Is the Syrian regime sectarian? Sectarianism, part two

29 October 2014

Salameh Kaileh

A prominent Palestinian-Syrian intellectual and activist. He was born in the town of Birzeit, Palestine, in 1955, and studied in Baghdad and Damascus, he soon became an activist within the Palestinian resistance and later within the Arab left. Last detained by the Syrian authorities in 2012. He has published more than 30 books, among them: “Critique of Mainstream Marxism” (1980), “The Arab and The National Question” (1989), “Imperialism and the Plunder of the World” (1992), “The Problems of Marxism in the Arab World” (2003) and most recently “A true revolution: marxist perspective on the Syrian uprising” (2014).

Victorios Shams

A Syrian writer based in Cairo since 2012. He was a member of the 'Union of Syrian Democratic Youth' between 1995-1998, then a member of the 'Popular Democratic Party' and the 'Democratic Youth Movement' in Lebanon, where he served in various capacities between 1999 and 2011, when the Syrian revolution erupted.

Translated by: Yazan Badran

Mohammad Dibo: Salameh, should we consider Assad’s regime, or the Alawites as a group, sectarian?

Salameh Kaileh: Any investigation into the reasons of how a dictatorship chooses the groups that support its hegemony must be approached through a sociological lens, rather than a sectarian one. The difference here is that a sectarian, or religious approach to the subject focuses on superficial markers in determining the nature of the regime; e.g. the sectarian background of the president and the surrounding ruling class. The real question should be what is the logic that lies behind the dictator’s choice of collaborators? Why might he surround himself with members of the same background?

Let's be frank. Hafez al-Assad was part of a nationalist party, and that was the underlying consciousness that predated his ascendance to rule. In that sense, one cannot accuse him of being sectarian--unless one subscribes to Islamist notions of the esotericism of Alawites, which I believe is bigoted nonsense. The main struggle inside the Baath party was actually between two Alawites--Salah Jadid and Hafez al-Assad. Thirdly, this struggle completely divided the ruling class at the time between the two factions, including the Alawites, whereby many Alawite officers from Tartous supported Jadid, while the officers from Jableh supported Assad. Moreover, the power vested in [Sunni] figures like Mustafa Tlass, and Abdulhalim Khaddam, under Assad, was well on a par with that of Alawites like Ali Duba or Ali Haydar.

Viewed from a sociological perspective, we notice that such dictators depend on individuals from the same environment they themselves grew up in. The rural environment they were brought up in first and foremost establishes linkages that are regionally-based. This is “rural consciousness”, it attaches confidence to regional linkage, which is natural at a time when the countryside is so isolated. As Engels remarked, a peasant believes that his village is the world, the whole world. This isolation breeds fear of the outside world and strengthens the importance of regional links. Wherever the peasant goes, it is only his neighbours, or those connected to his village that he considers trustworthy and dependable. That is, in a nutshell, why a dictator surrounds himself with those who share his own regional background.

Most of the power struggles in the Syrian army before Assad’s ascent were based on such 'regional factions'. Many of the urban officers were purged after the March 8 coup d’etat in 1963 (that brought the Baath party to power); many other urban officers, as well as those from Rif Dimashq and Hama, were sidelined in the purge of Nasserist loyalists in June 1963; many Druze officers (from the south of Syria) were also removed following Salim Hatoum’s failed coup in 1967; Alawite officers were also divided, as previously mentioned, along regional lines (between Tartous and Jableh) during the power struggle between Assad and Jadid.

In that light we can see that the regime’s dependence on a core of Alawi officers is based on regional linkages and confidence rather than on sect. The sectarian insurrection led by the Muslim Brotherhood and its military wing (the Vanguard Force) in the late 1970s and early 1980s did reinforce a sectarian tendency, crystallizing in Rifaat al-Assad’s Defense Companies. But even this tendency within the elite was suppressed following the power struggle between the two brothers in 1984. Another attempt at sectarianising community at the time, the al-Murtada association founded by Jamil al-Assad, was also shut down. There is no doubt that a certain sectarian feeling seeped into the structure of the ruling class, but it did not gain any overall hegemony. It was only later taken advantage of by that same ruling class.

