International

A Brief Political History of Modern Syria

The 1967 Arab-Israel war transformed the landscape of the Middle East, where in only six days the failure of the Arab offensive enabled Israel to capture the Golan Heights. This has become strategically beneficial since the name itself exemplifies the elevation, but rebel groups following the Syrian civil war have captured areas near the buffer zone that warns of a threat of escalating violence, particularly with the proxy war with Iran ever looming in the shadows.

In order to really understand the dynamics of the region and ultimately the reason for the civil war in Syria, it is especially important having a clear understanding of its recent past. After the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire the immense global changes and foreign intervention in the region stunted the post-colonial identity of those indigenous to the regions. Syria, indeed most of the Near Eastern region, has a unique religious history that shaped and influenced the structure as has Iran, Lebanon and Iraq since many heterodox and syncretistic religions were located in these areas including Druze, Ahl-e Haqq, Yezidi and Alawi. For centuries, the Ottomans had poor relations with these Shi’i sects and both met with antagonism and ultimately violence, most notable with the conflict between the empire and the Safavid’s. Heterodox groups were never granted the status of millet that consequently left them unprotected and were often required to pay high taxes. Long experiencing persecution for their beliefs, they retreated to the region that isolated them into an impoverished environment, found themselves tasting relative freedom and independence for the first time.

The region of Latakia in the Syrian mountains is mostly inhabited by Alawis, yet because of the difficulty penetrating the area, the Ottomans could only mobilise authority in the region in the 1850’s where they introduced Sunni landlords and a mutasallim (district governor). Like the Alevis, the Alawis have deep-seeded antagonism towards the Sunni elite and view them as the main oppressor. “The Ottomans and their Syrian walis repeated tried to impose their authority in and collect revenue from the Alawi and Druze areas.”[Rabinovich, 703] Adding to this authority, numerous and violent fatwas were made against these heterodox communities in the region. “The Sunni ulema provided the religious legitimization for the persecutions. This in a fetva from 1548 the famous Seyhulislam Ebussuud Effendi declared the Qizilbaş [Alevi] heretics, the murder of whom being permissible by Islamic law.”[White, 55]

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 freely spoke about the divine necessity to kill or confiscate property from the Alawi people. It is for this reason the Alawi community fled into the isolated mountainous regions for the next several centuries. Abject poverty and the fear of violence changed the structure of their communal psyche that enveloped an attitude of leaning toward exclusivity, establishing intense internal division and tribal allegiances.

The Latakia province has been the geographical position of the Alawi community since the beginning of the 10th or 11th century. Their escape into the mountainous region did not end persecution nor change their lesser social class/position amongst the Sunni majority, but for a time merely lay dormant. “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.”[vi] Because the mountains in the Latakia region were isolated and difficult to travel through together with a lack of water resources and difficulty tending the land, the Alawi people have always been poor. As a result, they became servants to the Sunni elite and were treated with ignominy and contempt.

There are no social links between the Alevi and the Alawi, the latter viewing all Turks whether Alevi or Sunni as offspring of the Ottoman regime. This is only justified with the Turkish-Israeli alliance and the occupation of the Golan Heights by Israel, as well as the Alexandretta/Hatay controversy. Syria ambitiously developed transport, communication and roads that made urbanisation and information accessible and being predominately rural, the success rate for implementing or expanding and finally assimilating the rural into urban life had been far more successful than many other countries in the region. This could be because rather than spreading funds unanimously throughout the region, Syria took priority to the Latakia region. The 1950’s and 1960’s found the expansion of education dramatically increase. “The number of state schools grew from 658 in 1948 to 3,804 in 1964… foreign and private schools went down from 40 per cent of all schools in 1945 to 19 per cent in 1951, and almost nil in 1967.”[Faksh, 140] Education allowed the Alawi to mobilise and prompted an increased desire to participate in political life, for reasons twofold: the fear of Islamist accession to power and the introduction by France for minorities to play a role in political decision-making.

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.

Syria_Ethno-religious_composition.

