Syria After the Assads: The Importance of Muslims in Syria’s Future by Parvez Asad Sheikh

“Memento Audere Semper” – Gabriele D’Annunzio

While the United Nations’ attempts to frame a consensus in reaction to the situation in Syria continue to be the diplomatic rendition of Escher’s Infinite Staircase, another outdated political forum, the Non Aligned Movement, recently held its 16th Summit in Tehran. During his turn at the podium, the Egyptian delegate began to criticise the indiscriminate violence perpetrated by Syria’s besieged Bashar al-Assad – while at the same time opportunistically placing himself as the champion of the Syrian people’s cause. In an attempt to avoid bringing up the Syrian issue that is a giant thorn in Tehran’s side (as it continues to support the blood-stained Assad regime), the Iranian translators replaced “Syria” with a more palatable “Bahrain” as the speech unfolded.

Whether this event was a lesson in quick thinking, a comedic display of rhetorical politics or insult to the men, women and children who continue to be killed by a regime that has shown itself to be without scruples; it reveals that there are two fantastically different narratives that are being ascribed to the bloodshed in Syria. All that separates these two narratives is the recognition of the lives of defenceless people being lost in their tens of thousands; all that separates truth from reality is honour.

Current Issues:
Despite transparent diplomatic attempts to recognise both the reality and the fantasist narrative by some commentators, there is no way, no scenario, in which the current Assad regime will survive what has finally been recognised as a Civil War. It has also become increasingly clear that any attempt at overt foreign intervention in a country with geo-political sensitivities as acute as Syria’s would entail the collapse of the highly strained alliances that continue to keep the rest of the region only just before a point of no return.

The United States appears to have accepted these facts and, along with more immediately-affected Muslim countries in the region, has already begun complementing a politically wayward patronage of the fractious Syrian National Council with active involvement in aiding opposition groups with communications, strategic military training and funds with which to buy arms. The effectiveness and actual materialism of this much needed support, however, remains debatable and subject to conflicting reports on the ground. And yet while there is evidence of a more coordinated and slightly better outfitted Free Syria Army, the real need for weapons able to strike decisively at the Achilles Heel of the Regime’s military preponderance, its Air Force, remains conspicuously absent.

The presence of foreign militia has been used by Western powers as an excuse for their hesitancy to support fully the military needs of the opposition forces. The presence of these mercenaries may be the ostensible cause for this hesitancy but it is this hesitancy that has at the same time allowed for the presence of these foreign entities. They are in sum a manifestation of the need for indirect control of the situation on the part of foreign interests in the atmosphere of diplomatic paralysis that currently prevails.

Libyan mercenaries with links to the Libyan National Transitional Council, and therefore linked to the Ikhwanite SNC, as well as other variously well-meaning fighters and trainers have been attracted to the Syrian arena by both an ideological will to protect fellow Muslims and the eternal pull of money for the mercenary. At the same time the integral role of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in the brutal government crackdown failed to produce the same level of apprehension as mercenaries and genuine volunteer fighters who have been wrapped in the worn out and tired label of al-Qaeda. The presence of these foreign elements, both pro-opposition and Iranian, are a factor that must be recognised realistically in terms of their potential role as destabilising elements as events unfold and attempts are made to fill the power vacuum that is currently being fought over.

In an arena as complex as Syria, it is important that old superstitions of the now defunct Terror Dialectic are set aside and that clinical realism trumps ideological flaccidity. And as political attempts at international consensus on a way forward in Syria continue to pinball around the United Nations and other political forums, the role of covert support on the part of foreign countries of both sides has shown that such a shift towards a more pragmatic and realistic approach is being followed from the need to ensure that strategic interests are maintained in a post-Assad Syria.

Politically, the failure of the SNC to gain any solid legitimacy and hold on the ground (apart from acting as a conduit for communication and interaction between foreign support and the FSA) is a real obstacle to ensuring that political forces on the ground have assurances needed in order to allow a clear picture of a post-war Syria to emerge. Amongst the most important of these political forces are members of the Syrian Army (and those Muslim and minority elements which do not form part of the Alawite-dominated command), the Muslim merchant elite and the non-Muslim minorities at large.

