"What do Sunnis intend for Alawis following Regime change?" by Khudr
I received this article by an old friend who has posted on Syria Comment before: Asad's Alawi Dilemma. His present article is remarkable for its honest and direct approach to Syria's essential sectarian problem. He wrote:
Dear Joshua,What do Sunnis intend for Alawis following regime change?
I wrote the attached article in poor English full of grammatical mistakes but I hope you can publish it on your website under a pseudonym, such as "Syrian in the far east," or "Khudr", or whatever you like.
Many people read your blog and comment about it in their blogs or sites, which makes the chance that this will find a proper readership high. Many Syrian expatriate intellectuals will also discuss it on other sites, at least the English language forums. The subject is too sensitive in Arabic, alas.
The subject is: What do Sunnis intend for Alawis following regime change? I ask this question in light of the general discussion now being carried out about the prospects for change in Syria.
In a time when everybody is emphasizing national unity, many would think that talking about issues between religious communities in Syria should be put aside or that they come from a backward Alawi fanatic. I am not a zealot, the only thing I am fanatical about is my hope, one I know will never come true, of the creation of a pure Syrian nationalism as strong and independent as Japanese or Korean Nationalism.
As an engineer, I find it absurd that Syrians believe they can solve a problem without first analyzing it and dealing with it head on.
August 30, 2006
I came across an article in a blog in which the writer, a Syrian dissident, calls for a coup-d’etat by a Musharraf-like Syrian Army General. This is a reformulation of an earlier article by, Volker Perthes, director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, which was written when the West was casting about for a new leader for Syria during the Fall of 2005. The assumption is that this will move the stagnating economic, social, and political situation in Syria forward in the proper direction. Although the author is deliberately provocative, he raises an extremely important question in a country where almost all the rulers in its modern history, except two presidents, have risen to power through a coup-d’etat.
The article is also, unintentionally, asking a more fundamental question regarding the position of the Alawi sect on the issue of regime change. The Army General who is to take power should be an Alawi. This is because non-Alawi officers (mainly Sunni and Druze) have no leverage to lead mostly Alawi soldiers, sergeants and officers against the Alawi regime in power.
Although, rarely explicitly said, few people would argue that radical change from within can be achieved without the help of the Alawis themselves, excluding a full-fledged mass uprising or a foreign invasion. At the very least, this change has to be approved by Alawi Syrians if they have to stand aside watching the Alawi rule terminated.
The original question of the article (why a Syrian Army General would not do a coup d’etat?) can then be re-written as: Why the Alawi Syrians do not terminate Assad’s rule?
First, I think it is not an exaggeration if we say that many Alawis are not happy, to say the least, with the present regime. The reasons that are usually circulated are:
- Poverty (slum living Alawis around Damascus, poor villages and deteriorated unemployment rate in the costal area, etc, as examples); and
- Political imprisonment if they dare to challenge (Salah Jdeed and Communist Work Party in the past, and Aaref Dalilah in the present given as examples).
There are also other fundamental reasons that are rarely spoken of. I refer by “we” herein to a generation of Alawis borne after the beginning of the sixties, when the Baath took power and the Alawis assumed for the first time a dominant position in ruling Syria:
1. Most of us have not lived the unjust circumstances that our fathers and grand-fathers were subjected to by the Sunnis. As such, we do not have the same appreciation as our fathers of the Alawi rule that the late president Hafez Assad brought.
2. Hafez made huge improvement to our rural areas after they had been completely and utterly neglected by successive Syrian governments, whether Ottoman or Syrian. (A negligence that the Assad regime has sadly repeated in the Jazeera, the east-northern parts of Syria). However, these improvements have long been frozen, and for more than one generation, things have been heading backwards and not forwards.
In our fathers’ youth, coastal cities at the foot of the Costal Mountains, such as Tartous, Banias, Jabla, Lataqia, were transformed from purely Sunni communities to organized multi-sectarian modern cities (of course relatively speaking). But, our generation lived during times when those nice cities became slum-like dirty places due to corruption, bad-planning and patronage. We watched them become a playground for the cowboys of the new generation, the Assad clan in Kurdaha, sometimes called the Shabbiha.
