Anthony Shadid on Alawites and the Regime
Anthony Shadid is cleaning up in the race to report from Syria. His deep knowledge of the region, ability to speak Arabic, and sensitivity to his informants means he is getting the real story, as his last two articles, copied below, make clear. He does not get bogged down in tired metaphors like "the mafia inc.," no matter how compelling they are or how useful in short-handing messages to the US audience. Most Middle Eastern states are variations on the Mafia structure. Wealth, jobs and influence are distributed through patronage networks. Syria is no exception to this rule. True democracy, the rule of law, and meritocracy should sweep away such political and economic structures. That is the theory, at least. Of course, this is the long-term outcome that Syrians hope for, but they know better than to expect anything like that in the short term. What will happen, should the Asad family and Alawi hierarchy be displaced, is that another patronage system will be established in its stead. What the pillars of that system are likely to be, or how long it will take before they can be established, no one knows.
The Kanaan story Shadid outlines for us is about what happens to one Alawite region when its main patron dies. Its people are cut off from jobs, money, and a direct connection to the state. In turn, the state loses the loyalty and backing or the region. The shift from the "old guard" to the "new guard" under President Bashar has meant a vast displacement of patronage networks throughout the Alawite coastal region. Hafiz al-Asad and his security chieftains all emerged from villages in the Alawi Mountains. They competed among themselves to deliver jobs and infrastructure to their own and neighboring villages. As the old guard has been removed from power by Bashar, these patronage networks have also been removed, one after another.
The members of the "new guard," Bashar's generation, are not attached to their village as their father's were. The "sons of power" were brought up in Latakia, Damascus and other cities, only visiting their father's villages from time to time. They do not know the names of all their cousins and relatives, nor do they feel obliged to help them in the same manor that their fathers did. The new generation spends its money in the cities not in the villages nor among the farmers that many of them look down on as city people have a want to do. Increasingly the mountain villages are feeling cut of from the state. They do not feel that Bashar is "ta'ifi" or sectarian as his father was. They accuse him of ignoring his people. One hears such Alawi complaints as, "Bashar might as well be a Druze or Kurd. We have been ignored." Bashar's effort to modernize Syria has meant dumping the old patronage system in an effort to build a new one. Some explain this new system in terms of "crony capitalism," but it is not yet well formed. No one knows what it means for the future of the state and the presidency. Can the shift between the old mafia and the new, between countryside and city, between security chieftains and crony capitalists be carried off? As the weight of the regime moves from the countryside to the city, can the Alawite leaders of Syria retain their authority and legitimacy, or will it evaporate along with their connection to their social base in the villages?
Bashar has only begun to oversee this transformation of power - or "modernization," as it is sometimes called. The body blow his regime is now taking from the United States and France may very well catch him at a time when he is between horses.
Death of Syrian Minister Leaves A Sect Adrift in Time of Strife
By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, October 31, 2005; A01
BIHAMRA, Syria -- In this scenic village, along terraced hills of pine and palm trees, the body of Interior Minister Ghazi Kanaan rests in a coffin draped in a Syrian flag, a leather-bound Koran at each corner. His death on Oct. 12 was certain. Less so are the shadowy circumstances that removed from the scene one of Syria's most powerful men, an interlocutor between the religious sect known as the Alawites, who have long ruled the country, and a government they controlled but increasingly see as distant and corrupt.
A suicide, officials said, closing the case the day after Kanaan died. A relative, Mazen Kanaan, smiled at the thought.
"He was a man of confrontation," he said. "Suicide is an escape. He wasn't a man to run away from something."
How did he die then? the relative was asked. "That is for you to figure out," he answered.
The timing of Kanaan's death has also raised suspicions. Only recently he had been questioned in a U.N. investigation that implicates senior officials in the assassination of a former Lebanese prime minister.
In the sometimes brutal politics of Syria's elite, in which violence is intertwined with cunning, the 63-year-old Kanaan was a man of many faces: self-made Alawite strongman, ruthless politician and potential contender for power. In his village of Bihamra and the region that spills beyond it, he was something else: a feudal-like lord who tended to members of his Alawite minority, cultivating their support and defending their interests. To them, his death -- murder or suicide -- has become more than the passing of a figure who bordered on the iconic. It is an instance, writ small, of the growing frustration and fear in the religious sect that has served as the backbone of 35 years of Baath Party rule and is still viewed as the linchpin of President Bashar Assad's five years in power.
"No one can replace him. Maybe in a thousand years someone else like him will come," said Mazen Kanaan, sipping a small cup of bitter coffee in the courtyard of Ghazi Kanaan's now-shuttered mansion. "People need help but they have no one to go to."