As for ordinary citizens who are Alawites, considered as a group, I do not consider them sectarian despite their significant support for the current regime. This is mainly because there are few beliefs that unify them. Ordinary Alawites were not behind the regime before the revolution: on the contrary, they suffered a great deal at the hands of regime thugs, from poverty, marginalisation, land expropriation, and an overall lack of services in their areas. It is no secret that the Syrian coast was one of the most impoverished regions in the country. The brutality of the Hama massacre of 1982 was, nevertheless, attributed to them as a whole societal component, and the regime played its part in spreading the belief that 'the other' will always seek revenge on all Alawites for that.

This has created a state of fear in the collective conciousness, that any political change will bring Islamists to power who will then proceed to take their revenge on Alawites. Generally speaking, most of the other religious and confessional minorities shared the fear that Islamists are the only alternative to Assad. This has led to many of them standing by the regime, including the majority of Christians. Without a doubt, this process was encouraged by the regime from the early days of the uprising, but it was also buttressed by some factions of the opposition, like the Muslim Brotherhood, and by some regional powers, like Saudi Arabia, as well as by the mainstream media.

Most Alawites have very little knowledge of their own religious teachings. There is a hardly a specific 'religious doctrine' for Alawites to impose on society. It is their debilitating poverty that has led them to join the army in large numbers since the days of the French mandate. And the regime offered very little by way of enhancing their overall quality of life for them to try and hold on to it. However, a general consensus has developed in the country that has identified Alawites with the Assad regime, and with the Hama massacre, despite the fact that a large proportion of political prisoners in Syria were Alawites.

That is the reason why Alawites ended up as staunch supporters of the regime, fear from their perceived connection in the mind of 'the other' between them as a community and the regime, and the fear of the consequences of any political change. Thus, their support is not sectarian in nature so much as simply born out of fear.

The wave of Islamic fundamentalism, the assertion of the Islamists’ right to power and the sectarian war that wrecked Iraq, entrenched this aforementioned fear in large sectors of society, in both the minorities and parts of the 'majority' as well. This very effective fear is the main reason why the Syrian regime has focused all its energy on promoting and augmenting the Islamist “bogeyman” and presenting the revolution as a fundamentalist movement with the sole aim of usurping power and taking revenge on Alawites. That this has proved a successful strategy, is not due to sectarian feelings amongst Alawites, but rather thanks to the Salafist and fundamentalist sectors of the opposition who were promoted by the mainstream media in the Gulf and even in the west. These elements confounded Alawites from the beginning and made them hesitant in joining the revolution. Over time, as these elements gained more influence within the revolution, Alawites were pushed into blind support of the regime.

MD: Victorios, you seem to have a quite different position on this. You consider the Syrian regime deeply sectarian. So, what is the distinction between a sectarian and an authoritarian regime?

Victorious Shams: As a matter of principle, all regimes are authoritarian. The capitalist regime is one whereby the wealthy elite has power and subjugates lesser classes to its authority; and the opposite is true in socialist regimes. Authoritarianism is a prerequisite of authority. Theoretically, it is impossible to be a sectarian regime without being authoritarian as well, because sectarianism is the system through which the ruling classes guarantees its control within a colonial mode of production. To negate the sectarian label is to negate the control of the ruling class in colonial multi-confessional states. But it is impossible, within the colonial mode of production, to separate sectarianism and authoritarianism; the former is a prerequisite for the latter and vice versa.

When it comes to the Syrian regime, it is important to differentiate between sectarian practices exercised by an authority that is controlled by a minority sect, as in the Syrian case, and an institutionally sectarian state, of the type that is Lebanon.

In the Syrian case, sectarian practices form part of a long and complex process that will necessarily lead to the sectarianisation of society at large, which we can see clearly now in the current conflict. In the latter, however, no one sectarian group can monopolise authority completely as it is based on “partnerships” and institutionalised quotas.