One must avoid a Libyan model of illegitimate councils trying to rein in an assortment of tribal, sectarian and pre-war political forces which remain reluctant to put their trust in a rather untrustworthy group of ideological Islamists. Therefore, foreign supporters of the Syrian opposition have a need to ensure that their activities on the ground are coupled with a concerted effort to identify the real and active elements of leadership, both pre-existing and emergent, that are already acting as bedrocks of leadership and which possess the inherent legitimacy necessary to play an active role in the resolution and ultimate result of the conflict. The political and diplomatic approach will see much more success if it is approached from the ground-up as opposed to illegitimate council-down, as it were.

The State that is Assad:
Here we come to the issue of what is crumbling into a sea of violence in Syria. The recognition of what the Syrian state under the Assads is will allow us to identify key factors that, once recognised, will facilitate a recovery that is as realistic as the impossible dynamics of the region can allow. At its core, the intricate and highly personalised state and ideology that allowed for a “fraction of what is itself a minority” to rule over a natural majority has finally burst at the seams. Following the disastrous French Mandate which laid much of the foundation for the repressive structure and modus operandi of the Syrian state, a series of military coups and political schisms enabled the shift of the fulcrum of power in the country from traditionally Muslim-dominated to Alawite-dominated.

A Ba’athism that claimed to be secular, based on the newly discovered myth of Arab Nationalism and socialist in doctrine was the ideological discourse used by minorities such as Maronite Christians, Druzes and Alawites to rationalise this tectonic shift in power. This Arabist discourse was essential in deflecting focus away from the Muslim-dominated power dynamics that prevailed (prior to the first Ba’athist coup of 1963) and to protect the interests of non-Muslim military, bureaucratic and intellectual cadres that were cultivated by the French. According to the International Crisis Group’s report on the Assad Regime written in 2004:

“The Ba’th recruited all those who were outside the system of connections, patronage and kin on which the old regime was built”. While it would be wrong to reduce either the Baath or the military to one sectarian group, a mutually reinforcing system of recruitment meant that Alawi Baath Party members were disproportionately represented in the army’s senior officers corps.

The influence of the military in the functional translation of Ba’athist ideology was initially established following the coup of 1963 which brought the party to power. It was the military’s integral role in eliminating rivals to the Ba’athists that introduced this practical dependence on the military. The concentration of power towards an Alawite-dominated military experienced its second evolutionary development when, in 1966, the Neo-Ba’athist military coup led by Salah Jedid and Hafez al-Assad dislodged the Ba’athist ideologues, Michel Afleq and Salah al-Din Battar, from power. In 1970, Hafez al-Assad’s ‘Corrective Movement’ which pushed Jedid aside proved to be the ultimate stage in defining the nature of the Ba’athist Syrian state. This coup brought the Military to the centre of Syria’s power nexus with Hafez al-Assad and his clan at its head.

With an Alawite-dominated Military established as the main political arbiter and Hafez al-Assad at the head of a country that was traditionally dominated by a Muslim majority, the process of consolidating power began. Due to this unnatural position of the Alawites, the regime depended heavily on both the Military and a pervasive security apparatus which were both dominated by members of Hafez al-Assad’s clan at large and his Qalbiyya tribe in particular. Syria has officially been under an exceptional state of emergency since the original Ba’athist coup of 1963 and this has ensured that the head of state and the security apparatus functioned with impunity and under the aegis of repressive laws. Under this state of repression a mere conversation over a cigarette could be cause for suspicion, a reality that is further illustrated by the fact that America has used Syria’s infamous methods in the Rendition of terror suspects on order to avoid the encumbrances of their domestic checks on such activities.

The political processes and structures around the regime were brought into the fold using the Ba’athist legislative dominance and its position as the ‘leading party’. The system of governance was built in relation to the state’s core which meant that it was subjugated to it. According to Eyal Zisser in his paper, Appearance and Reality: Syria’s Decision Making Structure:

[A]pproximately 60 percent of the cabinet ministers, the members of the People’s Assembly and the deputies to the Party Congress are Sunnis–much like the percentage of Sunnis in the overall population. The informal ruling cadres, by contrast, attest to the real power and predominance of the ‘Alawis: Close to 90 percent of the officers commanding the major military formations are ‘Alawis, and so are most of the top echelons in the various security services.