3. Our fathers’ support for Hafez was driven largely by their resentment for the wealthy bourgeois that Hafez and his Baath claimed to oppose and which imbued their movement with much of its legitimacy. The followers of Rifa`at al-Assad used to recount to us in the seventies how they admired him because he would pick up a dirty used tuna can from the floor and drink tea from it. I wonder what those people think about him now that he uses golden utensils in his multi-million dollar villas in France and Spain? In the past, older Alawis honestly admired many Alawi figures in power. I still have not met a single person who has the slightest admiration for Rami or Asaf, for example. Unfortunately, we are watching how the Alawi rulers and many of their children, are becoming the very same thing they taught us to despise.
4. It is a fact that Alawis still control the important positions in the security systems in Syria. However, it is also a fact that this control serves only a small circle at the top of the pyramid and is becoming less and less beneficial or responsive to the poor members at the base.
5. Seeing that most of the Assad regime on top has made full-fledged alliances with Sunni families through marriage (like the president himself, Nassif’s daughters etc..), or through monopoly enterprises (like Maher, Bahjat Suleiman, Asaf, etc..), the regime has lost any claim to representing the Alawi sect or to defending its rights. The claims that Hafez and his generation used to convince our fathers to support him with have largely been lost.
6. The direction Syria is now heading does not look good. The last thing Alawis want is to have a group of people (composed of many sects, not only Alawis) leading Syria to a catastrophe, while everyone else in Syria accuses the Alawi sect of being responsible for it.
So why then don’t Alawis are do anything about the situation? Why are we silent? Why doesn’t an Alawi Army General carry out a coup?
A. Reasons general to all Syrian citizens:
1. The culture of fear has been deeply planted in every Syrian person regardless of their sect or race.
2. We have been deeply conditioned to mistrust and be suspicious of everyone, making it extremely hard for any two Syrians to work together, not to mention organize in a group. To see how deep this problem has become, look at how much the Syrians in the Diaspora are fragmented even when they are away from the regime and its influence. No two Syrian expatriates are able to organize a cultural gathering, not to mention a political party. No sooner does a new party emerge than its members, who are from the same sect and race and background, start to split apart into uncountable factions.
3. The external animosity of the United States paralyzes internal movements, organized to act against the regime, no matter how well intentioned they are. No one wants to risk a serious move against the regime while there is an enemy at the door. The United States has not shown any sings that is interested in improving Syria’s internal situation or helping Syria. What the U.S. is asking for clearly and loudly are changes in external policies, period. Most of those policies are not attractive to the Syrian opposition. The regime is popular on most of these issues, such as the occupation of Palestine, the Golan, or Iraq.
A coup-d’etat at this moment risks being labeled American-made even if it does not have the slightest connection to America.
The present sentiment in the Syrian street is anti-American. This means that any opposition that seeks support from the Syrian street will be anti-American and will be spurned by the West, as happened with Hamas. Any opposition that seeks external support will lose the street, as is the case with Khaddam. We are in a tricky situation; the regime understands this well and has exploited it well.
4. The organization of the Army and security forces was masterminded very cleverly by the late president Hafez Assad to prevent coups similar to those that rocked Syria during the three decades after Syrian independence. The Syrian forces capable of carry out a coup-d’etat (Army, Special Forces, Police Force, and Security Apparatuses) are all bulky and centralized with an extremely complicated command structure, purposefully designed to frustrate plotters. Lateral communication is absolutely forbidden between units; all communications between units must travel through a cumbersome vee, first ascending up the command structure to the top level of one unit before descending down again through the ranks of the other unit. Most importantly, the many units and departments have an interlocking command structure so that no entity is autonomous. They cannot act without several other departments knowing about it. For example, any air force unit is under the influence of aerial-security (Mukhabarat Jawiyyah), army-security (Mukhabarat Askariyyah), the morale-guidance headquarters (Idarat el Tawjih al-manawi), military police, air force headquarters, army general headquarters, the Republican Guards, and the Palace. Officers with loyalties to theses various branches of security are sprinkled liberally throughout the security forces. This command structure makes the military practically useless against foreign enemies because of its stultifying array of conflicting loyalties, but extremely effective at guaranteeing internal stability. Any attempt to rebel is quickly thwarted and can be dealt with on the spot.
