Syria: The Past. The Present. The Future?

My brief experience recently visiting Turkey has completely transformed me. With all the challenges that I faced, one of the greatest was failing to understand the sheer scale of the devastation the Syrian war has inflicted on so many innocent people. It is well known that while I have an impenetrable and staunch commitment to human rights, I am also extremely empathetic to a point that I almost feel the suffering of others and this pain has vicariously and rather deeply hurt. I felt helpless, heartbroken, desperate and unable to speak to anyone, the indifference only perpetuated the feelings I was having.

I need to understand the history and the politics of the region that has wreaked such havoc and caused so much unnecessary suffering. The civil war in Syria has seen more than half a million innocent people killed since it began in 2011, with 5.7 million refugees fleeing the country and 6.1 million internally displaced. Thousands upon thousands of people have died that have never had the respect and dignity of a burial. What happened in Syria that caused such horror?


After the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, the proxy wars between the United Kingdom, the United States and France stunted the identity of those indigenous to the Near Eastern region that shaped a new Western influence, advantageously using the religious and ethnic diversity as a tool to divide and convince locals to both fight for and be loyal to their new neo-colonial position. This changed the dynamic the people had for many centuries became accustomed to under Ottoman imperialism that once protected a multicultural dynamic and enabled diverse peoples to live together in harmony. Those protected, however, were the ‘People of the Book’ (ahl al-kitab) or members of the Abrahamic religions and this can be seen with the Jewish exodus that arrived into Ottoman Empire from the persecution of – in particular Spain – but also European countries to live a relatively peaceful life under Ottoman protection.

The protection surfaced limitations particularly to the syncretistic religions in the Near Eastern region, whereby Alawi, Druze and Yezidi were required to pay a tax for such protection, something an impoverished community were unable to achieve and left them feeling a deep-seeded antagonism toward the Islamic elite. They escaped into the region of Latakia in the Syrian mountains and inhabited the area knowing the difficulty the Ottomans would face penetrating the densely forested landscape. In fact, the Ottomans were only successfully able to mobilise authority in the region as late as the 1850’s and there they introduced mutasallim (district governors).

The Alawis believed the Ottomans were the main oppressor. “The Ottomans and their Syrian walis repeatedly tried to impose their authority in and collect revenue from the Alawi and Druze areas.” [Rabinovich, 703] Failing to adhere to Ottoman regulations, numerous fatwas increased that permitted violence against members of heterodox communities in the region. “A fatwa was issued in the fourteenth century by a distinguished Sunni Muslim scholar, Ibn Taymiyya, stating that they [Alawi] were greater infidels than Jews, Christians and many idolaters and that waging war against them should please Allah.”

As Daniel Pipes clearly shows, Islamic intellectuals and theologians such as Hamza ibn Ali, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, Ahmad ibn Taymiya and Shaykh Ibrahim al-Maghribi spoke of the necessity to confiscate property from the Alawi people, leading to poverty and along with the fear of violence formed a communal psyche that created an attitude of exclusivity and tribal allegiances. The Latakia province has thus been the geographical centre for the Alawi community since the beginning of the 10th or 11th century.

Itamar Rabinovich discusses six important phases between the years 1918-1945 that defined the status of minorities in Syria. Between 1918-1920, the presence of the Hashemite Emir Faysal, who sought power in the Syrian region, declared himself to be the King of Syria until the French presence and ultimate occupation that quickly put an end to his authority. In August 1920, the French established Greater Lebanon and by doing so enabled the Alawi and Druze to create their own semi-autonomous states. By 1925, Greater Lebanon was abandoned and Syria was once again re-established, although the Alawi and Druze states remained (until 1936). By 1936, a treaty was developed – though not ratified – that granted Syrian independence and incorporated the Alawi and Druze states into the whole territory (only fully implemented in 1944 – 1945). In 1941, the presence of the Vicky French came to an end when British authority took control with the support of the Free French troops; by 1943, the first elections were held.


France maintained methods and strategies were needed in order to prevent the growing threat of theocracy and sought the Alawi community for such support. Edmond Rabbath wrote that Unite Syrienne et Devenir Arabe claimed the Alawi and other heterodox communities were no different to Muslims but merely ‘lagged behind.’ The Alawi in Syria were thus suddenly included into political life, the presence of the French opened the door to a social consciousness that the Alawi community had never had before. Rabinovich claims that the unique relationship between the Alawites and the French are particularly important because Latakia also contained a sizeable population of Christian and Bedouin communities, and the French required assistance in an increasingly challenging capacity to secure regional support and so by providing Alawis with autonomy, they would receive unanimous loyalty in return.

