Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Syria, Alawite, Israel -- & Assad

Whither the Alawites


All indications are that time is not on the side of Syria's minority Alawite-led regime. There are reports that President Bashar Assad has been offered asylum in Moscow which has an interest in a smooth transition that will preserve Russian strategic interests. Other stories have Assad and his loyalists preparing mountain strongholds for a last-ditch stand fortified by Syria's arsenal of WMDs.

If Assad falls it is clear that the Arab world's Sunni majority and Muslim Brotherhood along with Turkey will all gain. Qatar has been financing the rebels and using Al-Jazeera to delegitimize the Damascus regime, according to Mordechai Kedar of the BESA Center at Bar-Ilan University. There has also been no love lost between the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and the Assad family; King Abdullah was the first Arab ruler to urge Assad to step down. (Senior Arab League officials may have been co-opted by Damascus but rank-in-file observers sent to Syria to monitor the violence practically became part of the uprising.)

The biggest losers to an Assad departure would be the Alawites. In a worst case scenario, they face the prospect of massacre. Christian, Druze and Ismaili minorities could also suffer. The Alawites may perhaps be forced to retreat en masse to their historic mountain region above the coastal city of Latakia, according to W. Andrew Terrill of the U.S. Army War College.

Persian Shi'ite Iran would also lose. The mullahs have bolstered Assad's regime and used it to enable their Hezbollah proxies in neighboring Lebanon. Syria has also provided Iran an ecumenical bridge to the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood operating as Hamas bringing Sunni Arab Hamas into Shi'ite Persian Iran’s orbit. Now, Hamas has had to abandon its administrative headquarters in Damascus rather than side with Assad against the Sunni protesters, though its leaders will not likely regret the decision.

Who are the Alawites who have drawn such foreboding and attention? For one, they are, arguably, neither Moslem nor Arab yet their regime has embraced both Islam and Arab nationalism. Out of 22 million Syrians, 74 percent Sunni, there are perhaps 2 million Alawites (12%) the remainder of the population is Druze, Ismaili, Kurd, Turkoman, Armenian and Circassian and Christians. Several hundred thousand more Alawites live in Turkey, Iraq and Jordan (there is a tiny community in Israel).

The Alawites (also known as Nusairi) are an ancient indigenous Middle Eastern tribe. Their secret religion with it seemingly pagan elements was founded in the tenth or eleventh century. For most of their history they held themselves apart from the Arabs. Historically, their position under Sunni domination was one of social and economic inferiority.

They are distinct theologically from Islam by a set of tenets that include belief in reincarnation, in a Trinity and in the deification of Ali (Muhammad's paternal nephew and son-in-law) whom they revere as the greatest manifestation of God. One of God’s lesser incarnations was Joshua Ben-Nun, the biblical Hebrew hero who conquered the Land of Israel, according to John Myhill of Haifa University. Moreover, Alawites hold certain Christian holy days and symbols to be holy. No wonder, then, that Orthodox Sunnis view them as heretical.

Under the Assad dynasty the Alawites have shown themselves theologically pragmatic. Hafez Assad made the hajj to Mecca in 1974, though pilgrimage is not part of the Alawite creed. Nor is fasting during Ramadan or, for that matter praying at a mosque – though that did not stop him from dedicating one in his mother's memory.

He also sought an Islamic imprimatur of Alawite theological legitimacy from malleable Shi'ite clergymen; Alawites have been sent to Iran for religious studies. At the same time, Alawite pupils are exposed to Sunni religious teachings in Syria's public school system. It is as if the Assad dynasty stood ready to modify the Alawite system of belief in virtually any direction to survive, researcher Eli Eshed hypothesized in a recent Mekor Rishon article.

Syria's history may be a key. The territory known as Syria today was under Ottoman rule between 1516 and the end of World War I. The Turks intermittently encouraged ethnic strife to solidify their control. Then the League of Nations put the area under French mandate and Paris essentially followed a similar divide and rule course. Which brings us to the Alawite attitude toward Jews and Arabs: Suleiman al-Assad, Bashar's grandfather is said to have lobbied French Prime Minister Léon Blum against the establishment of a united Syria: "The spirit of hatred and fanaticism imbedded in the hearts of the Arab Muslims against everything that is non-Muslim has been perpetually nurtured by the Islamic religion."

