One Alawite nation, bearing an eternal message |
Asharq Al-Awsat - 19 June, 2012
Author: Abdullah Al-Otaibi
The phrase in the title is a play on the Baath party's renowned slogan: "One Arab nation, bearing an eternal message". The modified title is not my own, but rather it was coined by the Druze officer Salim Hatoum, who was once an ally of Hafez al-Assad before he later on rose against him, and was executed as a result.
Sectarianism seems to be one of Iran's best political weapons domestically and regionally. Domestically, the situation is clear and we have to look no further than the text of the Iranian constitution and the ruling authority's daily practices. Regionally, Iran is playing a dangerous game in Syria, Yemen and Bahrain, along the lines of its earlier practices in Lebanon and Iraq, as can be seen in its continual threats.
In Syria, the policy of domestic sectarianism, i.e. within the state, was first introduced by Hafez al-Assad before he handed power to his son Bashar, who assumed the presidency in place of his deceased brother Basel.
Syria and Iran continue to adopt this policy, along with their supporters in the region. They attempt to label anyone trying to raise the subject of sectarianism, or linking it to the struggle in Syria, as a supporter of this doctrine, even if they use historical facts and scientific analysis in their arguments. Yet the game is now being exposed and the sectarian issue in Syria, even if thorny, must be placed on the table as part of its history and current reality. It must be dealt with wisely and rationally, now that everyone is fully aware of it.
In Syria's modern history, the issue of sectarianism has always been strongly present. In the Ottoman Empire, the popular and Arab intellectual opposition despised the Ottomans for being autocrats, without any consideration for sectarian dimensions. However, some minorities believed that the Empire represented foreign rule, and this differentiation appeared once again during the later French mandate of Syria. The French sought to establish separate states for different minorities, most notably a separate Alawite state within Syria’s mountainous region, later on named Latakia. The French mandate then recruited these minorities into the army through its "Special Forces of the Near East", which it established and sponsored at a time when Sunni urban residents looked down upon army enrolment as a career path, something that would cause them great harm later on. The formation of these special troops led to the origination of a new Alawite military tradition that was later centralized and monopolized. Following Syria's independence, unlike Sunni urban residents, numerous minority affiliates and rural residents were enrolled in the Baath Party as well as the army. With regards to the Baath Party, Matta'a Safdi believed that "originally, it was a purely sectarian movement", for its leadership had suffered greatly in his attempts to mobilize the urban areas and the Sunni majority. As for the army, its officers' loyalties were divided between ideological parties, clans and sectarian affiliations.
In this context, Hafez al-Assad, together with four other minority figures; two Alawaites: Mohamed Omran and Salah Jadeed, and two Ismailis: Abdul-Karim al-Jundi and Ahmed al-Mir, established the “Military Council". This would develop later on into an entity through which Hafez al-Assad could rule the country.
Following the Baath Party's coup in 1963, Salah Jadid and Hafez al-Assad believed that the sectarian polarization of minorities in both the party and the army was an ideal way to rise to power. Whilst Jadid inclined to dominate the party, Hafez al-Assad opted to dominate the military institution. Yet, later on, when a struggle began between them, al-Assad was stronger and held the upper hand, imposing himself using the power of the army which he dominated through its minorities and a sectarian affiliation that he had fostered.
Hafez al-Assad was not in a hurry to repeat what his old companion Mohamed Omran had said, namely that "the Fatimids [Alawite, Druze and Ismaili minorities] must take their turn", rather he did even more on the ground. Al-Assad's awareness continued and took on narrower directions; from relying on minorities in general to relying on the Fatimids, then purely on the Alawites and their clans, and ultimately relying on family rule with which he seized control of the country.
Hafez al-Assad staged his Baathist coup in 1963 by carrying out the successive systematic liquidation of army officers as follows: First the prominent Sunni officers in 1966, the Druze in 1966, the Horanians in 1966 – 1968, and the Ismailis in 1968 - 1969. From 1971 onwards, al-Assad relied primarily on officers from his own family, his clan or citizens from the villages near his own.
Hafiz al-Assad's sectarian awareness continued until he became fully in control of power. This was clear in his own behavior, as well as in the impressions he gave to some Arab leaders who dealt with him. According to Abdul-Halim Khaddam, al-Assad used to believe that in the Lebanese arena, the Shiite sect was deemed closest to the regime, and the political leaderships of the Sunni Muslims in Lebanon could not be trusted. As for other Arab leaders, Anwar Sadat used to call the al-Assad regime "the Alawite Baath regime". Similarly, King Faisal was quoted as saying that al-Assad was an “Alawite Baathist, each being worse than the other."
This is just a quick glance at Syria's modern history showing how the regime exploited sectarianism in a savage manner in both the ruling party and the army, until it was ultimately in control of the government and the state.
In this context, we can interpret Russia’s stance towards the situation in Syria. Here Russia is aiming to "return the Afghanistan favor" to the US, along the lines of Zbigniew Brzezinski, who once saw Afghanistan as a chance for Russia to return the "Vietnamese favor". Without a doubt, Russia has been damaged by the fall of Gaddafi’s Libya, and now the Obama administration will have to pay a heavy price for forming a new hostile superpower in the international arena, with Syria at its nucleus.
The sectarian fire, if it breaks out, will be limitless in terms of reason or politics. It will wreak havoc upon everything, dragging everyone into its whirlpool, breaching Russia’s borders and impacting upon the West as well. When sectarianism transforms into a political force, its impact will be highly volatile.
Sectarianism is a pure evil, and a signal of civilization in decline. Despite our complete rejection of sectarianism as a political approach, the fact that it is being practiced in such a blatant manner in Syria can only make people more aware of it. This may cause it to escalate, and then everyone will have to pay a costly price.