These are difficult days for Syria's Alawites, and in their sentiments may be hints of the vulnerability of Assad's government as it faces a crisis over the U.N. investigation. In villages like Bihamra, across forbidding mountains that spring from the Mediterranean coast, there is deep anxiety that in a time of strife, Alawites will bear the brunt of vendettas dating to the decades when they provided the leadership of the government, military and feared security services.
That apprehension comes as frustration surges that the very state they are tied to has abandoned them. The military that ended their historic marginalization is neglected and disrespected, some of their villages remain without running water and, many say, the government, despite its Alawite cast, no longer defends them.
"It's like people don't know we live in the country," said Kharfan Khazin Ahmed, a 61-year-old retired government employee from the Alawite village of Qarir. "Every person sitting in the chair of power cares about money, not about the people."
Rise to the Top
Alawites are a small but pivotal community in Syria's tapestry of sect and ethnicity. Syria is predominantly Arab, with a Kurdish minority in the northeast. But among the Arabs are many Muslim sects: Sunni Muslims are the majority, along with minorities of Alawis, Druze and Ismailis, all of whom trace their origins back to Shiite Islam. The Alawites are the largest of those religious minorities, representing probably about 12 percent of Syria's 18 million people. They are centered in the region around Bihamra.
For centuries, Alawites faced withering discrimination, in part over the suspicions generated by their secretive, loosely Shiite religious traditions. Their secluded mountain villages are a relic of that ostracism, and they were some of the poorest, least educated and most rural of Syria's inhabitants. As with other religious minorities in the Middle East, many Alawites turned to the Baath Party, drawn to its pan-Arab, leftist and secular ideology, hoping it might dilute Syria's Sunni dominance and provide a more inclusive notion of identity. To escape grinding poverty, they joined the military, soon filling the ranks of its senior officer corps. In modern Syria, those two institutions -- party and military -- have ruled for 35 years.
Assad is an Alawite, and during the presidency of his father and predecessor, Hafez Assad, the sect emerged from behind the scenes to command the government's most sensitive positions in the military and security services. While the elder Assad was careful to give a Sunni face to portfolios such as the defense and foreign ministries and to forge alliances with other groups, his inner circle was drawn from his own community, often his own Qalbiyya tribe and family. In that sense, he was not only Syria's strongman, but also the leader of his sect, responsible for its fortunes.
"You will remain eternal in our hearts forever," reads a billboard with the elder Assad's portrait at the entrance to Qurdaha, his home town, about a mile along a winding road of ancient, rounded hills from Kanaan's village of Bihamra.
Under the younger Assad, to a remarkable degree, the circle of Alawite dominance has narrowed to his family. Gone are some of the sect's most powerful men -- former intelligence chiefs such as Ali Duba and Mohammed Khouli, for instance. Kanaan, Syria's point man in Lebanon for two decades and later the interior minister, was one of the last and most prominent. A product of the feared Mukhabarat, or Syrian intelligence, his reputation in much of the country was of a fearsome, hard man; in Bihamra, it was of a charitable one.
"He helped everyone in the village," said a doctor who spoke on condition of anonymity. "He was like a father for this entire place. Any help you needed as a citizen, you could go to him. His door was open to both the poor and princes."
The doctor, Kanaan's relative and others sat in the courtyard of his stucco, red-roofed villa on a cool morning. They snacked on bananas and apples, drank coffee and smoked cigarettes, ignoring the dawn-to-dusk fast of the holy month of Ramadan. The Alawite region is one of Syria's most secular, reflecting the imprint of a Baath Party that saw tribe and religion as barriers to modernization. The veil is hardly seen; missing are the most conservative Arab traditions that discourage interaction between men and women.
Bihamra itself shows the legacy of Kanaan's power and influence: He provided money to build the Jaafar Tayar mosque, opened a library with seven computers and built a community center named for his father, Mohammed Ali. While in Lebanon, he visited every month or two. On his return to Damascus in 2002, he visited at least once every two weeks, more often for funerals. As a young man, the story goes, in one of the myths that can overshadow life's excesses, he gave part of his first lieutenant's salary to villagers.
"The difference is that he would help someone and expect nothing in return," his relative said.
"They're going to feel the emptiness," he added.
