Sunday, July 22, 2012

Syria's 'Alawis: A Corrective

Asad Abukhalil, aka The Angry Arab, one of the closest observers of the Syrian scene, was moved recently to blow the following whistle:

"It is the season of open bigotry against 'Alawites - qua 'Alawites. I see it in the Qatari-Saudi media and in the Western media. Western journalists are even justifying the butchery of 'Alawites by gangs of the Free Syrian Army. The coverage is almost exterminationist in aim. Every attack on 'Alawite civilians is coupled with a reference to shabihah (equating the two) and ''Alawite rulers'. It is quite unprecedented. I mean, key elements of the Zionist regime are Jewish, but I never see Western journalists justifying attacks on Israeli civilians [for that reason]. When you read articles on Syria... just replace the word 'Alawite with the word Jewish and see how it sounds. The fact that the Syrian regime is 'Alawite does NOT mean 1) that the regime has not repressed anyone and everyone regardless of sect: the key criterion is [regime] loyalty and not sect; 2) that the regime would have survived and endured without support from non-'Alawites (13-14% of the population); 3) that there has ever been a consensus among 'Alawites in support of the Asad regime. Overall, the Western media adhere to liberal standards - except when it comes to the Middle East. Then they start sounding like Europe's fascist media." (Angry Arab News Service, 20/7/12)

So what's really going on here?

It should never be forgotten that Israel, the archetypal Middle Eastern sectarian state, has long dreamt of remaking the area into a sectarian patchwork under its domination. The "most explicit, detailed and unambiguous statement to date [1982] of the Zionist strategy in the Middle East," to borrow the words of scholar Israel Shahak, is the nightmare scenario of Israeli journalist and foreign ministry official Oded Yinon:

"Lebanon's total dissolution into 5 provinces serves as a precedent for the entire Arab world including Egypt, Syria, Iraq and the Arabian peninsula and is already following that track. The dissolution of Syria and Iraq later on into ethnically or religiously unique areas such as in Lebanon, is Israel's primary target on the Eastern front in the long run, while the dissolution of the military power of those states serves as the primary short term target. Syria will fall apart, in accordance with its ethnic and religious structure, into several states such as in the present day Lebanon, so that there will be a Shi'ite Alawi state along its coast, a Sunni state in the Aleppo area, another state in Damascus hostile to its northern neighbor, and the Druzes who will set up a state, maybe even in our Golan, and certainly in the Hauran and in northern Jordan. This state of affairs will be the guarantee for peace and security in the area in the long run, and that aim is already within our reach today." (A Strategy for Israel in the Nineteen Eighties)

The Ziocon-initiated, US-led war on Iraq, which tore apart the cohesive, non-sectarian Ba'thist state and society there, effectively reducing it to three separate sectarian statelets (Shia, Sunni, Kurd), has been Israel's signal success so far. Syria could well be its second - helped along, if not yet a Libyan-style intervention, then at least by covert USraeli involvement.

Side by side with those mysterious explosions* aimed at key members of the Asad regime, the Western press has begun disseminating  Zionist fantasies of a dismembered Syria. Examples include US Zionist academic Franck Salameh's speculation about the 'logic' of a separate 'Alawi state in Syria (An Alawite State in Syria?, 10/7/12) and the following ludicrous analogising by Jonathan Kay of the Ziocon Foundation for Defence of Democracies:

"A small, marginalised people, kicked around the Middle East for centuries by Muslim empires, finally carves out an independent home for itself on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean. But life remains precarious: Islamists seek to delegitimize the newly established homeland, declaiming the ruling sect as a gang of infidel occupiers. Now, the simmering hatred of the occupied people finally has been transformed into an unstoppable political and military intifada - cheered on by Western human-rights advocates... Like Israel's Jews, members of the 'Alawi sect in Syria regard their control of the nation as an existential issue. There is only one 'Alawi state, just as there is only one Jewish state, and its destruction would mean the end of the 'Alawis as a political entity on the world stage - probably forever." (How Assad's fall will lay ruin to the Alawi once-in-a-millenium promised land,, 9/7/12)

To help clarify the position of the 'Alawis in Syria and chart a way through the ms media propaganda fog currently directed at them, a species of sectarian agitprop exposed so perceptively by Abukhalil, I thought it might be useful to present the following relatively objective assessment of Syria's 'Alawi community and its links with the ruling Asad dynasty. It comes from a 1991 Human Rights Watch publication, Syria Unmasked: The Suppression of Human Rights by the Asad Regime:

"Hafez Asad [Bashar's father] and many of his associates are 'Alawis, Syria's largest minority community. The 'Alawis, who number about 1.4 million, have their origins in peasant villages in the Jabal al-Ansariya mountain chain near Syria's Mediterranean coast. There they lived in relative isolation until fairly recently, preserving their heterodox beliefs. Extremely poor, many farmed the land of absentee Sunni landlords from Lataqia or Hama (though there were some 'Alawi landlords). The Sunni-'Alawi tension in Syria has its roots, in part, in this class distinction.

