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SECTARIAN DIVISIONS EXPLAIN CHANGES IN SYRIAN POLITICS SINCE 1963 AND THE SURVIVAL OF ASAD'S REGIME

 

 

 

1. INTRODUCTION

 

1.1 COMPLEX COMPOSITION OF SYRIAN POPULATION

 

Syrian society is vertically segmented into multiple ethnic/religious communities - lines along which it tends to fissure in times of social and political stress. Primordial group loyalties then rise to the surface. Horizontal stratification is secondary, often combining with the sectarian divide (1).

Appendix 1 shows the variety of communities in Syria, Appendix 2 their geographical distribution. 'Alawis and Druze form majorities in their respective regions (2).

 

 

1.2 HISTORICAL BACKGROUND

 

The rich Sunni elite of Damascus and Aleppo composed the ruling class since Umayyad times. Under the Ottomans, who for centuries competed against Shi'a Iran, this position was strengthened (3). The Ottomans saw the Shi'a offshoots - 'Alawis, Isma'ilis and Druze - as heretics to be persecuted for apostasy from Islam (4).

The 'Alawis were impoverished peasants in Latakia province, mainly serfs on lands owned by wealthy city-based Sunni landowners.

The disintegration of the Ottoman Empire after WWI and the establishment of the French Mandate over Syria gave exploited minorities a chance to improve their situation. The French encouraged minority enlistment into "auxiliary troops" used for suppressing nationalist unrest in the cities. They also encouraged 'Alawi and Druze separatism by granting them regional autonomy (5).

The first years of independence saw a drive for national integration. Proportional representation of minorities in parliament was abolished (6). This led to Sunni dominance until the union with Egypt in the UAR in 1958.

 

 

2. ROLE OF MILITARY AND BA'ATH IN SYRIAN POLITICS

 

The army and the Ba'ath party were the only avenue to upward mobility open for minority members given the Sunni dominance.

Army officers were heavily politicised, rent by internal feuds and involved in numerous coups (7). The military was demoralised following its defeat in 1948 by Israel (8).

During the 1950s many minority members enlisted in the army - in 1955 army intelligence discovered that 65% of NCOs were 'Alawis (9)!

The Ba'ath, founded in 1947 as a pan-Arab, socialist and secularist party, appealed more to disadvantaged rural minorities than to city Sunnis (10). Seeking equality they joined in large numbers and reached top positions in its hierarchy. Sunni dominated parties were biased against sectarians and blocked their advance (11).

The union with Egypt was a failure as Syria was treated as a colony. Syrians were embittered by the Egyptians' patronising attitude (12).

In 1961 an alliance of conservative parties and officers forced the secession of Syria from the UAR. The new government was formed by the pre-UAR elite.

The Ba'ath old guard had pushed for union with Egypt as their priority goal was pan-Arab union, and had agreed to disband the party. However some radical party groups in 'Alawi areas and in the army secretly carried on their activities (13). In Cairo a group of five 'Alawi and Isma'ili Syrian Ba'athist officers organised themselves clandestinely as the Military Committee of the Ba'ath Party (14).

After the separation from Egypt the radicals gradually emerged as the real power in party and army. They were mainly from rural minority background and favoured focusing on social revolution in Syria rather than on pan-Arab dreams (15). In alliance with other dissatisfied leftist groups the Ba'ath engineered a military coup in March 1963 initiating major political and social changes (16). By 1966 the Ba'ath had maneuvered all other groups out of power (17).

The older Ba'ath leadership was forced into exile in 1966 by radicals led by 'Alawi generals Jadid and Asad. Later that year the army was purged of Druze and Isma'ili officers (18). Between 1963 and 1970 a complicated power struggle raged, from which Asad emerged victorious in 1970 (19), becoming the first 'Alawi president of Syria.

 

 

3. ANALYSIS OF CHANGES IN SYRIAN INTERNAL AND EXTERNAL ÿÿÿÿÿÿÿÿPOLICIES SINCE 1963

 

3.1 INTRODUCTION

 

The Ba'ath radicals focused on internal Syrian affairs (20) initiating social reforms and shifting power towards the lower classes (21). They destroyed the power of the merchant-landowning Sunni elite who had exploited the minorities. The sectarian communities saw this as their hour of revenge against their Sunni oppressors (22).