At the same time members of other minorities were co-opted and an underlying dialectic was established that was based on the tenet that they had to protect themselves from the sea of Muslims who populated their country. Members of powerful families belonging to the traditional Muslim nobility that had proven to be impossible to dislodge and a new class of wealthy Muslim merchants were also brought into the system of political and economic patronage that was controlled by the Assad clan. Unlike the system of patronage used by the former Yemeni president, Ali Abdallah Saleh, in which he was a mediator between powerful elements who ultimately replaced him, Hafez al-Assad’s rule was built into the state and security apparatus allowing him effectively to act as arbiter.

Ideology was used as a palliative to keep the inherent challenges to a state such as Assad’s Syria in check and as a means to build legitimacy for the regime. Arab Nationalist and anti-Israeli rhetoric bolstered the process of creating a sense of national identity that echoed those of Ba’athist Iraq and other Arab states. And just as in Iraq under Saddam Hussein, national identity revolved around the head of the nation, leading to a highly propagandised image of Hafez al-Assad with all the gaudy trappings that entail such undertakings. Islam was also used to improve the image of Alawite rule in the eyes of Muslims. They were accepted by Tehran’s Ayatollah’s into the fold of Shi’ism and, under the political atmosphere of Arab Nationalism with it attempt to ‘modernise’ Islam, the Shi’a were tenuously accepted by some as equal to Muslims, an act that is falling apart under the pressure of current events.

‘Alawis provide the inner core of the regime; Syrians from other communities envelope and surround it; and Arab sentiment and identity give it its soul, purpose and legitimacy. – Zisser, 1998

If the Assadist state was founded firmly on its ability to use force against any perceived threat from the Muslim majority, the repression of the state of its people rationalised by the highly personalised ideological rituals and the political structures and processes that could affect change according to the Republican model dominated by a subservient Ba’ath party apparatus, Syrians, and Muslims in particular, who wanted change were powerless to affect it. Before the current uprisings, the anti-regime movement of the late seventies and early eighties which culminated in the Hama Massacre of 1982 was the most pronounced instance of an attempt by the Syrian majority to affect change. The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood’s doctrinal tactics and ultimate failure to protect those fighting under them led to thousands of deaths and a divided and dispirited opposition. The abortive attempt by Hafez’s brother Rifaat, the ‘Butcher of Hama’, to take power in 1984 further discouraged potential rivals from trying to instigate political change, this time from within the core of the regime.

Bashar and the Push Towards Collapse:
Hafez al-Assad died in 2000 with the Orwellian state media declaring “Assad was (sic) gone, long live Assad”. Bashar al-Assad, the second born son who had been whisked off for an image-making exercise after the death of his elder brother Bassel in 1994, took his father’s place. According to a former advisor and childhood friend of Bashar, Ayman Abdelnour, “Bashar disappeared from view; we only started seeing him again in 1996 and he had changed, even his voice had changed.” And yet despite the attempts to ensure that the heir who was perceived “not to pose a challenge to any of the factions in power” replayed his father, the suit that had been tailored so carefully around Hafez did not fit well enough on the son. As the ICG paper on Bashar’s rule written in 2004 described him:

Ultimately, Bashar seems a reluctant, albeit willing and aspiring reformist who realises that his longevity is tied to the stability of the Baathist regime, which, in turn is tied to the perpetuation of certain domestic and regional policies.

Domestically, perfidious promises of reform that were labelled the ‘Damascus Spring’ by duped Western commentators never materialised and the regime carried on its business as usual. Bashar proved to be over-compensating for his lack of experience by acting even more authoritatively than his father, lecturing economic advisors on economics during committee sessions. According to Roula Khalaf, Bashar alienated the Muslim members of the old guard and “narrowed the inner circles to the family” to the detriment of crucial Muslim support and, ultimately, his manufactured legitimacy.

His most marked action in the sphere of Syria’s foreign policy was that he seemed to pull all his eggs in the Iranian basket, the swift fall of Iraq’s Ba’athist regime in 2003 (and the significant strategic depth that Iran was able to obtain after this collapse) certainly shaking his confidence in the Ba’athist ideological balm. Hafez, while nurturing the Syrian position as a conduit to Hezbollah, played Iran off other dynamics such as the American interests and Israel’s attempts to affect their ‘New Middle East’ during the Oslo Accords. This clumsy re-orientation on the part of Bashar had the effect of leaving Syria with an umbilical cord to Tehran and the radicalising of its anti-Israeli and anti-Western ideological stances to the detriment of its policy options. This is what has allowed for the fantasist narrative of ‘Zionist’ and ‘Foreign’ conspiracies to fulminate in the place of attempts to recognise the real plight of the Syrian majority.