France maintained that methods and strategies needed to be implemented in order to prevent the growing threat of theocracy. Edmond Rabbath wrote Unite Syrienne et Devenir Arabe and claimed that the Alawi and other heterodox communities are no different to Muslims, but merely ‘lag behind.’ As a sharp contrast to Turkey, minorities in Syria were included in political life from the beginning of independence and the presence of the French opened the door to a new social consciousness for the Alawi community. Rabinovich claims that the unique relationship between the Alawites and the French are particularly important because Latakia contained a sizeable population of Christian and Bedouin communities. France also required assistance in an increasingly frustrated Syria and therefore provided Alawis with autonomy in order to receive unanimous support.

[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] Nevertheless, 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 Sunni nationalism and the sunnification of the heterodox communities.

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. The rebellion was crushed and Murshid executed in 1946 with the support of British High Commissioner Edward Spears. It was at this stage that power in Syria was inherited by Sunnis, only increasing Alawi resistance for fear of repression and violence by the Sunni elite. It was only when the Druze revolt of 1954 was crushed that the Alawi became disillusioned by the political situation, but it nevertheless reflects the rise of Alawi consciousness and participation in national and political rebellion. Consequently, the ihkwan al-Muslimin or the Muslim Brotherhood were gradually developing a strong social and political ideology, leading the Alawites to strongly question the direction of their fate.

The most important change in Syria developed after the intentional collapse of leading Sunni landlords and the distribution of land ownership. 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 that could have left the Latakia region open to danger. 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. Although Turkey was much more successful with their coercive population politics and family planning that attempted to distribute communities and push for social fragmentation, there was no direct impact against the 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 sub national 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. 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 are dominantly applied 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 came predominate became of their political stance towards the peasantry and the alleviation of poverty, something many in Syria can sympathise with.

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 since the Sunni majority viewed a career at Homs (Military Academy) as degrading. Secondly, while Sunni rule became dominant, they were both afraid and at the same time ignored the power of the military and avoided the provision of large funding. Finally, because of their economic situation, the Alawis could not pay the fee to avoid sending their children to the army, while at the same time found that a career at Homs an excellent opportunity for a steady income.

“Alawi power resulted from an unplanned by sectarian transformation of public life in Syria.”[xxii] Minorities were originally placed in the lower ranks of the military, however this actually benefited their ascension since, “[s]enior 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.

 

Senior_officials_in_the_Baath_Party_in_a_rare_un-official_photograph_with_Salah_Jadid_from_1969

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-Asad is the current president of Syria who assumed office in 2000.

In order to maintain political power, the Alawi have sought to repress Sunni dominance – particularly in the military – by providing leading roles to Alawi and mediocre roles spread out throughout the country to Sunni. These changes in political dominance did not proceed without aggression. “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 stronger that have shaken political stability and that ultimately led to the civil war it has found itself in today.

 

Further reading:

  1. Itamar Rabonvich, “The Compact Minorities and the Syrian State, 1918-1945” Journal of Contemporary History 14:4 (Oct 1979) 703
  2. Paul J White and Joost Jongerden, Turkey’s Alevi Enigma: A Comprehensive Overview, (Boston: Brill, 2003) 55
  3. Daniel Pipes, “The Alawi Capture of Power in Syria” Middle Eastern Studies 25:4 (Oct 1989) pp 434-435
  4. Elisabeth Ozdalga, Tord Olsson and Catharina Raudvere, Alevi Identity: Cultural, Religious and Social Perspectives (Stockholm: Swedish Research Institute in Istanbul, 1998) 167. 
  5. Mahmud A. Faksh, “The Alawi Community of Syria: A New Dminant Political Force” Middle Eastern Studies 20:2 (April 1984) 133-153. 
  6. Daniel Pipes. “The Alawi Capture of Power in Syria” Middle Eastern Studies 25:4 (Oct 1989) 429-450
  7. Michael H. Van Dusen, “Political Integration and Regionalism in Syria,” Middle East Journal 26:2 (Spring 1972) 132
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