 

 

3.2 SOCIAL AND ECONOMIC REFORM

 

1. Large estates were confiscated and the land distributed to peasants who were encouraged to join state farms or co-operatives (23).

2. Main industries, banks, and large firms were nationalised. Central economic planning introduced and industrialisation promoted (24).

3. Men from rural sectarian background entered all power centres in party and state, amongst them a disproportionate number of 'Alawis (25).

4. There was much investment in Syria's rural infrastructure - roads, rails, ports, irrigation and electrification (26).

5. Intensified oil exploration was undertaken. Oil became an important income source (27).

6. Large scale expansion of the education and health services was undertaken.

These measures were directed especially to rural regions, benefiting 'Alawis and other peasants more than the town based Sunnis (28).

 

 

3.3 POLITICAL REFORMS

 

1. Syria became a single party state (29), the Ba'ath claiming monopoly of political activity in state, military and education. Later a Ba'ath dominated National Progressive Front was established to co-opt other leftist groups and broaden the regime's base (30).

2. The party built up many popular organisations to recruit mass membership, broaden its base and galvanise the masses (31).

3. National integration was encouraged by involving larger segments of the population in local politics and by social and economic reforms.

4. All real power was concentrated in the president who became commander-in-chief of all armed forces, secretary-general of the Ba'ath party and president of the National Progressive Front.

 

 

3.4 MILITARY REFORM

 

1. The military was initially turned into an ideological army with Ba'ath "commissars" indoctrinating the soldiers. Whilst increasing their loyalty it undermined their professionalism.

2. Asad later focused on building a large professional army (32), which with Soviet help he hoped would reach parity with Israel. The 1973 War greatly improved the army's morale and image. Since then Asad has refused to be drawn into military confrontation with Israel. In the 1980s he built up his armed forces both in numbers and in enormous quantities of Soviet equipment (33). His huge investment in the military and the privileges granted to officers strengthened their loyalty to him and to the regime.

3. Compulsory conscription was introduced and the armed forces were used to integrate and indoctrinate the young conscripts.

 

 

3.5 Foreign Policy Changes:

 

1. Jadid involved Syria in foreign debacles: the support to Palestinian guerillas against Israel precipitating the 1967 war, and the failed intervention in Jordan in 1970 (34). His radicalism isolated Syria in the Arab World and internationally.

2. Asad, as a pragmatist, was determined to end Syria's isolation in the Arab world and to improve relations with Arab states by limiting Syria's interference in their internal affairs (35). He brought Palestinian groups under strict control, forbidding them to operate from Syrian territory.

3. Asad focused on gaining hegemony in Lebanon through military intervention in its civil wars, changing sides to ensure the dependence of all groups on Syria. Following setbacks after the Israeli invasion in 1982, Asad, helped by his Lebanese allies forced Israel to withdraw, made Lebanon cancel its peace agreement with Israel, and had his surrogate elected to the presidency.

4. National unity was fostered by vigorous anti-Israel policies which externalised Syria's problems and focused attention on the enemy outside (36).

5. Syria allied itself with Shi'a Iran, seen as a strategic ally against Israel after Egypt's withdrawal from the anti-Israel front. Most Arab states favoured Ba'athist Iraq (37). Asad skilfully strengthened Syria's role as mediator and backed Shi'a groups in Lebanon, using them to weaken Israel's position.

6. The Gulf states gave Syria large amounts of financial aid after the 1973 war. This fueled Syria's economic growth, improved standards of living, and paid for the growing military expenditure. This aid declined with Syria's intervention in Lebanon and alliance with Iran - but has been renewed since Syria's participation in the anti-Iraq alliance after the invasion of Kuwait.

7. The collapse of the USSR forced Syria to move closer to the West by joining the anti-Iraq alliance in 1990/91, helping free hostages in Lebanon, dampening its involvement in international terrorism and joining the Madrid peace talks with Israel. At the same time it endeavours to keep its independent stance by tough negotiating positions on all fronts.

 

 

3.6 INTERNAL CHANGES

 

1. The Ba'ath instituted a policy of secularisation. In the constitution of 1969 Syria was no more defined as a Muslim state. Opposition by Sunnis (38) led to demonstrations and later to a compromise which determined that the President must be a Muslim and that "Islamic jurisprudence is the chief source of legislation" (39). The 1973 Constitution defines Syria officially as a secular socialist state with Islam recognised as majority religion.

