The Alawites and the Future of Syria
by Harold Rhode October 12, 2012 at 6:00 am
Assad and the Alawites cannot give in. They are fighting for their very existence. The only way to end this civil war is to let them have control over their destiny — either as an autonomous region in Syria or as an independent entity.
The Alawites are a small, historically oppressed people, whose political future will determine whether Syria remains united in some form or disintegrates into even smaller ethnic and religious entities.
As they will play such an important role, America, Israel, and other forces interested in the future of Syria might do well to get to know them, their concerns, and how others can best come to terms with them.
Syria’s non-Sunnis have historically lived in apprehension of what the Sunnis might do to them. Although Arab Sunnis are the largest religio-ethnic group in Syria, non-Sunni Arabs make up upwards of 40% of the population. Historically, until the end of Ottoman rule after World War I, the Sunnis assumed they were the region’s natural rulers, and by and large controlled the destinies of the large numbers of non-Sunnis who lived among them. The non-Sunnis seem to have “known their place” in Syrian society – second class citizens. The Sunnis determined the rules.
In the 19th century, Western concepts of nationalism and equality for all people began to appear in the Middle East. The idea that everyone – irrespective of ethnicity or religion – is equal before the law has seemed anathema to the Sunnis: such an idea would contradict the basic Islamic principle that non-Muslims – known as dhimmis, or second-class, barely-tolerated citizens – could live in an Islamic society only if they accepted their place as unequal and unworthy of political and social equality. However, even though all Sunnis might consider themselves equal, in reality, clans, tribes, or ethnic identities, not to mention gender, usually prevail.
After World War I, when the French ruled Syria, they tried to introduce the concept of equality of all people before the law – a principle that never took root. During French rule, the people today known as Alawites – and who today rule Syria – begged the French to allow them to set up their own state in their ancient homeland along the Mediterranean coast between today’s Lebanon and Turkey. One of those who most passionately supported this option was the grandfather of the ruler of Syria today: Suleyman al-Assad.
This is because Syrian Sunnis have historically referred to individual Alawites as “abid” [slave], and treated the Alawites as such. The Alawites were servants in Sunni households. Alawite tradition is filled with horror stories of Sunni abuse, both working in Sunni households and in other areas of as well.
The Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, were terribly discriminated against under Sunni rule. The Sunnis attitude towards the Alawites – and towards the other non-Muslims – was “noblesse oblige,” or an attitude of condescension, if not outright hostility.
According to Alawite religious beliefs, the Muslim prophet Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law – Ali – was a deity. That a human could be a deity is anathema in Islam. Moreover, even though Christians are officially regarded as dhimmis, or second-class citizens, by the Muslims, many also refer to Christians as pagans: Christians deify Jesus who, in Muslim eyes, was a merely a prophet, born to a human mother and father.
Under the French and in the early years of Syrian independence after 1946, wealthy and respectable Sunnis did not want to have their sons serve in the military. Their Alawite servants, however, recognizing the military as a way to advance, persuaded their Sunni masters to sign recommendations to allow the children of their Alawite servants enter the military. Gradually, the Alawites rose in the ranks. Eventually in 1966, they overthrew the existing order to took over the country, and have dominated it since.
Many of these military officers, like their Christian counterparts, embraced Arab nationalism, perhaps hoping through nationalism to gain the equality that had eluded them in religion under the Sunni-dominated, society. These officers did their best to put their non-Sunni identities aside, and hoped – at times even demanded – that their Sunni fellow-Arabs do the same.
As the Alawites rose in the military, they also rose to senior positions in the Ba’ath Party, the basic tenant of which is militant Arab nationalism. But even as militant anti-Israeli Arab nationalists, these Alawites still feared that the majority-Sunnis would lie in wait, and pounce on the Alawites if the Alawites showed any weakness. The Alawites never allowed themselves forget that the Sunnis hated them; and that even though they controlled Syria, they had better come to an agreement with the leading Sunni families to provide them with stability and enable them to make money – in return for the Sunnis allowing the Alawites to control the country militarily and also make money.
During the so-called peace talks between Syria and Israel, the Alawites, according to their own admission, appointed Sunnis – and not Alawites – to negotiate with the Israelis – so that Alawites would not to be held responsible if any concessions were made to the Israelis. The Alawites were most likely concerned that if they had given in even ever so slightly to any Israeli requests, the Sunnis would have used that as an excuse to claim that the Alawites were not “true” Arabs.