In the event, Syria became nominally independent in 1936-37 though only gained real independence in 1946 in the wake of World War II. But one coup followed another as Sunni-led governments came and went. The Alawites observed these political convulsions from the sidelines. All the while, colonialism, independence and modernity were having their impact on the Alawites as increasing numbers of their sons were being educated and going into the army. The community's elite, meanwhile, was attracted to the Ba'ath Party with its secular policies and concern for the rural peasantry. The party had been founded in 1940 by two Sorbonne-educated Arabs, Michael Aflaq, a Christian and Salah al-Din al-Bitarm a Sunni Moslem.

In 1963, the Ba'ath led their own coup and in1966, following a party schism, another overthrow headed by Salah al Jadid (the 13th sudden change of government in 17 years) for the first time propelled an Alawite to the presidency. Finally, in 1970, General Hafez al-Assad, Bashar's father consolidated control of the regime while also becoming a sort of super-chief of the four Alawite clans.

For the subsequent four decades the Alawites were able to control the Syrian polity thanks to their religio-tribal unity, discipline, patrimonial structure, not to mention their shared experience as an oppressed minority. In contrast, the Sunni majority, fundamentalists included, was politically fragmented over social, geographic and ideological lines. Even today as violence roils the country, the Sunnis remain fragmented despite the fact that Islam has provided a new rallying point.

As for Israel, the Syrian regime's animus toward Jerusalem notwithstanding, it is not entirely clear an Assad departure would be a net plus. True to form, Damascus had sought to blame the popular uprising on Israel, initially claiming the "Free Syrian Army" is a Mossad front for otherwise "not a single Alawite would be willing to kill a Sunni, and vice versa..." Still, the fate of the Alawites cannot but evoke disquiet among Israelis for what it says about the lack of toleration toward minority peoples in the region.

If he is destined to go, how Assad leaves the scene is as important as when. Tel Aviv University's Itamar Rabinovich has raised the possibility that Assad might lash out against Israel if he reckoned his end was near. Plainly, a smooth transition that secures Syria's weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) would be preferable to an anarchical end. It is probably not in Israel's interest to watch Syria fail as a state in the Lebanese fashion with competing terror chieftains lording over fiefdoms and no "central address" for regime decision making. Of course, Syria could disintegrate into a Kurdish North, Alawite West, Druze South, Bedouin East and Sunni core, a possibility not ruled out by Bar-Ilan University's Mordechai Kedar. Obviously, a power vacuum in which Palestinian Arab and Hezbollah gunmen might use the Golan to launch attacks on Israel would be destabilizing – as would Syria's WMDs falling into terrorist hands. Myhill goes so far as to argue that "the fall of the current regime would greatly increase the likelihood that Syria will precipitate a war against Israel" concluding categorically that "it is far better for the Alawites to maintain power in Syria than for a Sunni regime to take control there."

In any case, Israel cannot influence the outcome of events in Syria. By tying the fate of the Alawite community to the regime, and by using brutality today and mass murder in the past (Hama, February 1982) to quash any threat, Assad has set in motion the terrible prospect of a merciless Sunni retribution against the Alawites. So far 5,000 Syrians have reportedly been killed in the uprising though no one knows how many are regime opponents, innocent Alawites, or members of the security services.

Whatever Assad's personal fate, it is hard to see the Alawites surrendering themselves to the Sunni opposition under present circumstances. Veteran political observers divide popular Syrian opinion into those who support the regime; those who fiercely oppose it and a significant sector that wants political reform but does not believe it will come out of the current instability.

Israeli leaders including Ehud Barak, Ehud Olmert and Benjamin Netanyahu had all been rebuffed by the Assads – father and son – in their attempts to exchange the Golan Heights for a genuine peace. The dynasty needed to maintain an enemy in Israel to distract their Sunni masses. Perhaps it was for the best. Would any successor Syrian regime have honored a treaty signed by an Alawite ruler? Possibly – in the same fashion as Egypt's Moslem Brotherhood plans to honor the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty: by putting it to a popular referendum.

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