As I mentioned the other day, those of us paying attention to Syria are suffering from a dearth of reliable information. In my case, despite spending some time visiting Syria over the last 5 years, I also lack much in-depth information about the country more generally.
For example, who are the Alawites? Who are the Muslim Brotherhood? What’s the interplay between rural and metropolitan Syria, the coast and the plains?
In order to learn a bit more, I’ve been picking up some books that I’ve been meaning to read for a while and re-reading some helpful articles about Syria, some of which I can share here.
For centuries, Alawites faced withering discrimination, in part over the suspicions generated by their secretive, loosely Shiite religious traditions. Their secluded mountain villages are a relic of that ostracism, and they were some of the poorest, least educated and most rural of Syria’s inhabitants. As with other religious minorities in the Middle East, many Alawites turned to the Baath Party, drawn to its pan-Arab, leftist and secular ideology, hoping it might dilute Syria’s Sunni dominance and provide a more inclusive notion of identity. To escape grinding poverty, they joined the military, soon filling the ranks of its senior officer corps. In modern Syria, those two institutions — party and military — have ruled for 35 years.
Assad is an Alawite, and during the presidency of his father and predecessor, Hafez Assad, the sect emerged from behind the scenes to command the government’s most sensitive positions in the military and security services. While the elder Assad was careful to give a Sunni face to portfolios such as the defense and foreign ministries and to forge alliances with other groups, his inner circle was drawn from his own community, often his own Qalbiyya tribe and family. In that sense, he was not only Syria’s strongman, but also the leader of his sect, responsible for its fortunes.
[…]The younger Assad is viewed as less ta’ifi , or sectarian. His outlook is ostensibly more modern, possibly reformist; bucking tradition, he took for his wife a Sunni, not an Alawite. But as he struggles to put a more contemporary veneer on his rule, he faces a society still suffering deep cleavages that reflect unresolved questions of identity. The Baath Party offered one answer: The country is Arab. But other identities still compete — Alawi, Sunni, Christian and so on — in a zero-sum game of communal survival.
And in that question of survival, villagers say, Alawites lost one of their last, most prominent defenders in [Ghazi] Kanaan. In his place, some Alawites say, is a government that cares about the military only to ensure it doesn’t rebel; a ruling family most worried about its survival; and a state that promotes not the sect’s interest, but networks bound by patronage and power that are growing richer. Even some Alawite intelligence officials are said to be disenchanted over the higher profile of Assad’s family at their expense.
[…]In Damascus and other Syrian cities, there is the perception that the Alawite roots of the Assad family have meant hamlets like Jobat Berghal have received favorable treatment. That view often inspires anger among the Alawite villagers here.
“The opposite! The opposite!” shouted Ahmed, the retired government employee, his face leathery from the sun.
“We’re all Alawites here and when you come here, you can’t find anything,” he said.
As Ahmed spoke, years of grievances poured out. He ignored the coded language often employed in Syria’s repressive climate. The courts? They are suffused with bribes and corruption, he said. The law? It protects the powerful and wealthy. He still pumps water into his home from a steel vat. He and other villagers have filed thousands of loan applications and still await an answer.
And on the subject of the Muslim Brotherhood, I turn again to Hanna Batatu, who filed this piece for MERIP in 1982 after the Hama massacre (whose human cost, he seems to underestimate substantially), which seems equally relevant today even if there has been substantial changes in the Assad regime under Bashar:
But what above all incurred the hostility of the Muslim Brethren was the sharpened ‘Alawi bias of the regime and the deepening erosion of the status and power of the Sunni community. Two political orders, both headed by President Asad, had by now crystallized in the country and still function at the present time. In the first, which consists of a Council of Ministers, a People’s Assembly, the Ba’th Party Command, and their subordinate organs, the Sunnis play conspicuous roles. But all these bodies have merely an apparent or derivative authority. Real power lies on another, more fundamental level. It is held by Asad and the leaders of three intelligence apparatuses and of two crucial heavily armed units which underpin the whole structure.
In more concrete terms, the decisive figures are, in order of importance, Hafiz al-Asad; his brother Rif at, the chief of Saraya-d-Difa [Defence Units]; Muhammad al-Khawli, the chairman of the Presidential Intelligence Committee and Chief of Air Intelligence; ‘Ali Haydar, the commander of the Special Forces; ‘Ali Dubah, the head of Army Intelligence; and Ahmad Sa’id Saleh, the Chief of Internal Security. All these men are ‘Alawi, except perhaps for ‘Ali Haydar, who may be a Shi’i from Salamiyyah or an ‘Alawi from the tribe of al-Haddadin. Again, except for ‘Ali Haydar and possibly Ahmad Sa’id Saleh, all belong to the tribe of al- Matawirah, Asad’s tribe. More than that, all of them had been uninterruptedly at the head of their units since Asad took power or the units were formed. By contrast, the composition of the cabinet, the People’s Assembly, and the Ba’th Command underwent in the same period frequent and marked changes.