Many Alawites have believed that the Arab-nationalist route of being accepted by the majority-Sunnis was doomed. According to discussions with people who have escaped Syria, as well as many still there, they feared, in their heart of hearts, that, just has the President Syrian President Assad’s grandfather had warned, whatever they did, the Sunnis would never accept them. For these Alawites, the only solution would be a separate Alawite state, or entity, where they could control their destiny and not be under the dreaded Sunni yoke.
Many Alawites, who, quietly, had long opposed Assad’s rule, are again, like Assad’s grandfather in the 1930’s, trying to put forward the idea of creating an independent Alawite state. Every day they can see around them that Middle Eastern culture places a high value on revenge, so that the Sunnis would never forgive them for having been ousted from power 46 years ago. The Alawites would be wise to fear that whatever happens in Syria, the Sunnis will massacre them for having governed Syria and for having killed so many Sunnis during the current war.
The concept of compromise simply does not exist in the Middle East – one either wins or loses. Compromise, because it invariably entails a partial loss, is evidently seen as bringing shame on oneself – to be avoided at all costs. Syria’s Alawite regime therefore probably sees no alternative other than to keep fighting the Sunni-dominated opposition – which itself is succumbing to Turkish, Saudi, and Qatari-inspired Islamic fundamentalist leadership – and to try to ethnically cleanse the Alawite areas of all Sunnis in the hope of retreating to that area with the help of outside allies – be they Iranians, Russians, or other non-Sunni Arabs in the area – and barricading themselves in against the Sunnis.
Consequently, it is hard to imagine any settlement in which Syria remains a centralized and unified state. One could imagine local autonomous regions, where the Alawites could finally control their own destiny. Maybe other groups – such as the non-Arab Kurdish Sunnis in the north – might also have their own entities to throw off the yoke of Arab rule. Whatever the eventual outcome, the Kurds know that their Sunni Arab neighbors, even though they all share the same faith, will never let bygones be bygones. Just as the Muslims in general are relentless in pursuing Israel, they would never accept any solution where they do not eventually take over the entire area.
Therefore, if there is ever to be some sort of peace-like arrangement – albeit temporary – in what is Syria today, there is no way that Syria can remain a centralized state, with new rulers, whoever they might be, who would continue to oppress other Syrians . Of all the ethnic and religious groups in Syria, the Alawites have the most to lose, which they undoubtedly know and which is why they must have control over their own destiny. They would have no alternative other than to remain well-armed; if not, the Sunnis would again take them over and subject them to the slave-like status they had in the past.
Assad, therefore, cannot give in. He and the Alawites – whether they support or oppose Assad – are fighting for their very existence. They only way to end this civil war is to let them have control over their destiny – either as an autonomous region in Syria, or as an independent entity. Whatever happens, they will insist that they remain well-armed. They – like other minorities in the Middle East – will continue to live in eternal fear of the Arab Sunnis. As the concept of overlooking past grievances is alien to the culture of that region, true peace between the Alawites and the Arab Sunnis – or, for that matter, Arab Sunnis and non-Arab Sunnis – is sadly out of the question.
I like to add here, a little history inside that great article that may today get of importance:
It is A Copy / Paste from Wiki but With The Muslim Brotherhood success all around you can easily understand what’s going on.. and Unfortunately WHERE the USA has put his feet and all the Advisors of The White House Did Get To !!! ..and so The United Nations… Wil.
The Muslim Brotherhood is A LONG TERM MEMORY Organisation !
The Muslim Brotherhood in Syria was founded in the late 1930s or mid 1940s. In the first years of independence it was part of the legal opposition, and in the 1961 parliamentary elections it won ten seats. After the 1963 coup brought the secularist, pan-Arabist Ba’ath Party to power, it was banned. The Brotherhood played a major role in the mainly Sunni-based resistance movement that opposed the Baath Party, (since 1971 dominated by the Alawite Assad family, adding a religious element to its conflict with the Brotherhood). This conflict developed into an armed struggle in the late 1970s that climaxed in the Hama uprising of 1982, when thousands were killed by the military.