On 15 March 2010 the Muslim tribes of the southern Syrian province of Dera’a dared to rise up in protest against the arbitrary arrest of fifteen children who were blamed for anti-regime graffiti. Bashar al-Assad’s cousin and the head of the Security Directorate, Atif Najib, ordered his men to fire on the defenceless crowd. The despicable event proved too hubristic a manifestation of the true face of the Assad regime. The carefully tailored suit worn by the father burst at the seams over the incapacity of the son and the Syrian uprising began.

The Importance of Muslims in a Post-Assad Syria:
We have identified the nature of the Assad regime as the unnatural and therefore authoritarian rule of an illegitimate minority over a Muslim majority that has been effectively trampled on for forty years. We can now bring ourselves to identify the most important factors that must be recognised in a post-Assad Syria in order to restore sanity in future governance and, in so doing, ensure the freedom of the people of Syria.

The fundamental act that will allow for this sanity to be restored in the form of government to rise from the Syrian wasteland is the recognition of the Muslims – the constituent elements of power that make up the Muslim population including the Kurds – as the most important group in Syria. They are the natural majority and will inevitably be the greatest source of legitimacy for a future leader of the country. The nauseating hesitancy on the part of foreign powers attributed to the feat of an inhumane retaliation on the part of the Muslims against minorities is unfounded.

While other, non-Alawite, minorities have been reluctant to a large extent to support openly the Muslim-led uprising as a result of the tacit dialectical contract established during the formative stages of the Assad regime, even in the fog of civil war the battle lines are predominantly drawn between Muslim-led opposition and Alawite-led regime. According to the International Crisis Group’s report Syria’s Mutating Conflict on the events on the ground, pro-regime reports of violence on the part of Muslim Opposition members towards non-Alawite minorities has been greatly exaggerated and is part of the propaganda of the state. The Opposition does in fact include members of these minorities and, in rare cases, Alawites themselves. As a pro-Opposition Christian priest states in the ICG report:

“Some Christians have been armed by the regime. That is part of the problem. But it remains a small phenomenon. Most Christians are just scared, sitting tight or leaving”. Regime opponents have denied any targeting of Christians by armed groups: “Christians fleeing Homs have done so because the neighbourhoods they live in have been shelled by the regime, not because they are chased by the opposition.”

Violence remains confined to pro-Assad, Alawite-led elements – both military and non-military – and a broadening Muslim-led opposition. The Military includes Muslims in its ranks and while defections have gained significant momentum, many Muslim soldiers willing to defect are constrained by the implications of defection and still await the necessary assurances.

An integral part of this recognition of the natural importance of Muslims to the future of Syria is the recognition of the Kurds who populate the north-east of the country. Ironically, it is this region, the most visible victim of attempts to ‘Arabise’ Syria, that proved most able to govern itself once the Assad regime abandoned it to re-enforce the restive provinces to its south. The current failure on the part of the Syrian National Council to bring themselves out of the outdated Arabist modalities (which caused the Syrian crisis) and to agree to the basic demand of the Syrian Kurdish National Council politically to recognise the Syrian Kurds as a serious issue.

Another factor is to ensure that the repressive state structure is dismantled and that a simple replacement of the head of state is not accepted as a solution to the acute political crisis that has gripped Syria. The prospect of a ‘palace coup’ will not affect the change needed to produce a lasting solution and the current regime has lost legitimacy. What is being fought over is not the control of the state, the state has effectively collapsed, the fight is over the power vacuum that has resulted from this collapse.

