Syria harbored the oldest urbanized communities known in history and Syrians for thousands of years have been sophisticated cosmopolitan traders. Even during the dark ages of the Ottoman empire- which sealed off the Middle-East and stripped its historical advantage of being an intermediary between the orient and Europe- the Levantines maintained some limited access to the flourishing western civilisation through Christian missionaries. Against such a backdrop one finds it very difficult to come to grips with the tragic situation of Syria at present where the country is rent by a brutal civil war with no looming prospects for an end to the bloodbaths.
By Amre El-Abyad — This gloomy image comes in a stark contrast with the secular one of Syria in the fifties where Sunnis, Syriainics (Christians) and Alawites (Isolated Mountainous community with a syncretic belief encompassing Islamic, Zoroastrian, Buddhist and ancient Semitic elements) shared a unified identity in an open and secular society that cherished multiplicity, one that was keen on catching up.
Syria back then championed Arab nationalism which glued the multiple components of Syrian society together. This movement first arose among Syrian Christians to counter the Islamic character of the Ottoman Empire then it was upheld by Syrian Sunnis in retaliation to the growing Turkification of the empire towards the end of the 19th century. After the end of World War 1 and the partitioning of the Ottoman Empire, Syria fell under French rule. In French-ruled Syria the majority of Alawites- concentrated in the western coastal region- had a rooted sense of Syrian identity despite a general distrust of the Sunni majority exacerbated by the social differences between the mountainous illiterate Alawites and the mild, relatively sophisticated urban Sunnis. The Alawites had a disproportionate representation in the French- administered army. Syria got its independence in 1946.
The prominent political forces back then were the Arab national Baath party on the one side- popular among urban Sunnis due to its secular character and promotion of individual liberties- and the Muslim Brotherhood which had its support base among conservative Sunnis and the rural hinterland population on the other side. The Alawites joined the Baathists in droves.
Power fell in the hands of competing factions of young officers engaged in launching coups against each other – though the Sunni- Alawite distinction was of no significance back then. The Arab nationalist favour took a dangerous twist in the fifties as it turned into a chauvinistic trend with a rather neurotic rejection of the west- paradoxically enough, Arab rulers were promoting societal and social liberties though never political ones- and a crazed fetishized intent on the annihilation of Israel. The seeds of a pluralistic modern society ripe in the fifties gradually gave way to the brutal rule of a primitive military junta. The officers brought Syria back to square zero plunging it into its previous state of isolation under Ottoman rule. It is worth mentioning that China and some other developing countries underwent iron curtain experiences in order to bring about radical societal transformations; the main difference however is the meritocratic and impartial nature of Chinese institutions and despite of the one party system, a variety of opinions were allowed within the ruling party- notwithstanding the frequent bloody purges. Syria on the other hand was run like a neighbourhood lorded by mafia clans going to ceaseless turf wars. The disastrous failure of the union between Egypt and Syria bore out that state of affairs
The tinkering, incompetence, jingoism and nepotism that characterised the Syrian Baathist rule lead to the humiliating Arab defeat in 1967. Ironically enough, the Syrian minister of defence during the 1967 war, Hafez Assad, became the de facto ruler of Syria. This power- crazed, unscrupulous iron man had the brutality of Stalin and the the shrewdness of the Machiavellian prince. He cautiously but steadily started pushing Alawites to top positions in army and state, along with Sunni cronies all while masquerading as a Pan-Arab visionary and freedom fighter against Zionism . Syria’s eventual defeat in the war launched by Egypt and Syria against Israel in 1973 made it very much clear to Assad that his reign would soon be seriously challenged. This is because the legitimacy of the entire military junta was founded on their promise to bring progress and modernity to Syria, something which can never be achieved unless Israel is wiped off the map. It is of course counter-intuitive to put an entire country in limbo rendering its future contingent on an unwindable battle against a nuclear armed Israel. A partial explanation of the Syrian defeat, which serves to shed considerable light on the nature of this horrendous regime, is attributed to Russian accounts. The Russian were baffled by Syrian commanders consistent failure to heed tactical and strategic advice of Russian military experts. Definitely that would have jarred with the Syrian criteria of appointing commanders. The Syrians always spurned Russian advice on the pretext of having come up with their own pure ARAB ways of doing warfare!
But with the deftness and cunning of a Mafia boss, Assad was quick and decisive; he purged the Syrian army of Sunni officers in 1974, put Alawites on top of all critical agencies and empowered an Alawite business elite. His sectarian policies sowed what is happening in Syria now. He turned Syria into a country of a master Alawite caste presiding over an isolated Sunni majority.