Membership of the Syrian Brotherhood became a capital offence in Syria in the 1980 (under Emergency Law 49) and the Brotherhood was crushed, though it retained a network of support in the country of unknown strength, and had external headquarters in London and Cyprus. In recent years it has renounced violence and adopted a reformist platform, calling for the establishment of a pluralistic, democratic political system. For many years the leader of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood was Ali Sadreddine Al-Bayanouni, who lives as a political refugee in London.
Towards the end of the 1930s, the ideas of Hassan al-Banna reached Syria as young Syrians, who had graduated from university in Cairo and participated in the Muslim Brotherhood there, returned home and founded associations called “Muhammad’s Youth” (Shabab Muhammad), which were to become the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria. The Muslim Brotherhood in Syria was founded in the 1930s (according to lexicorient.com) or in 1945, a year before independence from France, (according to journalist Robin Wright and the Brotherhood itself). The Brotherhood states its founder was Dr. Mustafa al-Siba’i. By 1954, the Syrian association led by Mustafa al-Siba’i offered assistance to its Egyptian sister organisation, which Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasser was then subjecting to severe repression.
However, it was not until the 1960s that the Syrian Brotherhood came to play a major role in politics, as part of a broad-based resistance movement, which developed into armed struggle, against an authoritarian system. After the Ba’athist military coup of 8 March 1963, the new administration drastically restricted political freedoms, and concentrated power in the hands of the military and awarded prominent positions to the country’s Alawite minority. Sunni Syrian Islamists – from the majority faith – did not have representation in the government. From the start, Islamic political groups, of which the Brotherhood was the most prominent, represented the strongest opposition to the government. The outlawing of Brotherhood in 1964 resulted in its radicalisation. In 1964 and 1965, strikes and mass demonstrations spread throughout Syria’s major cities, especially in Hama, and were crushed by the military. In 1971, General Hafez al-Assad, an Alawite, seized power; in 1973 violent demonstrations broke out again in response to a proposed constitution that did not require the president to be a Muslim. Syria’s intervention in the Lebanese civil war in 1976 on the side of the Maronites sparked renewed agitation in Syria, and assassinations began to target members of the Syrian government and prominent Alawites; the Muslim Brotherhood later claimed responsibility for most of these.
1976-82 Islamic insurgency
On 16 June 1979, the Muslim Brotherhood carried out an attack on cadets at the Aleppo Artillery School, officially killing 83. Allegedly, the government of Iraq provided logistical and military support to the Brotherhood. Around this time, professor Yusef al-Yusef was assassinated in Aleppo, an event often cited by secular activist Wafa Sultan as the reason she came to oppose Islam in general. The Syrian government responded by sentencing to death about 15 prisoners, already accused of being Iraqi agents, for belonging to the Islamic resistance movement. Terrorist attacks then became a daily occurrence, particularly in Aleppo and other northern cities. The government tended to ascribe these attacks to the Brotherhood, but as the armed resistance gained widespread popular support and more loosely defined armed groups appeared, especially in poor neighborhoods, it became difficult to determine the extent of the Brotherhood’s involvement.
In November 1979, a Brotherhood leaflet stated:
We reject all forms of despotism, out of respect for the very principles of Islam, and we don’t demand the fall of Pharaoh so that another one can take his place. Religion is not imposed by force….
In the days leading to 8 March 1980 (the seventeenth anniversary of the Ba’thist coup), nearly all Syrian cities were paralysed by strikes and protests, which developed into pitched battles with security forces. Many organisations, both religious and secular, were involved, including the Muslim Brotherhood. The regime responded with overwhelming military force, sending in tens of thousands of troops, supported by tanks and helicopters. In and around Aleppo, hundreds of demonstrators were killed, and eight thousand were arrested. By April, the uprising had been crushed.
A newspaper article by the president’s brother, Rifaat al-Assad, stated that the government was prepared to “sacrifice a million martyrs” (over a tenth of Syria’s population at that time) in order to stamp out “the nation’s enemies”. On 7 July 1980, the government passed a law making membership in the Brotherhood punishable by death. Typically, however, the administration practiced indiscriminate, collective punishment: in August, the army executed 80 residents of a block of flats in response to an attack on soldiers stationed in Aleppo. In April 1981, the army executed about 400 of Hama’s inhabitants, chosen among male loyalists over the age of 14. This was as a retribution after a failed terrorist attack on an Alawite village near Hama.