The extent of this restructuring of the state, however daunting it may be, must be extensive enough to reflect the Syrian population. Attempts to model a Syrian compromise on the Lebanese con-sociational power sharing deal which the Taif Agreement established (while simply re-enforcing the original political set-up that caused the civil war in the first place) at the end of its own civil war will not achieve this. The constitutional division of parliamentary power along sectarian lines will only leave the state fragmented and, as in the case of Lebanon, at the direct mercy of foreign players who would be able to play one group against the other at the mercy of Syria’s ability to act in its own interest. Iran might see such a deal as the key to ensuring that its ability to use Syria as a conduit to Hezbollah is maintained as such a scenario would only extend Lebanese-style instability into the Syrian arena. In contrast to the current attempts in Libya simply to rework the Gadaffi-era constitution, the Assad regime is written into the country’s constitutional DNA, and this requires the fundamental transformation of the legislative basis of the Syrian state.

A balance between a strong central government that reflects the demographic make-up of the country and a federalist model that divests a certain amount of power to provinces will prove the best way to balance the different power elements in Syria. According to Bill Park of King’s College, Turkey’s Foreign Minister has already “hinted that Ankara would not necessarily oppose the emergence of a self-governing Kurdish region in a Federal Syria.” The suggestion of such a model is not utopian and the balance between the power of the centre and constituent regions (as well as the recognition of the cosmopolitan nature of some regions) is the key to its success.

Lastly, as mentioned earlier in this piece, any attempts at mediating a successful end to the violence and the ability to recognise the most important leaders who will play a role in the future of Syria after Assad cannot be achieved from the vantage point on the ground in order to ensure that any future Syrian leader has the legitimacy the Assad regime never had. This is essential in order to ensure the freedom of the Syrian people. Furthermore, the presence of foreign elements within Syria, and those Libyan forces with links to the Muslim Brotherhood in particular, should be dealt with carefully and disarmed once the regime has fallen. Such foreign elements, while small in numbers, could be a severely destabilising force and must be prevented from mirroring the role of Hezbollah in Lebanon regardless of their sponsors, both material and ideological.

A Mirror to the Times:
Syria lies at the centre of a dramatically changing Middle East. The collapse of rusted state structures that were built using now-outdated ideologies of Arab Nationalism has led to dramatic popular upheavals across the region. The result of this instability has differed from country to country and the ultimate success of the current trend of transplanting old dictators with old Islamists has yet to be determined by the people who demanded change in the first instance. What we see taking place in Syria – which is a microcosm of the region as a whole – is a falling back, as it were, of regional geo-political dynamics onto the real rifts that Arab Nationalism attempted to ignore and in so doing exacerbated.

The geo-political nature of the Middle East that is emerging is built upon rifts cleaved centuries ago and drawn upon with the clumsy skill of the age of European Empire. From Kurdistan, cutting across the Arab peninsula to Palestine, lies the arena of competition, the geo-political shatter-zone, that has defined the modern history of the Middle East. The translation of this competition through Arabist ideology, however, blurred the real delineations between powers and allowed for ideological sentiment, from the time of T.E. Lawrence, to exploit instability to the detriment of the Muslims of the region.

This competition can no longer be approached as a matter of race – Turk, Kurd, Persian and Arab – but rather the competition between Muslim and Shia spheres of influence. Therefore, regional stability must be achieved under a realist recognition of this return to natural dynamics. This means that stability will not be achieved through the slogans of Arab Unity but Muslim Unity. A free and empowered population of Muslim Syrians is key to ensuring that this balance is achieved.

Selected Bibliography:

  • Vadillo, I., The Esoteric Deviation in Islam, Cape Town, 2003. 
  • Barr, J., A line in the Sand: Britain, France and the struggle that shaped the Middle East, London, 2011. 
  • Parsi, T., Treacherous Alliance: The secret dealings of Israel, Iran and the United States, New Haven, 2007. 
  • ICG Middle East Report No. 24, Syria Under Bashar (II): Domestic Policy Challenges, 11 February 2004. 
  • ICG Middle East Report No. 128, Syria’s Mutating Conflict, 1 August 2012. 
  • Zisser, E., Appearance and Reality, Middle East Review of International Affairs, May 1998. 
  • Rais, F., Post-Taif Accord Developments in Lebanon, The Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad, 2004. 
  • Van Efferink, L., Lebanon’s, December 2011. 
  • Park, W., Turkey, Kurds, Iraq, Syria: A new regional, 30 August 2012. 
  • Fitzgerald, M., The Syrian Rebels’ Libyan Weapon, Foreign Policy Magazine, 9 August 2012. 
  • Khalaf, R., Bashar al-Assad: Behind the, 15 June 2012. 

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