5. Most Syrians, as unhappy as they are with the present regime, see no point in changing the regime without a solid alternative. The opposition has yet to present a clear vision for the future that would inspire people to risk the few joys of Syrian life that they have, security being at the top of the list. Vague and generalized talk about democracy and a better life are the only promises made by present regime-change advocates. They aren’t reassuring.
6. We have to admit that corruption has insinuated its deep into the souls of almost every Syrian. It is highly questionable that any form of regime change is going to achieve real economic or social change, without being preceded by a long process of grass roots reform and cultural revival.
We do have a corrupt leadership, but even an honest leadership would find it impossible to overcome the pervasive culture of bribery, disrespect for hard work, and indifference to public interest that is shared by state, and indeed, private sector employees. Most Syrians’ sense of virtue has become so crooked that fooling a customer is defined as cleverness.
Can change really be enforced from the top down? The regime changers avoid this thorny question, but it must be aired and debated. Are we willing to act, think, and work differently when the regime is changed?
B. Reasons specific to Alawi Syrian citizens:
The main reason that prevents Alawis from being active in supporting any regime change plans is their fear of the “other.” Those who propose regime change without explaining to us what the end of Alawi rule will mean for thousands of ordinary Alawis will get no where.
There are two sorts of “others” in Syria:
a. First are the Sunni religious and Kurdish opposition leaders who say bluntly and clearly: “We want to end the Alawi rule”.
b. Second is everyone else, who says shyly and elliptically: “The monopoly over top army and security posts by one sect should end.”
Not a single Syrian intellectual, political leader, or plain good-will writer, has ever dealt with the following fundamental question:
What exactly are your plans for the Alawis after we give up power?
Why do answers to this question have to be vague and general? What are your plans for the tens of thousands of Alawis who work in the army and other security apparatuses? What are your plans for the republican guard and the special forces that are staffed primarily by Alawis? Are you going to pay them pensions if you decide to disband their forces? Or will they be fired and dumped on the streets, humiliated and ostracized as the Americans did in Iraq? Do you have any idea of the impact on security such dismissals would engender? Will you be satisfied with a scenario by which these forces remain in their positions in exchange for their giving up political power?
What are your plans for the tens of thousands of Alawis who work as government employees in many non-functional establishments? Are you going to close these establishments? Do you have any idea of the social impact of such closures? Are you going to stop improvement projects in the costal area as all past Sunni governments have done since independence? Are you going to reverse confiscation laws to return land taken from Sunni landlords and distributed among tens of thousands of farmers?
Are you going to demand that security officials stand trial for their actions during the last 35 years? What is the highest rank that you are going to hold responsible? Are you going to ask for trials for past deeds? How about the present leading elite? Who exactly are the people you want to hold responsible? And If you do bring them to trial, are you going to hold the Sunni elite to the same standard? Will Sunni families who have benefited from the regime through monopolies and sweet-heart deals, such as the Nahhas family in Damascus and the Jood family in Latakia, be treated as Alawis are?
These questions should be answered not only by opposition intellectuals, but also by every non-Alawi Syrian. What do you want to do with us if we give you back political power? Are you really willing to live side by side with us, to cherish Syria’s diversity, and consider the past 40 years merely another failed episode in our long history of failed revolutions.
A change for the better must include all sectors of Syrian society, including Alawi Syrians. Because Alawis control all the main security forces of the state, regime change will not happen without assuring them that they too will have a place in Syria’s new future. Without such assurances, there will be no Alawi Musharif, nor will any other army General carry out a coup d’etat that will bring anything other than chaos to Syria.
Syrians refuse to speak openly and honestly about our most important challenges; so much is kept in the dark. But this is no time for “shatara” or dissembling. We must confront and discuss religious and communal issues directly and honestly. If Sunnis really want regime change, then they have to address the Alawi issue head on. Unless the answers to these questions are cleared up by all concerned forces and individuals, Alawis, no matter how dissatisfied and disappointed with the present leadership, will not entertain the idea of regime change; they will not relinquish the ramparts of power.