During a 50-day moratorium on the application of the 7 July law, over a thousand Muslim Brothers turned themselves in, hoping to escape the death penalty; information published about them in the official press may give some insight into the composition of the Brotherhood’s membership at that time. Most of those who gave themselves up were students under twenty-five years of age, from Damascus and other large cities; others were schoolteachers, professors or engineers.
In August, September and November 1981, the Brotherhood carried out three car-bomb attacks against government and military targets in Damascus, killing hundreds of people, according to the official press. On 2 February 1982, the Brotherhood led a major insurrection in Hama, rapidly taking control of the city; the military responded by bombing Hama (whose population was about 250,000) throughout the rest of the month, killing between 10,000 and 30,000 people. The tragedy of Hama marked the defeat of the Brotherhood, and the militant Islamic movement in general, as a political force in Syria.
Having suppressed all opposition, Hafez al-Assad released some imprisoned members of the Brotherhood in the mid-1990s. After his death in 2000, Assad was succeeded by his son, Bashar al-Assad, who initially signalled greater openness to political debate. In May 2001, encouraged by a new political climate, the Muslim Brotherhood published a statement in London rejecting political violence, and calling for a modern, democratic state. Many political prisoners, including Muslim Brothers, were pardoned and released. However, this reform was short-lived; in the same year, the few political freedoms that had been granted were abruptly revoked.
Although its leadership is in exile, the Brotherhood continues to enjoy considerable sympathy among Syrians. Riyad al-Turk, a secular opposition leader, considers it “the most credible” Syrian opposition group. The Brotherhood has continued to advocate a democratic political system; it has abandoned its calls for violent resistance and for the application of shari’a law, as well as for Sunni uprisings against Alawites. Al-Turk and others in the secular opposition are inclined to take this evolution seriously, as a sign of the Brotherhood’s greater political maturity, and believe that the Brotherhood would now be willing to participate in a democratic system of government.
In a January 2006 interview, the Brotherhood’s leader, Ali Sadreddine Bayanouni, “said the Muslim Brotherhood wants a peaceful change of government in Damascus and the establishment of a ‘civil, democratic state’, not an Islamic republic.” According to Bayanouni, the Syrian government admits having detained 30,000 people, giving a fair representation of the Brotherhood’s strength.
According to leaked American cables, Syrian President Bashar al Assad allegedly called Hamas an “uninvited guest” and said “If you want me to be effective and active, I have to have a relationship with all parties. Hamas is Muslim Brotherhood, but we have to deal with the reality of their presence.”, comparing Hamas to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood which was crushed by his father Hafez al Assad. He then allegedly claimed Hamas would disappear if peace was brought to the Middle East.
2011-present Syrian civil war
The dictatorial regime of Bashar Al-Assad and others have accused the Muslim Brotherhood of being key players in the 2011 uprising that is currently going on in Syria. Other sources have described the group as having “risen from the ashes”, “resurrected itself” to be a dominant force in the uprising.
The movement holds the largest “number of seats in the Syrian National Council, the main opposition umbrella and “control[s]” the relief committee, which distributes aid and money to Syrians participating in the revolt. The Brotherhood has distributing weapons inside the country, using donations from individual members and from Persian Gulf states including Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
At the same time Brotherhood leaders have been reaching out to reassure leaders in neighboring Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon — as well as the west — that they “have no intention of dominating a future Syrian political system” and have “played down” their “growing influence” in the Syrian opposition. The MB has assured outsiders that it is “going to great lengths to ensure” that its donated weapons “don’t fall into the hands of extremists”.
According to Hassan Hassan writing in the Guardian newspaper in mid-2012, while the Brotherhood has come to dominate the Syrian National Council, they may be more popular among exiles, than in Syria. “Activists from various parts of Syria have told me that, prior to the uprising last year, the country had almost zero Brotherhood presence.” “At least 70%” of Syria’s population – non-Sunnis (Muslim and Christian), Kurds, and tribal groups “have been outside” the brotherhood’s influence “in the past”, and Hassan believes will remain so in the future.