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.
(EYE)(NRO) It was, in the words of U.N. special envoy Kofi Annan, the “tipping point” in the Syria conflict: a savage massacre of over 90 people, predominantly women and children, for which the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad was immediately blamed by virtually the entirety of the Western media. Within days of the first reports of the Houla massacre, the U.S., France, Great Britain, Germany, and several other Western countries announced that they were expelling Syria’s ambassadors in protest.
But according to a new report in Germany’s leading daily, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), the Houla massacre was in fact committed by anti-Assad Sunni militants, and the bulk of the victims were member of the Alawi and Shia minorities, which have been largely supportive of Assad. For its account of the massacre, the report cites opponents of Assad, who, however, declined to have their names appear in print out of fear of reprisals from armed opposition groups.
According to the article’s sources, the massacre occurred after rebel forces attacked three army-controlled roadblocks outside of Houla. The roadblocks had been set up to protect nearby Alawi majority villages from attacks by Sunni militias. The rebel attacks provoked a call for reinforcements by the besieged army units. Syrian army and rebel forces are reported to have engaged in battle for some 90 minutes, during which time “dozens of soldiers and rebels” were killed.
“According to eyewitness accounts,” the FAZ report continues,
the massacre occurred during this time. Those killed were almost exclusively from families belonging to Houla’s Alawi and Shia minorities. Over 90% of Houla’s population are Sunnis. Several dozen members of a family were slaughtered, which had converted from Sunni to Shia Islam. Members of the Shomaliya, an Alawi family, were also killed, as was the family of a Sunni member of the Syrian parliament who is regarded as a collaborator. Immediately following the massacre, the perpetrators are supposed to have filmed their victims and then presented them as Sunni victims in videos posted on the internet.
The FAZ report echoes eyewitness accounts collected from refugees from the Houla region by members of the Monastery of St. James in Qara, Syria. According to monastery sources cited by the Dutch Middle East expert Martin Janssen, armed rebels murdered “entire Alawi families” in the village of Taldo in the Houla region.
Already at the beginning of April, Mother Agnès-Mariam de la Croix of the St. James Monastery warned of rebel atrocities’ being repackaged in both Arab and Western media accounts as regime atrocities. She cited the case of a massacre in the Khalidiya neighborhood in Homs. According to an account published in French on the monastery’s website, rebels gathered Christian and Alawi hostages in a building in Khalidiya and blew up the building with dynamite. They then attributed the crime to the regular Syrian army. “Even though this act has been attributed to regular army forces . . . , the evidence and testimony are irrefutable: It was an operation undertaken by armed groups affiliated with the opposition,” Mother Agnès-Mariam wrote.
sit back make popcorn
(Crethi Plethi)How could Qatar’s foreign policy best be defined during the Arab Spring? In the midst of the conflict between Gaddafi’s forces and the rebels in the Libyan civil war, Qatar was hailed by Barack Obama in April for building a broad coalition of international support for the NATO campaign against Gaddafi. Obama also hailed the emir of Qatar for supposedly being a pragmatic mediator and negotiator in the wider region.Indeed, as the Guardian puts it, the country has a reputation for “a cautious but active foreign policy.” Other analysts have seen Qatar as a nation playing both sides in the Middle Eastern Cold War between the Saudi-led “status-quo bloc” and the Iranian-led “resistance” bloc.
For example, although Qatar has maintained good economic and diplomatic ties with Tehran, it has also hosted American military bases and CENTCOM, besides having limited trade relations with Israel.
However, I prefer to advance the following thesis: Qatar’s foreign policy at present is based on the principle of promoting Sunni interests, and where possible, the interests of Sunni Islamists.
For instance, recently the country has come under criticism from some Western diplomats and the National Transitional Council (NTC) for its role in Libya. As the Wall Street Journal notes, Qatari aid has circumvented the NTC, and has been provided to independent rebel militias dominated by Islamist commanders.
Two individuals particularly favored by Qatar are the Islamist leader of the Tripoli Military Council — Abdul-Aziz Belhaj, who is generally not trusted by rebels in and around Misrata, and Sheikh Ali Sallabi, a Libyan cleric currently living in Qatar’s capital and with close ties to Belhaj. Tensions have emerged between Sallabi and Mahmoud Jabril, the interim prime minister for the NTC described as a “tyrant in waiting” and part of a group of “extreme secularists” by Sallabi.
Meanwhile, when it came to the Syrian uprising, in which the Sunni Islamist Muslim Brotherhood could well be playing a prominent role in the opposition to the Alawite-dominated government, Qatar quickly transformed from an ally into a harsh critic of Assad’s regime. Al-Jazeera’s Arabic channel rapidly expanded its coverage of protests in Syria, and Yousef al-Qaradhawi, host of al-Jazeera’s “Shari’a and Life” show, called for the Baathist regime to be removed from power.
The cleric criticized Assad as someone “held prisoner by his entourage and the [Alawite] sect.” Al-Jazeera, it should be noted, is owned by a member of the Qatari ruling dynasty, and its Arabic channel is certainly aligned with Qatar’s foreign policy agenda, intended for Middle Eastern audiences and very different from the English version that is aimed at international viewers outside the region.
The latter’s remarks particularly annoyed the Syrian government, leading to a suspension of ties between Syria and Qatar as Assad reportedly told the Qatari emir’s emissary that al-Qaradhawi must apologize for his statements if there are going to be friendly relations again.
And so it is that al-Jazeera’s Arabic channel has been more than happy to provide coverage of demonstrations in Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen, all of which are places where Sunni Islamists can be empowered (the Muslim Brotherhood, the Ennahda party, and the Islah party respectively). Yet al-Jazeera’s Arabic channel generally ignores the unrest in Bahrain and eastern Saudi Arabia, both with Shi’a majorities protesting against Sunni rule.
Bahrain is a country marked by Sunni minority rule at the cost of significant sectarian discrimination against the Shi’a majority. In fact, Qatar has even aided Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council in sending troops to assist the regime in quelling the protests.
As for eastern Saudi Arabia, a perusal of al-Jazeera’s Arabic news site reveals no coverage of protests there. As Asad Abu Khalil of “The Angry Arab News Service” correctly notes (for once), “to verify what is going on in Saudi Arabia, al-Jazeera asked its famous witness, Abu Muhammad in Idlib, if he saw protests from his window. Abu Muhammad said that he couldn’t see anything and al-Jazeera accordingly reported that all is well in the kingdom.”
Finally, in keeping with Qatar’s warm ties with Turkey under the Islamist AKP, al-Jazeera’s Arabic channel has tended to provide uncritical coverage of the prime minister Erdoğan’s efforts to bolster his image as a friend and helping hand for the Arab world, while not mentioning the water crises Turkey’s dam projects in Anatolia have helped to trigger in Iraq and Syria. To be sure, the policy predates the AKP government’s accession to power in 2002, but has only expanded and accelerated under Erdoğan.
Unfortunately, there has been a far too widespread tendency, both in the media and in policy circles, to see Qatar either as a moderate Western ally in the ongoing unrest as part of the Arab Spring, or somehow as an advocate for liberal democracy and reform in the Middle East and North Africa. Rather, its true Sunni sectarian and pro-Islamist agenda needs to be recognized.
Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a student at Brasenose College, Oxford University, and an intern at the Middle East Forum.