[T]he state of Latakia was set up on 1 July 1922. They also gained legal autonomy; a 1922 decision to end Sunni control of court cases involving Alawis transferred these cases to Alawi jurists. The Alawi state enjoyed low taxation and a sizeable French subsidy… In return, Alawis helped maintain French rule.[Pipes, 439-450]

When France provided the Alawites their own independent state, it established a political and social consciousness for the Alawites and consequently increased their participation in the social and political arena. “The ferment and the quest for social advancement at least for their offspring prompted numerous Alawi families to invest in education or to have a son enlisted in the French troupes speciales.”[Rabinovich, 695] At this time, the development of transport, communication and roads made urbanisation and information accessible that allowed the Alawi community expand and finally assimilate from rural into urban life.

The change from French to British authority in 1941 created several issues that originally appeared detrimental for the Alawites. Afraid of deteriorating their political relationship with Emir Faysal, the British became suspicious of Alawis and instead supported Islamic nationalism. With the growing presence of Sunni domination, the Alawis revolted under the leadership of Sulayman al-Murshid, an elected Alawi leader who became a national figure and this rebellion was crushed and Murshid executed in 1946 with the support of British High Commissioner Edward Spears.

It was at this stage that the shifting power dynamic in Syria was inherited pending the proxy responses between the French and British, reflecting the rise of Alawi participation in national and political rebellion. However, “[t]he Alawis could not change this [poverty] situation by outing a few people as in Hama: a basic social and political revolution was required in their society.” [Dusen, 132] The Alawi needed more than merely eliminating the Sunni elite, particularly if regional politics played a predominate role in Syrian political culture. Thus, Michel ‘Aflaq and Salah al-Din al-Baytar founded the Ba’th party during WW2 and by 1947 began to heavily recruit youths in high school. Traditional social units in Syria and regional loyalty remained strong.

“This gave the Ba’th party a regional, minoritarian, rural imprint that impeded its growth as an effective nationwide organisation.”[Faksh, 141] Syrian political culture contains a unique blend of traditional, regional, social and economic mechanisms. The development of the nation as a whole has not yet saturated supranational methods of political decision making or subnational administrative divisions and many citizens continue to call themselves ‘Arabs’ rather than ‘Syrians’. According to Michael H. Van Dusen, many continue to identify with local and parochial loyalties. “In Syria, the legacy of the past, the decentralized cell structure of political parties, the role of local politicians in ideological recruitment, political commitments based on high school allegiances – all have tended to perpetuate a sub-national network of political loyalties in the independence era.”[Dusen, 135]

The politicisation process began to enlarge following the early years of independence when an explosion of ideological stances with various alternatives became available to a disillusioned population. The process of modernisation did not directly affect self-sufficient and agricultural lifestyles, which maintained its uniformity and gradually developed into larger agro-cities. An agro-city is a large economic unit where the city centre is the central position for the wider agricultural towns or villages surrounding it and provides both security and health services for the population while growing in economic prominence. At the same time, specific ethnic populations reside in specific agro-cities, and it is for this reason that political culture and attitudes often revolve around regional interests rather than national.

It is also the primary reason for intra-regional tension. Although national rhetoric is continuously reiterated, particularly in relation to Israel, Palestine and pan-Arabism, local loyalties dominate and national parties are still unable to penetrate intra-regional interests. It is the nature of agro-city politics that reduce the possibility for expanded support, yet the power of the Ba’th party dominated because of their political stance towards the peasantry and the alleviation of poverty, something many in Syria sympathised with at the time.

According to Pipes, several factors played a role with Alawi ascension into power, particularly with their growing presence in the army. The first is that the military continued to uphold the attitude of employing minorities that ensured Alawi recruits in a career at Homs (Military Academy). There was a fee charged that would enable families to avoid sending a child to a military career, and because of their economically challenging situation, the Alawi could not pay the fee and found a career at Homs an excellent opportunity for a steady income.

“Alawi power resulted from an unplanned sectarian transformation of public life in Syria.” Minorities were originally placed in the lower ranks of the military, however this actually benefited their ascension. “Senior officers engaged in innumerable military coup d’état between 1949 and 1963, each change of government was accompanied by ruinous power struggles among the Sunnis, leading to resignations and the depletion of Sunni ranks.”[Pipes, 440] To add to this, because of the growing instability and distrust, kinship bonds became the favoured approach and thus advantageous for the Alawis whose power became increasingly visible. Thus, with the growing instability, the Ba’th party moved into an aggressive coup d’état in 1963 that finally swept them into power.