An Ally Is Lost
Two weeks after his body was found, Kanaan's death remains the talk of Damascus. Most often heard is speculation that he faced disgrace on corruption charges and chose suicide instead. But many speculate that he represented one of the few potential rivals to Bashar Assad, giving rise to a slew of conspiracy theories: that he was forced to kill himself or that he was murdered, possibly poisoned. One well-informed Syrian said that the day after Kanaan died, all the coffee cups from his Interior Ministry office were seized to conceal evidence of foul play.
"They committed his suicide," said a Syrian dissident, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The talk in Bihamra, though, is more visceral and perhaps more telling. In the repercussions of Kanaan's death lies a truth about Syria and its government today: The younger Assad is viewed as less ta'ifi , or sectarian. His outlook is ostensibly more modern, possibly reformist; bucking tradition, he took for his wife a Sunni, not an Alawite. But as he struggles to put a more contemporary veneer on his rule, he faces a society still suffering deep cleavages that reflect unresolved questions of identity. The Baath Party offered one answer: The country is Arab. But other identities still compete -- Alawi, Sunni, Christian and so on -- in a zero-sum game of communal survival.
And in that question of survival, villagers say, Alawites lost one of their last, most prominent defenders in Kanaan. In his place, some Alawites say, is a government that cares about the military only to ensure it doesn't rebel; a ruling family most worried about its survival; and a state that promotes not the sect's interest, but networks bound by patronage and power that are growing richer. Even some Alawite intelligence officials are said to be disenchanted over the higher profile of Assad's family at their expense.
"Sadma," Kanaan's relative called his death, a shock or a blow. "Not just for the village, but for the entire region."
"He served the people. He transferred their words," said Shaalan Asad, a 51-year-old former teacher who runs a grocery store in Jobat Berghal, about a half-hour away. "He was a connection between the people and the government and their officials."
Asad, sitting on the porch of his shop, reflected on his village's story. In the 1970s, after the elder Assad took power, electricity finally arrived. The main road was paved, bringing cars where donkeys long trod over dirt paths along rocky ridges that spilled into verdant valleys of apples, cottonwoods and olives. Schools were opened in the 1980s, and the town had a sports club and a community center. Today, they are closed, unstaffed and in disrepair. He said villagers are still waiting for running water.
"We really need more," he said. "It's slow. They can't do two or three projects at the same time."
In Damascus and other Syrian cities, there is the perception that the Alawite roots of the Assad family have meant hamlets like Jobat Berghal have received favorable treatment. That view often inspires anger among the Alawite villagers here.
"The opposite! The opposite!" shouted Ahmed, the retired government employee, his face leathery from the sun.
"We're all Alawites here and when you come here, you can't find anything," he said.
As Ahmed spoke, years of grievances poured out. He ignored the coded language often employed in Syria's repressive climate. The courts? They are suffused with bribes and corruption, he said. The law? It protects the powerful and wealthy. He still pumps water into his home from a steel vat. He and other villagers have filed thousands of loan applications and still await an answer.
"President Hafez Assad said it was the right of any citizen to raise his voice if he sees injustice. You should speak out against it," Ahmed said. "Now they say it's not your right to talk. They say it's not your business, even if there's something wrong."
A Question of Identity
It is sometimes a joke among Alawites that, in the event of turmoil, they would flee to their villages near here, the same mountain redoubts that offered protection over centuries of ill will.
They laugh, but a hint of anxiety shadows the remarks. So does a sense of injustice: While some Alawites have profited under the Assads' rule, at times profligately, many have seen little benefit.
"They worry about the regime and about the accusations against the regime," said Tareq Abad, a 30-year-old sailor in the village of Shadaita, who belongs to another religious sect known as the Murshidis. (Numbering possibly 200,000, they are followers of a Syrian holy man and populist from the region who was executed in 1946.) "What would they do if the regime collapsed?"
He sat with two friends, who looked at the ground as he spoke, perhaps fearing his forthrightness. He sensed their unease.
"Let's face it," he said, shaking his head, "the government is Alawite."
Many Syrians take pride in the coexistence of the country's sects. Asking someone their identity is often seen as rude. But sectarian fault lines lurk beneath the surface. Some Syrians argue that the divisions were deepened by the battle between the government and the Muslim Brotherhood, a Sunni Muslim movement, in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Over more than a decade, the Sunni community itself has grown increasingly religious, with greater manifestations of piety such as the veil. This summer, a clash in the village of Qadmous, in the coastal province of Tartus, took a sectarian bent, pitting two minorities, Alawites and Ismailis, against each other.
In the village of Mzaraa, a 33-year-old grocer, Firas Deeb, dismissed the talk of sect. He was Syrian, he insisted. Still, he said he expected his relatives to return if there was conflict in the country. There was no other choice.