This is to say, sectarianism in Syria is not yet articulated in constitutional forms. The practices of the Syrian regime, including its monopolisation of authority as well as the financial and security apparatuses in the country, are driving that process very rapidly. It is worth here quoting Azmi Bishara, the Palestinian thinker, when he says:

“ The phrase, ‘sectarian sedition’, while it has significant societal relevance, forms a part of a political discourse invoked by the regime when faced by crises. The Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, had no qualms, in his 30 March 2011 speech, about characterising the protest movement as a ‘sectarian sedition’ that aims to destroy stability and spread chaos. It was clear in his speech that the regime is very interested in spreading fear about sectarian strife, even to the point of provocation, as proof that the authoritarian state is the only form capable of preserving social and political unity in Syria, and that any concessions to democratic aspirations will lead to sedition and division. However, we cannot exclude the possibility that the regime, conscious of those of its policies that absorbed Alawites into its hard core, felt that the revolution is a reaction to the centralisation of power and wealth, and that it must be charged with sectarian feelings against him, and the Alawi sect."

If we look at the struggle from the point of view that the regime tries to consolidate, one shared between Sunnis and Alawites, we must clarify an important issue. Even though there are Alawites who support the revolution, and there are Sunnis who stand by the regime, nevertheless, the percentage of each on their respective sides is minimal, and cannot be used to generalise about a community, nor as evidence that the regime is not sectarian.

In short, the regime, during its time in power has differentiated between normal citizens and privileged ones from a specific sect, and this is one of the reasons for the popular frustration that brought the country to where it is today. Mreover, these events are still ongoing and escalating and have not taken their final shape.

MD: Victorios, in previous writings you described forced demographic changes as proof of the sectarian nature of the regime. This is quite a strong claim, how do you defend it against the reality that a large number of refugees (more than 500,000) relocated to the coastal provinces?  And how would you explain the substantial Sunni communities that have stayed loyal to the regime?

VS: The forced displacements happening in places like Homs and along the Lebanese borders, seem to be a precaution for a regional scenario where the state is partitioned along sectarian lines. Thus, the regime is working on changing the demographic distribution of some areas, and there are plenty of rumors about nationalisation and settling activity favouring certain sectarian groups migrating from outside Syria or from other areas from the country. This means that the regime is working towards political hegemony over these areas by establishing a sectarian majority in it. This hegemony is political at its base, thus there is no need for a 100% purified area, nor is this possible (Israel, despite its many wars against the Palestinians has been unable to completely unroot them from their land).

We must differentiate clearly between the refugees who only seek to save their lives after their areas have been completely destroyed, and therefore do not aim for political control over the areas they are internally displaced to, and the areas occupied by the regime in the hope that it would become part of a future sectarian canton. Other than that, and as the regime is still responsible for the state, the question remains, what has the state offered to those who took refuge in the coastal areas [Alawite regions]?

As for the second part of your question regarding Sunnis standing with the regime, I believe that is mainly due to class interests. Every strand of Islam is different, and thus the Islamic doctrines of the Muslim Brotherhood are completely different from those of the regime, and the doctrines of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or al-Nusra Front bear no similarity to those of Sufism. Hamas used to be very close to the Syrian regime, but it distanced itself after the revolution and after it was asked to help quell the protests. The Qubaisiyat movement has many schools and educational facilities that are supported and facilitated by the regime, and thus they have shared interests. The regime, despite its official line of secularism, is in need of multiple religious covers, as proof of its non-sectarianism, and the Qubaisiyat were ready to play that role along with other official religious institutions like the Mufti and the religious schools.

The Damascene Sunni class is a predominantly bourgeois class that benefits greatly from the regime in an alliance of money and officers. It is still a minority, but a very wealthy one, and they are part of the process of siphoning the country’s wealth into private pockets. Nevertheless, we should note here that many have already moved their wealth from Damascus to other countries, even before the revolution, because of attempts to force them to share their business with the security establishment.

The class interest of the beourgeouisie has no bearing on the sectarian nature of the regime. Sectarianism itself is another form of class authoritarianism, and the “Damascene and Aleppan bourgeoisie” are not too bothered about the form this authoritarianism takes, so long as their wealth increases.

Translated by: Yazan Badran


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