The Muslim Brethren began their offensive against this order of things in 1976, not long after the intervention of Syria’s armed forces in Lebanon. At first they confined themselves to persistent minor blows in the hope of provoking Syria’s rulers, involving them in repressive policies, and estranging them further from the people. They concentrated on hit-and-run killings of ‘Alawi functionaries, security agents, and professional men, focusing attention on their origins and the origins of Hafiz al-Asad outside the Sunni Muslim main current of Syria’s life.
In a second stage, they escalated their acts and widened their scope: they carried out attacks on government buildings, police stations, Ba’th party institutions, and army units. They provoked demonstrations and large-scale shutdowns of shops and schools as at Hamah and Aleppo on March 8-10, 1980, and at Hamah in February of this year. They also struck spectacular blows at the ruling power: in June 1979, with the help of a Ba’thi Sunni officer who had been won over to their cause, they assailed with grenades and machine-gun fire 200 or so ‘Alawi cadets of the Artillery Academy at Aleppo, killing 83 of them and wounding many others.
The violence produced an atmosphere of crisis and great danger. The Muslim Brethren’s defiance of the authorities also emboldened other opposition forces to follow along.
The militants who carried out these acts were men in their 20s or early 30s, ardently attached to their beliefs, daring to the point of recklessness. In large part, they were university students, schoolteachers, engineers, physicians, and the like. This is evident from the occupational distribution of the activists — mostly Muslim Brethren — who fell into the hands of the government between 1976 and May 1981. Out of a total of 1,384, no fewer than 27.7 percent were students, 7.9 percent schoolteachers, and 13.3 percent members of the professions, including 79 engineers, 57 physicians, 25 lawyers, and 10 pharmacists. The profiles of the leaders of the Military Sections of the Muslim Brethren point to the same conclusion. ‘Adnan ‘Uqlah, who led the latest rising at Hamah, is a civil engineer and the son of a baker. His predecessor, ‘Abd-us-Sattar az- Za’im was a dentist and the son of a tradesman. Husni Abbu, who was the chief of the Military Branch of the Aleppo region in 1979, was a teacher of French, the son of a well-to-do merchant, and the son-in-law of Shaikh Zayn-ud- Din Khayr-ul-Lah, the Imam of the Grand Mosque of Aleppo.
What have the Muslim Brethren achieved? They have succeeded in widening the distance between the government and the majority of the people, but not in destabilizing the regime. Instead of splitting the ‘Alawis and thus weakening their foothold in the army, they have, by their anti-‘Alawi practical line, frightened the ‘Alawi community into rallying behind Asad. They have also provoked a ferocious response on the part of the government. In June 1980, in putting down an attempted breakout by political prisoners at Palmyra, the security forces killed no fewer than 400 men. Last February, in order to suppress a rising by the Muslim Brethren at Hamah, the government went to the length of leveling whole sections of the northern and eastern parts of the city. In the process, they killed at least 5,000 people, according to Western diplomats. About 1,000 government troops are also said to have died in the fighting.
What is the outlook for the Muslim Brethren? In the past decade, the movement underwent acute shifts in its strength. For example, on the reckoning of its own leaders, its membership in the city of Aleppo did not exceed 800 in 1975, but had by 1978 swollen to an estimated maximum of 5,000 to 7,000. There is reason to believe that its numerical weight — but not moral sympathy for its cause — shrank noticeably after the passage of Law No. 49 of July 8,1980, which regarded adherence to the Muslim Brethren as “a crime” punishable by death. Its total strength at the beginning of 1982 probably did not surpass 5,000. At Hamah last February it suffered a deep wound from which it will not recover easily. Many of its natural supporters in Syria’s other cities may have come to entertain second thoughts about its tactics, which have no doubt been too costly in human lives and material possessions. However, so long as the present regime remains narrowly based and unrepresentative of the country’s majority, there is bound to be a revival of the spirit of revolt which no repression, however brutal, can extinguish.
Again, Batatu vastly underestimates the number of casualties in Hama, which are estimated to have been in the tens of thousands.
If anyone has any other suggestions for references on Syria that we should read, please leave them in the comment section.
UPDATE: If you read Arabic, I suggest this piece by Khaled Sayegh in Al-Akhbar.