2. Growing fundamentalist opposition led by the Muslim Brotherhood surfaced in violent demonstrations and assassinations during the late 70s and early 80s. They resented 'Alawi domination, the aid given to Christians in Lebanon and the secular measures of the regime. The largest uprising occurred in Hama in 1982. It was ruthlessly crushed by the elite security forces led by Rif'at Asad (40). The internal situation was pacified at the cost of a massive build-up of security agencies accompanied by counter-terror and the intimidation of the population.

 

 

4. ANALYSIS OF SECTARIAN IMPACT ON BA'ATH REGIME AND ÿÿÿÿÿÿÿÿITS CHANGES IN POLICIES

 

The 'Alawis now dominate all Syrian power centres. This was achieved by using their kinship network to infiltrate the army and the Ba'ath party, then utilising both institutions as levers to dominate the state. They allied themselves with other disadvantaged groups (Druze, Isma'ilis, impoverished rural and urban Sunnis) to achieve their goals (41). It is difficult to decide whether this was a premeditated long term plan of 'Alawi community leaders as some observers think (42) or if they simply snatched at opportunities that changing times offered them. There certainly was a conjunction of sectarian and economic class interests which enabled the 'Alawis to take over party and state institutions. 'Alawi cohesion has been strengthened as they unite to secure their position, but Syrian politics are still polarised on a sectarian basis (43).

In contrast to the turbulent first years of independence the Ba'ath party has given Syria a stable and highly centralised government. Its social policies have benefited most citizens at the expense of the former small Sunni ruling elite. The greatest beneficiaries of this development have been the 'Alawis and the rural regions.

In foreign policy, friendship with the Soviet bloc manifested 'Alawi preference for radical secular socialism which guarantees sectarian equality, and Ba'athist anti-imperialist ideology. The alliance with Iran can partly be explained by 'Alawi feelings of affinity as persecuted Shi'as with the only dominantly Shi'a state in the Middle East. This also clarifies their policies in Lebanon: their willingness to save the Maronites from Sunni groups and their support of the Shi'as.

 

 

5. REASONS FOR ASAD'S SURVIVAL

 

Asad is a shrewd and strong personality, pragmatic rather than ideological, who plans carefully and patiently waits for the right moment to strike, outwitting his internal and external enemies.

He has placed members of his family, clan, tribe and sect, personally loyal to him, in most positions of power in the military, security, party and state institutions (44).

He invested heavily in the military, giving privileges to the security forces and creating for them a vested interest in the survival of his regime.

To protect himself from potential army coups, he created independent "Defence Companies" as a party militia, and an independent Presidential Guard.

The regime and party base have been greatly broadened by mobilising the masses into various associations and by opening new opportunities for marginalised minorities.

Asad conciliated moderate Sunnis by promoting loyal Sunni Ba'athists to important visible positions such as vice-president, prime minister, foreign minister and defence minister.

Since the mid-1980s he has presented himself as a good Muslim - he frequented the Mosques for Friday prayers, funded sympathetic Ulama' and provided grants for building Sunni mosques (45).

Asad crushed all opposition by brute force. He has built up a powerful security apparatus which penetrates all Syrian society and intimidates would be plotters. The Muslim Brotherhood was annihilated in the early eighties. Asad also overcame his brother's bid for power during his severe illness in 1983-4 (46).

He created a rich new elite dependent on his regime. Since the mid-1980s he has liberalised the economy to improve its performance and gain support from bourgois Sunnis. Powerful 'Alawis are intermarrying with rich Sunni families creating a new upper class with a stake in preserving the regime.

Radical anti-Israel and anti-West rhetoric and policies were aimed at uniting the nation behind him and bolstering its pride.

Improved relations with Arab states lessened their interference in internal Syrian affairs and gained financial aid from the Gulf states and Arab recognition of Syria's special role in Lebanon.

By joining the 1990-91 coalition against Iraq, Syria ended its isolation from the West and from the Gulf states. Since then billions of dollars in development aid have flooded the economy, reviving it and allowing the government to complete delayed infrastructure projects (47) and improve the standard of living.

Finally, party and government censorship tightly control the media. Opposing views are very restricted and criticism of the President is taboo. Society is closely monitored by the security forces (48).