Syrian Officials in the Baath Party with Salah Jadid

Salah Jadid controlled all military appointments in 1963 and he removed hundreds f officers and replaced them with Alawites. Although the Alawi community only make 12% of the population, they nevertheless gradually absorbed enough power to control the nation. In 1966, a neo-Ba’th movement organised a coup by a predominately Alawite administration until this was finally followed by the final coup in 1970 by Hafiz al-Asad against Salah Jadid. According to Pipes, Jadid lost his reign of power because – unlike Asad – Jadid supported the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) against the Jordanian government and was ultimately defeated. As noted by Tord Olsson, members of the al-Assad family play a chief role in political and military life in Syria. This process began at independence and with the decline of the Sunni elite and land re-distribution after 1958, the structure of power dramatically changed.

As social modernisation processes began to develop, education and career options became the primary objective for the Alawi community. Hafiz al-Asad became the president and Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, his brother Rifat became commander of the defense unit surrounding Damascus, yet another brother Jamil became the leading member of the defence and who was later transferred to Geneva, while his cousin ‘Adnan was Commander of the Struggle unit. This has yet to change, as his son Bashar al-Assad is the current president of Syria who assumed office in 2000.

This family continuation with Assad succeeding his father clearly indicates a dictatorship and exerts significant control in legal and political power. “They [Alawi] were given high representation (21.4%) in the military structure of the Regional Commands of the Ba’th, but the outlying traditional Sunni towns of Aleppo and Hama had no representation at all. These were the two main areas where major Sunni opposition to Alawi hegemony was strong and violent.” [Faksh] This has only made Islamist movements even stronger and more violent and with the involvement of the United States and Russia that perpetuates the violence by providing the weapons and by killing themselves, the result was the civil war Syria has found itself in today.

From 2011, the Assad regime attacked peaceful protests and with fears caused by the ever growing Arab Spring, the brutality by his forces were fierce. As sanctions begin to be imposed again the region by the US, the United Nations Human Right Council confirms that the Assad regime is committing war crimes violating a number of international agreements, despite claiming that people have ‘a right to peaceful protest’ in a televised speech. The hostilities between Russia and the United States in the region with Putin supporting the regime against ISIS perpetuates further violence.This only gets worse until the unthinkable happens: Assad is found guilty of using chemical weapons that only influences the growing ISIS presence in the country and the war begins a devastating turn as millions flee the terrible violence but with millions more locked out of protection from neighbouring countries, particularly Lebanon and Jordan. Greece and a number of other European countries fail the millions fleeing, with Hungary erecting a wall.

All this horror was a process beginning sometime ago that – like in Yugoslavia when Tito used Serbian nationalism as a tool for capturing their loyalty that only created the very evil that enabled the violent war to occur many decades later – the French, the British, the United States and Russia all have as much blood on their hands by opening the door and creating the ideological landscape to allow ideological divisions, providing guns to ISIS and enabled all the mechanisms for violence since war itself is profitable for them.

The Assad regime is a great evil and a future in the region is impossible without their demise. They started this war and they failed wholeheartedly to protect the citizens of Syria, which is what political parties are intended on doing. Syria needs to start all over again and in so many ways, including eliminating the nationalism and religious division that has plagued hatred and enabled the horrors of ISIS and the regime to commit atrocities. While necessary steps are being taken to create a safe zone in the region, with Turkey providing the greatest support to a large number of refugees, something deeper needs to change. A new perspective. How? I am not yet sure, but I intend to find out.


Further reading:

  1. Itamar Rabonvich, “The Compact Minorities and the Syrian State, 1918-1945” Journal of Contemporary History 14:4 (Oct 1979) 703
  2. Daniel Pipes, “The Alawi Capture of Power in Syria” Middle Eastern Studies 25:4 (Oct 1989) pp 434-435
  3. Mahmud A. Faksh, “The Alawi Community of Syria: A New Dminant Political Force” Middle Eastern Studies 20:2 (April 1984) 133-153.
  4. Daniel Pipes. “The Alawi Capture of Power in Syria” Middle Eastern Studies 25:4 (Oct 1989) 429-450
  5. Michael H. Van Dusen, “Political Integration and Regionalism in Syria,” Middle East Journal 26:2 (Spring 1972) 132

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