"In the 1940s, many ambitious 'Alawi youth entered the army or the Homs Military Academy - admission after 1945 was no longer based on social background - as a way of moving up in the world. And many did rise swiftly in the late 1940s and 1950s as military coups decimated the upper ranks of the officer corps. The Ba'th party also attracted some of these young 'Alawis, including Hafez Asad. By the early 1960s, many noncommissioned and junior officers were 'Alawis. Some of these young officers eventually led the party to power in 1963.

"Unable to rely on mass support, the Ba'thist officers turned to reliable co-religionists to secure control over the military. An 'Alawi officer named Salah Jadid assumed control over military assignments and promotions. In 1963, he purged some 700 officers, replacing more than half with 'Alawis.

"With Jadid's coup in 1966, an 'Alawi network emerged at the heart of the regime. Hafez Asad's coup in 1970 brought even more 'Alawis into top posts in the Ba'th party, security services, and key army units. Since then, the security services and commands of the key military units at the division and brigade levels have been securely in 'Alawi hands. Some two-thirds of Military Academy students and over half of the top ranks of the officer corps are also 'Alawis. The Ba'th party, too, has been strikingly 'Alawi, though less so than the military-security nexus. Both the Regional Command and the Central Committee have had a markedly 'Alawi membership - between a quarter and a half of the total. This is also true of other key party organs.

"At the very top, personal connections are narrower than 'Alawi status alone, and include relations to the Asad family, membership in Asad's 'clan', or ties to his natal village of Qardaha. Many of the top security chiefs, such as 'Ali Duba and Muhammad al-Kuly, belong to these more intimate circles.

"'Alawis have increasingly made large fortunes, usually through their connection to the security apparatus. They are to be found disproportionately among the country's foremost real estate magnates, construction billionaires, and wealthy black marketeers. Muhammad Haydar, for example, amassed a large fortune as the regime's economic chief in the 1970s; his kickbacks earned him the sobriquet 'Mister 5%'. Rif'at as-Asad became the richest of them all. With profits from smuggling and protection rackets, he built up an international portfolio of investments, including a casino in Malta, a hotel in Marseilles, a cement factory in East Beirut, a publishing company in Paris, and even a sizable bloc of shares in the Anglo-French Chunnel.

"In addition to making money, many 'Alawis have risen through the university and joined the professions and intelligentsia. Although influence and favoritism may have helped some, a number are very gifted and have taken their place among Syria's foremost filmmakers and authors.

"The regime has tried to organize the entire 'Alawi community as a base of support with partial success. Jamil al-Asad, another of the president's brothers, founded the 'Alawi-based Imam 'Ali Murtada Committee to galvanize 'Alawis behind the regime in the late 1970s, when it was most threatened. But such a blatantly sectarian group became an embarrassment and Asad disbanded it in 1983. There remain many poor 'Alawis who receive few benefits from the fact that they are so well represented at the top. Many 'Alawi intellectuals are sharply critical of the regime. And many 'Alawis are active in the secular opposition parties, especially in the Party for Communist Action, which is heavily 'Alawi both in its leadership and in its rank and file.

"At the same time, Sunnis, together with a handful of Druze and Kurds, have occupied many top posts, even if they may have been excluded from the innermost circles of power. Among the top Sunni officeholders are Vice President 'Abd al-Halim Khaddam, Defence Minister Mustafa Tlas, Ba'th Assistant Secretary-General 'Abdullah al-Ahmar, and Army Chief-of-Staff Hikmat Shihabi. Many of these figures have profited as handsomely as their 'Alawi counterparts. Tlas, for example, has amassed a fortune over the years and owns a well-known publishing company as well as agricultural properties and manufacturing concerns.

"Nor has 'Alawi domination of the regime necessarily kept many Sunni merchants and businesspeople from prospering. Among the more prominent are Othman al-'Aidi, owner of the Sham and Merinid hotel chains, and Badr al-Din Shallah, president of the Damascus Chamber of Commerce and a trader in agricultural produce. Christians, such as Armenian construction magnate Pyzant Ya'qubian, also have an important place among the business elite, as do those from other minorities, such as Shi'i tourism king Saib Nahhas.

"'Alawi favoritism is far from absolute. Nor is it in any way incorporated in law. But it is reasonable to conclude that the domination of the commanding heights by an 'Alawi clique has soured group relations in the country and detracted from the development of a secular and integrated Syrian society." (pp 93-94)

[*The latest of which has been described by the clueless Anthony Loyd of my previous post simply as a "rebel bomb" (Death of loyalists a blow to Assad, The Times/The Australian, 20/7/12).]

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