrian citizens:
1. The culture of fear has been deeply planted in every Syrian person regardless of their sect or race.
2. We have been deeply conditioned to mistrust and be suspicious of everyone, making it extremely hard for any two Syrians to work together, not to mention organize in a group. To see how deep this problem has become, look at how much the Syrians in the Diaspora are fragmented even when they are away from the regime and its influence. No two Syrian expatriates are able to organize a cultural gathering, not to mention a political party. No sooner does a new party emerge than its members, who are from the same sect and race and background, start to split apart into uncountable factions.
3. The external animosity of the United States paralyzes internal movements, organized to act against the regime, no matter how well intentioned they are. No one wants to risk a serious move against the regime while there is an enemy at the door. The United States has not shown any signs that it is interested in improving Syria’s internal situation or helping Syria. What the U.S. is asking for clearly and loudly are changes in external policies, period. Most of those policies are not attractive to the Syrian opposition. The regime is popular on most of these issues, such as the occupation of Palestine, the Golan, or Iraq.
A coup-d’etat at this moment risks being labeled “made in America” even if it does not have the slightest connection to America.
The present sentiment in the Syrian street is anti-American. This means that any opposition that seeks support from the Syrian street will be anti-American and will be spurned by the West, as happened with Hamas. Any opposition that seeks external support will lose the street, as is the case with Khaddam. We are in a tricky situation; the regime understands this well and has exploited with skill.
4. The organization of the Army and security forces was masterminded by the late president Hafiz Assad to prevent coups similar to those that rocked Syria during the three decades after Syrian independence. The Syrian forces capable of carry out a coup-d’etat – the Army, Special Forces, Police Force, and Security Apparatuses – are all burdened with a complex command structure, purposefully designed to frustrate plotters.
Lateral communication is absolutely forbidden between units; all communications between units must travel through a cumbersome vee, first ascending up the command structure to the top level of one unit before descending down again through the ranks of the other unit. Most importantly, the many units and departments have an interlocking command structure so that no entity is autonomous. They cannot act without several other departments knowing about it. For example, any air force unit is under the influence of aerial-security (Mukhabarat Jawiyyah), army-security (Mukhabarat Askariyyah), the morale-guidance headquarters (Idarat el Tawjih al-manawi), military police, air force headquarters, army general headquarters, the Republican Guards, and the Palace. Officers with loyalties to theses various branches of security are sprinkled liberally throughout the security forces. This command structure makes the military practically useless against foreign enemies but extremely effective at guaranteeing internal stability. Any attempt to rebel is quickly thwarted by the stultifying array of conflicting loyaltiesand can be dealt with on the spot.
5. Most Syrians, as unhappy as they are with the present regime, see no point in changing the regime without a solid alternative. The opposition has yet to present a clear vision for the future that would inspire people to risk the few joys of Syrian life that they have, security being at the top of the list. Vague and generalized talk about democracy and a better life are the only promises made by present regime-change advocates. They aren’t reassuring.
6. We have to admit that corruption has insinuated itself deep into the souls of almost every Syrian. It is highly questionable that any form of regime-change is going to achieve real economic or social change, without being preceded by a long process of grass roots reform and cultural revival.
We do have a corrupt leadership, but even an honest leadership would find it impossible to overcome the pervasive culture of bribery, disrespect for hard work, and indifference to public interest that is shared by state, and indeed, private sector employees. Most Syrians’ sense of virtue has become so crooked that fooling a customer is defined as cleverness, “shatara.”
Can change really be enforced from the top down? The regime changers avoid this thorny question, but it must be aired and debated. Are we willing to act, think, and work differently when the regime is changed?
Reasons specific to Alawi Syrian citizens:
The main reason that prevents Alawis from being active in supporting any regime change plans is their fear of the “other.” Those who propose regime change without explaining to us what the end of Alawi rule will mean for thousands of ordinary Alawis will get no where.
There are two sorts of “others” in Syria:
a. First are the Sunni religious and Kurdish opposition leaders who say bluntly and clearly: “We want to end the Alawi rule”.
b. Second is everyone else, who says shyly and elliptically: “The monopoly over top army and security posts by one sect should end.”
Not a single Syrian intellectual, political leader, or plain good-will writer, has ever dealt with the following fundamental question:
What exactly are your plans for the Alawis after we give up power?
Why do answers to this question have to be vague and general? What are your plans for the tens of thousands of Alawis who work in the army and other security apparatuses? What are your plans for the republican guard and the special forces that are staffed primarily by Alawis? Are you going to pay them pensions if you decide to disband their forces? Or will they be fired and dumped on the streets, humiliated, and ostracized as were the Sunnis and Baathists of Iraq were following the American invasion? Do you have any idea of the impact on security such dismissals would engender? Will you be satisfied with a scenario by which these forces remain in their positions in exchange for their giving up political power?
What are your plans for the tens of thousands of Alawis who work as government employees in many non-functional establishments? Are you going to close these establishments? Do you have any idea of the social impact of such closures? Are you going to stop improvement projects in the coastal area as all past Sunni governments have done since independence?
Are you going to reverse confiscation laws to return land taken from Sunni landlords and distributed among tens of thousands of farmers?
Are you going to demand that security officials stand trial for their actions during the last 35 years? What is the highest rank that you are going to hold responsible? Are you going to ask for trials for past deeds? How about the present leading elite? Who exactly are the people you want to hold responsible? And If you do bring them to trial, are you going to hold the Sunni elite to the same standard? Will Sunni families who have benefited from the regime through monopolies and sweet-heart deals, such as the Nahhas family in Damascus and the Jood family in Latakia, be treated as Alawis are?
These questions should be answered not only by opposition intellectuals, but also by every non-Alawi Syrian. What do you want to do with us if we give you back political power? Are you really willing to live side by side with us, to cherish Syria’s diversity, and consider the past 40 years merely another failed episode in our long history of failed revolutions.
A change for the better must include all sectors of Syrian society, including Alawi Syrians. Because Alawis control all the main security forces of the state, regime change will not happen without assuring them that they too will have a place in Syria’s new future. Without such assurances, there will be no Alawi Musharif, nor will any other army General carry out a coup d’etat that will bring anything other than chaos to Syria.
Syrians refuse to speak openly and honestly about our most important challenges; so much is kept in the dark. But this is no time for “shatara” or dissembling. We must confront and discuss religious and communal issues directly and honestly. If Sunnis really want regime change, then they have to address the Alawi issue head on. Unless the answers to these questions are cleared up by all concerned, Alawis, no matter how dissatisfied and disappointed with the present leadership, will not entertain the idea of regime change; they will not relinquish the ramparts of power.