Syria lost another war to Israel in 1982. A conservative Sunni rebellion, lead by the Muslim Brotherhood, ensued but it was bloodily crushed by Assad killing thousands of civilians in the process. It was henceforth all clear to Syrians and Assad that the regime had no legitimacy. Assad was defeated by Israel and Syria lagged behind backward and poor. Sunnis as well as some Alawites and Christians were discontent about how things turned out in Syria. Assad, on the other hand, peddled to minorities in Syria that his regime was the only safeguard against the religious fascism of the Muslim Brotherhood. He brought the Alawite sect to the conviction that the survival of his regime is an existentialistic necessity for them.
In 2000 Assad died and was the succeeded by his Son Bashar. The revolutionary freedom fighter turned Syria into a private inherited isle. Assad junior followed in the footsteps of the Fascist regime of Egypt’s Mubarak and started a gradual process of opening Syria up to investment and trade. Alas, Mr. Assad’s policies were not the kind that would foster innovation and competitiveness and bring about technological modernisation. Rather, he created a new class of nouveau-Riche rent seekers with wealth made out of a superficial flirtation with free market policies that only served a tiny consumerist class.
Following a few years of cautious optimism about Bashar’s open door policies, Syrians realised that the reforms were essentially cosmetic. In the last years of the previous decade draughts hit the Sunni hinterland due to the disastrous agricultural policies of Assad. Mr. Hafez Assad felt like boasting of Syria’s self-sufficiency in wheat production and accordingly depleted Syria’s underground water resources. The environmental catastrophe fuelled the smouldering resentment of the Conservative rural Sunni population against Alawite rule. The ground was thus paved for the spread of disruptive Muslim Brotherhood networks in the Syrian Hinterland.
The situation in Syria flared up after the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. Middle class Syrians including Alawites and Christians took to the streets demanding change. The protests were intense in the hinterland urban centres. The regime retaliated with disproportionate lethal force which in turn stripped the façade of legitimacy which it had hitherto managed to sustain. Assad deliberately tinged the uprising with sectarian features. There were numerous reports about rumours spreading in Sunni villages about an imminent Alawite attack; the rumours went the other way round as well.
This mainly civilian uprising cannot provide an explanation for the myriad of well-trained and armed feuding guerrillas that have been sprouting up throughout Syria. The Muslim brotherhood rural networks spawned fighting factions which attracted some defecting Sunni soldiers. Nonetheless, those fighters are not seasoned nor do they possess any combat experience of any significance, albeit they comprise the bulk of the insurgency.
The significant weight of fighting against Assad is carried by the gratuitously bloody and horrendous Jihadist Al-Qaida-like groups of Jabhat Al-Nusra and the Heinous ISIS. The file and rank of those groups are manned by people from Arab tribes: Bedouin in the North and mostly sedentary in the south and west of Damascus. Those tribes, spread in the deserts of Syria, Iraq and Jordan, are, generally speaking, pragmatic and they tend to mind their own business. They seldom revolt but when they do they invoke the puritanical warlike spirit of the Jihadist Islam; after all, it was this desert culture that spawned the birth of Islam in the first place. Hafez Assad and Saddam Hussein understood their psychology and granted them some level of autonomy while turning a blind eye to their illicit activities of smuggling and looting in return for subservience to the authority of the state. Assad humiliated those tribes during the first months of the uprising and refused to free the slew of young tribal men who joined their urban counterparts in the uprising. This provocation fell heavily on people for whom vendetta is an essential part of their existence.
In the North however the dynamic is different. At the height of the U.S war in Iraq Assad provided logistical support to Sunni Arab insurgents in Iraq- later to become ISIS- and allowed them to use Syrian desert territories as a refuge and aggregation base. That proved to be a fatal mistake on Assad’s part since they allowed the Iraqi insurgents to network with Syrians. It is also possible that they had managed at the same time to establish communication channels with Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.
Assad with a demoralised army in return tended to augment the sectarian feature of the conflict with the Iranian intervention, as Iran brought in its proxy Shite fundamentalist group of Hezbollah to the fray along with Iraqi fundamentalist Shiite militias. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan and Turkey are supporting the Sunni Jihadists with arms, medication and communications, both officially and through independent civil society actors.
The Syrian uprising of youth calling for democracy and freedom has been hijacked by lunatic hardline fundamentalists from the Sunni and Shiite camps. The urban Sunni Middle-class population along with Christians are torn between their contempt for the mobster, Assad, and their prescient fears about looming darker ages at the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood and Jihadists. This explains why Sunnis are split down the middle on Assad.
The war is likely to continue to be dragged out with neither side approaching a decisive end. The international community and the free world must live up to its moral and humanitarian duty to end the calamity of Syria and salvage its despondent people. Only a united stand on part of the free world can enforce a defeat of the fundamentalists and the hideous Assad.