"That's certain," he said, nodding.
"The people in Damascus will return to the village, and they'll find protection with their people. You can hide here," Deeb said. "They're going to hide behind the rocks and the stones. In the city, there are no rocks and stones."
Inner Circle in Syria Holds Power, and Perhaps Peril
By Anthony Shadid and Robin Wright
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, October 28, 2005; A01
DAMASCUS, Syria -- The brother is an impetuous officer, who wields control over the praetorian Republican Guard. The sister is nicknamed "the Iron Lady." Her husband is a burly general who rose methodically through the ranks of Syria's feared intelligence services. Presiding over them is Bashar Assad, the Syrian president who runs what some have called "a dictatorship without a dictator."
Diplomats and analysts say that together, the four represent the corporate leadership of Syria, a country facing its greatest crisis in decades following the release of a U.N. investigation that implicates senior officials in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. In this crisis, they say, the Assad family circle is a source of the president's strength. It may also be his weakness. If his relatives are directly linked to the killing, the scandal could bring down his government.
Both Assad's brother Maher and his brother-in-law, Asef Shawkat, were named in earlier versions of the report, although many diplomats here said the evidence was spotty. The Syrian government has repeatedly denied any role in the killing.
"It is about interests at the end of the day," said a Syrian intellectual familiar with members of the government but speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of harassment. "They say, 'We have to protect our own, otherwise we will all go down together.' "
As the U.N. Security Council debates a resolution demanding Syria's cooperation with the investigation, Assad's inner circle is the focus of attention in the country, where reading the Kremlin-like tea leaves is an intellectual pastime. Many here believe any change in the government would come from within. But as long as the circle remains unbroken, many also suspect the government can endure the short-term crisis, even if few can sketch out a scenario that would end Syria's isolation.
"As long as [the family members] are not trying to act against him, it will be hard to pull off a successful coup," said Flynt Leverett, a former National Security Council staffer in the Bush administration who is now at the Brookings Institution. "That doesn't mean people may not try, but it'd be hard to pull off as long as they're in his corner."
The reliance of Syria's leadership on family is not unusual in the Middle East, where an array of authoritarian republics and monarchies have reserved strategic positions for sons, brothers and other relatives.
But interviews with Syrian analysts, diplomats, dissidents and intellectuals paint a picture of a tightknit circle that has dramatically narrowed over the five-year tenure of Assad, who succeeded his father, Hafez, in 2000. Most stalwarts of his father's rule have been forced out, many hailing from the minority Alawite clan that has buttressed the rule of the Baath Party in Syria for 35 years; one of the last, the powerful Interior Minister Ghazi Kanaan, was said to have committed suicide this month in Damascus.
Divisions are said to abound. But many analysts say those differences were set aside this spring, after Hariri's assassination forced Syria to end its 29-year military presence in Lebanon and prompted the U.N. investigation. But some Syrians blame the circle's small size for a string of foreign policy decisions in Lebanon and Iraq that have left Syria as isolated as at any time in its history.
"Nobody listens, nobody reads," said Marwan Kabalan, a professor at Damascus University and analyst at its Center for Strategic Studies. "You have a very small circle of decision-makers in charge of decisions in the country. What do you expect?"
In style and structure, the Syrian government is distinctly the product of one man, Assad's father, whose cult of personality presided over an elaborate overlay of institutions and alliances built across a 30-year reign. While Assad's leadership today relies on an inner circle, it has inherited some of the durability of that past era: The government has cultivated support within the public sector, the military, the Baath Party and a merchant class, some of whose powerful members are sons of government officials.
For key security and military positions, Assad's father relied on his Alawite community, a long-underprivileged minority along Syria's northwest coast, and in particular his own Qalbiyya tribe. But some Alawites grumble that the younger Assad has shown less of an inclination to patronize the community, even families that long represented pillars of the government.
Feeding that resentment is the perception of high-level corruption, both within the government and the families of senior officials. The Makhloof family, related to Assad through his mother, has become one of the wealthiest in Syria, with interests that span banking, Syria's free-trade zones, duty-free shops and nascent mobile telecommunications.
"The father led not only the country but also the family, the sect and the army, while, with President Bashar Assad, this kind of strong leadership is not available," said Sadiq Azm, a Syrian writer teaching this year at Princeton University.
