Syria: playing the sectarian ‘card’ – the regime of Bashar al-Assad

Before the uprising reached Syria international media focus was on the modern, UK-educated and likable president and his vougesque wife.  Their popularity with the Syrian public and the view that the Assads were frustrated reformer held back by hardliners, together with the support from religious minorities and the co-opting of a well-to-do Sunni business community were the main explanations on how the regime clung to power. Reform would come, it was only a matter of time until the old guard had retired. This benevolent and wholly un-complete picture of one of Middle East remaining authoritarian regimes was torn away as the regimes brutal reaction to the protests in Daraa, Latakia, Douma Homs and other cities and village in Syria unfolded.

Early into the protests in Daraa, Bouthina Shaaban, one of Bashar al-Assads closest advisors claimed that armed gangs were responsible for the killing of protesters in Daraa. This was echoed as well to the killing of protesters in Latakia, Douma and Homs. The reason, the regime claimed, was that foreign conspirators were trying to foment sectarian conflict among Syrians. In the speech before parliament in Damascus Bashar al-Assad blamed the protest of foreign powers conspiring through, among others, the used SMS-messages to create sectarian conflict in Daraa.

To untrained ears this might sound strange; sectarianism in Syria? But for Syrians this rings true.

Syria, in comparison to Egypt and Tunisia, is a religiously (and somewhat ethnic) diverse society; Arab Sunni make up around 60% of the population spread out over Syria, holding a majority in the big cities such as Damascus, Aleppo, Homs and Hama. Christians account for around 13 %, Alawi 12%, Kurds 10%, Druze 4% and Ismai’li 1%. Kurds, Alawi, Druze and Ismai’li, although present in the main cities, are concentrated in different parts of Syria. Kurds in the north eastern part of Syria bordering Turkey and Iraq, Alawi in the north west Latakia region, around Tartous and the Nusayriyah mountains, Druze in the Jabal al-Druze in the southern province of Swedia, and the Ismai’li in the districts of Masyaf and Salamyia in the Hama province.

Historically Arab Sunni have been favored, from the Umayyad dynasty through the Ottoman rule. This began to change during the French occupation. The real change began with the revolution of 1963 which propelled the Ba’ath party to power and allowed heterodox, rural, minorities (Alawi, Druze and Isma’ili) previously marginalized to become part of the political elite. During the run-up to the coup of 1966 against the Arab Sunni president Amin al-Hafiz, tension increased in the Syrian armed forces, due to manipulation of sectarian, regional and tribal loyalties with polarized into two camps – a Sunni and one with the religious minorities. The results of the 1966 revolution was a purge of the most prominent Sunni officers from Aleppo. This was followed in late 1966 and early 1967 by an aborted counter-coup that led to the purging of Druze officers from the Ba’ath party and military. And in 1967, 1968 and 1969 the remaining minority non-Alawi bloc was eliminated or neutralized leaving the party and the armed forces dominated by Alawi.

In the corrective revolution of 1970 Hafez al-Assad came to power ending a short, but still, tradition of Sunni presidents in Syria. Although Assad chose to ally himself with urban Sunni businessmen, and rural Sunni appointing them, among other minister of foreign affairs, minister of defense and vice-president, the real power was now in the hands of the those with blood ties to Hafez al-Assad. From then on, until the conflict with the Muslim Brotherhood, the main rivals for Hafez al-Assad came from within the Alawi community. His answer was to rely on people from his family, clan and tribe, centralizing power even more.

Sectarian conflicts in Syria are seen as part of the local, regional make up, for example the conflict between Kurds and Arabs in the north east, between the Druze and Bedouin Arab Sunni in Swedia and the latest conflict in Daraa, which seem to have developed into a sectarian conflict between Arab Sunni and Alawi as the demonstrators are said to have chanted No to Iran, no to Hizbollah. We want a ruler that fears God – in want can only be seen as a repudiation of the Alawi and their Shia allies.

But there is also an historic conflict between the new and the old rules of Syria, the Alawi and the Sunni. In 1982 this conflict that had brewed since 1963 ended in the massacre in Hama where at least 10 000 people were killed by elit army forces loyal to the Alawi regime. In essence what the regime of Bashar al-Assad fear is a Sunni uprising against him, his family, clan, tribe and the Alawis at large involving also, the for the time being calm, Damascus and Aleppo, home to around 10 million people, a majority of which are Sunni.

These historic sectarian conflicts (and others) is a powerful tool for the regime. By referring to the need for continued stability and the risk of sectarianism the regime conjure up images of, for example, the conflict with the Muslim Brotherhood, the political instability of 1963 – 1970 as well as Lebanon and Iraq  – reminders of what can happen when a strong regime falls (Iraq) or how sectarianism dominates politics (Lebanon).

This – sectarianism is but one reason, but a powerful one, for the lack of momentum in the protests in Syria.

About Leif Eriksson

Leif Eriksson has worked in the field of asylum at the Swedish Migration Agency specializing in the Middle East, Schengen and the Dublin Regulation, as Migration Attaché and head of the migration section at the Swedish Embassy in Damascus 2005 - 2008, as a resettlement consultant at the UNHCR branch office in Damascus 2008 - 2009, Consul at the Swedish Consulate General in Jerusalem 2012 - 2013 and associate RSD/RST officer at UNHCR in Beirut 2013 - 2014. He currently lives in Tbilisi, Georgia.
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