 

 

CONCLUSION

 

Under Asad Syria has succeeded in modernising its economy and structures as well as building a powerful military. It has become a major regional power recognised as such by all Middle East states and by the superpowers (49).

The regime faces growing pressures as the high rate of population growth and urbanisation outgrow its ability to keep pace in providing employment and social services. Raised expectations could be frustrated, and might erupt in violence following Asad's death or retirement (50). The succession question is unresolved (though there are rumours that Asad is grooming his son Basil for the succession), and many Sunnis are biding their hour of revenge. There is a dichotomy at the heart of the regime between its efforts at creating an integrated, secular and modern society and its need to hold on to sectarian based power.

In spite of a growing sense of a united national identity, religion and the traditional sectarian divisions still play an important role and cannot be ignored. Only time will tell how successful Asad's regime has been in its complex search for long term unity of the inherently fragmented Syrian society.

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FOOTNOTES

 

1. Van Dam, pp 15, 25-27; Fakhsh, pp 135. See also Eickelman, pp 219 who quotes Khoury as saying that political alliances often cross sectarian lines, but only with agreement of sect leaders who see them as an opt-out insurance in case of failure. Khoury was speaking about Lebanon, but the same is also true of Syria and the Middle East in general. Eickelman, ibid, pp 237 also quotes Bill on Iran who argues that in spite of the existence of the state political apparatus, the exercise of political power is actually played out within networks of informal familial, religious and other factions. This view is again true of Syria and other Middle East states.

2. Van Dam, pp 15,18,20,21; Hinnebusch (1), pp 138,139; Devlin (2), pp 26-29; Peretz, pp 396; 'Alawis in Latakia 63%, Druze in Suwayda 88%.

3. Van Dam, pp 17,18.

4. Van Dam, pp 16.

5. Drysdale (1), pp 53-57.

6. Drysdale (1), pp 58. Under Za'im and Shishakli.

7. Drysdale (1), pp 52.

8. Drysdale (1), pp 62.

9. Moosa, pp 294.

10. Moosa, pp 294.

11. Devlin (2), pp 196; Drysdale (1), pp 63.

12. Drysdale (1), pp 63; Moosa, pp 297.

13. Van Dam, pp 31-33; Fakhsh, pp 141.

14. Drysdale (1), pp 66.

15. Devlin (1), pp 187, 202, 204, 212, 215; Maoz (2), pp 72, 73.

16. Van Dam, pp 36-37, 42-44; Maoz (2), pp 70-72.

17. Maoz (2), pp 73, 74.

18. Van Dam, pp 67-79.

19. Van Dam, pp 226.

20. Van Dam, pp 90, 91; Hinnebusch (1), pp 144,145,147; Fakhsh, pp 146.

20. Maoz (1), pp 402.

21. Hinnebusch (1), pp 158.

22. Moosa, pp 300.

23. Maoz (1), pp 400; Maoz (2), pp 76; Drysdale (1), pp 67.

24. Seale, pp 447,448

25. Maoz (1), pp 402; Maoz (2), pp 75-77; Hinnebusch (1), pp 141.

26. Seale, pp 444-447

27. Seale, pp 449

28. Fakhsh, pp 147; Seale, pp 447,454

29. Hinnebusch (1), pp 141.

30. Drysdale (1), pp 69.

31. Drysdale (1), pp 67.

32. Hinnebusch (1), pp 148.

33. Maoz (3), pp 179

34. Devlin (1), pp 315-317.

35. Van Dam, pp 91.

36. Hinnebusch (1), pp 149.

37. Devlin (2), pp 110

38. Maoz (1), pp 402. Instigated by 'Ulama.

39. Maoz (1), pp 402.

40. Fakhsh, pp 148;

41. Fakhsh, pp 144; Van Dam, pp 88; Seale, pp 454,455

42. Moosa, pp 301. Moosa cites several conferences of 'Alawi religious leaders with 'Alawi Ba'ath officers and politicians where the Ba'ath activists were given honourable religious status and plans made for a political takeover.

43. Fakhsh, pp 145,146; Seale 444,445

44. Van Dam, pp 90, Maoz & Yaniv, pp 256

45. The Middle East, December 1993, pp 18

46. Maoz (3), pp 161-163

47. The Middle East, December 1993, pp 33

48. Lesch, A.

49. Maoz & Yaniv, pp 251

50. Maoz & Yaniv, pp 251-263

 

 

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