One of the most dynamic figures in the circle is Shawkat, a tall, husky general with black hair and a mustache. Since February, he has run Syrian military intelligence, the institution that keeps the closest eye on threats to the government. He is a natty dresser, known for expensive tastes. A diplomat recalled that at one function for Assad's father, he was the lone person not wearing a military uniform. He chose instead an expensive Italian suit, the diplomat said. Those who have met him describe him as confident, businesslike and security-conscious, imbued with street smarts that came from his rise through the intelligence ranks.
Hafez Assad's oldest son, Basil, opposed the marriage of the divorced Shawkat to Bushra, Assad's only daughter. He was fully welcomed into the family only after Basil's death in a car crash in 1994, Syrians say. Diplomats and Syrians recall an incident, though unconfirmed. In the late 1990s, the story goes, Bashar Assad's brother Maher shot Shawkat in the stomach after he insulted Maher's uncle. Relations between the two, though strained, have improved, Syrians say.
As a young operative, Shawkat earned a reputation in the confrontation with Islamic activists in the late 1970s and early 1980s that culminated with the brutal suppression of an uprising in Hama in 1982.
"Asef Shawkat is the man who's done the best job at consolidating power with his own resources and his own levers," another diplomat said. Added the Syrian intellectual: "He's ruthless and very ambitious, but he knows what he's doing. He's not stupid."
Maher is Assad's younger brother, born in 1968, shorter than the lanky Assad but more stoutly built and, many Syrians say, more thuggish. A colonel in the Republican Guard, he serves as an acting brigadier, a diplomat said. He commands the brigade in the region around Damascus, the elite force that would most likely be called on to suppress any coup attempt.
He is rarely seen in public and, by reputation, has an explosive temper, leaving those around him skittish.
Assad's older sister, Bushra, a doctor, is often described as a power behind the throne, promoting her husband's ambitions as well as her own. Strong-willed and tough, she might have been her father's choice as successor had she not been a woman, one Syrian said.
Five years into his reign, Assad himself remains liked in Syria, and people often make a distinction between him and the unpopular government. He has shorn his rule of the iconography so familiar to his father and goes out in public with his family. To many younger Syrians, he and his wife, Asma, the daughter of a renowned surgeon from a prominent Sunni Muslim family, represent a more modern vision of Syria. She was born, raised and educated in Britain, where she worked as an investment banker.
Bashar studied ophthalmology in Britain. Unlike his brothers, he never demonstrated an ambition for a military or political career. But his father began to groom him as his successor in the late 1990s after the death of Basil: He rejoined the military, spearheaded an anti-corruption drive and was given day-to-day control over Lebanese affairs.
The complaint often heard about Bashar Assad is not his personality but a lack of experience and forcefulness. Few doubt he is in charge, but diplomats say he seeks collective decisions and consensus.
"He's not a natural autocrat," one diplomat said. A Syrian dissident, who asked that his name not be used for fear of harassment, added: "Perhaps he's polite. Perhaps he's not as fierce as his brother and brother-in-law, but he's weak."
There's an adage in the Middle East: If the government survives a crisis, it can claim victory. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein did so after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. So did the elder Assad's government after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. Diplomats and Syrians say the Syrian government's working logic in this crisis is survival. But they said the diplomacy so far adopted -- making measured concessions -- may be outdated today and more in tune with a Cold War world, where Syria could rely on its Soviet ally and a more restrained U.S. policy.
"What pushes them together is their family ties but also the awareness that they have to stick by each other in order to perpetuate their power," said Murhaf Jouejati, director of the Middle East Studies Program at George Washington University.
Since the waning days of Assad's father, stalwarts of the old guard have fallen away, further focusing power in the hands of the inner circle. One Syrian intellectual said he had often heard complaints by senior intelligence officials that they were being marginalized. That the complaints come from Alawite officials is significant, diplomats say.
The death of Kanaan, the interior minister, was perhaps the most spectacular change. The Syrian government declared it a suicide; accounts differ in Damascus, but most often elaborated is the view that he was forced into suicide under threat of disgrace. His death Oct. 12 removed the sole figure that many analysts believe represented a potential alternative to Assad's rule.
To many analysts, the narrowing of the circle has played to the benefit of Shawkat, who is seen as having most successfully built his own networks of influence within the intelligence and military.
"Everything's happened to the advantage of Asef. He's pushed away all the strong men," said the Syrian intellectual familiar with figures in the government. "The field is empty now, and that will fit him more."
In that milieu, a U.N. investigation that directly implicates officials such as Shawkat would drive to the very heart of the regime's survival, diplomats and analysts say. Most see a decision by Assad to turn against the inner circle as a red line that cannot be crossed.
"He does not have the power," the Syrian intellectual said.
Wright reported from Washington.