Written by Yedidya Atlas
Speaking at the UN Security Council last week Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared, “It is time for the international community to put aside our own differences and send a clear message of support to the people of Syria.” And the day after the Security Council vote with Russia and China vetoing the resolution to adopt the Arab League plan, a frustrated Mrs. Clinton repeated her call to “support the Syrian people's right to have a better future.”
The problem of Mrs. Clinton and others who express such concern for the ongoing internecine violence in Syria is that they constantly issue pronouncements about the “Syrian people” as if it was a homogeneous national grouping. Her ignorance was further demonstrated when speaking to reporters during a visit Sunday in Bulgaria. She said: “the international community had a duty to halt continuing bloodshed and promote a political transition that would see Mr. Assad step down.” Can she honestly believe Basher al-Assad will simply agree to resign?
If one is to ever develop a coherent and attainable goal oriented Syrian policy, one first has to understand the various groupings and allegiances at play.
The “Syrian people” is a composite of religious and ethnic groups who historically oppose each other. The dominant group, approximately two thirds of the population are Sunni Muslims; 12 percent are Alawites; 9 percent are Kurds; 10 percent are various Christian sects (Arab Christians, Assyrians and Armenians); and the remainder are a hodgepodge of religio-ethnic groups including Druze, Turkmens and Circassians.
Let’s focus on the Sunni, the Alawites and the Kurds. The Sunni majority includes the Muslim Brotherhood. It is subjugated by the ruling Alawites led by the al-Assad family. The Sunni majority, which lost power to the Alawite dominated secular nationalist Syrian Ba’ath Party in a 1963 coup, began to cause increasingly violent unrest led by the Muslim Brotherhood. This later developed into open revolt.
In 1980, after an assassination attempt against President Hafez al-Assad failed, he came down on them like a ton of bricks, literally. In 1982, the city of Hama, a Muslim Brotherhood stronghold, was destroyed by regular Syrian army forces, including tanks and artillery, commanded by Rifat al-Assad, Hafez’s younger brother. An estimated 20,000 residents of Hama were killed. The revolt was quelled and the Alawite al-Assad family continued to rule.
However, the real dispute goes way back. The Sunni majority view the Alawite minority as heretics. The Alawites, or Alawi as they called themselves because of their adherence to Ali (the Muslim prophet Mohammad’s cousin and son-in-law), were originally called by the Sunnis the “Nusayri” after the Shi’ite Ibn Nusayr in the 9th century, indicating their break with Islam. After 1920 and French rule in Syria (which included Lebanon), the persecuted Alawites ingratiated themselves with the new rulers.
The French encouraged Alawites to join the French commanded Syrian army and dominate the officer corps as a counterweight to the hostile Sunni majority. This subsequently set the stage for the Alawite dominance of the Baath Party and the 1963 takeover of the Syrian government.
The Kurds, while only 9 percent of the total Syrian population, comprise the majority of the Jazira province, and are affiliated with major Kurdish populations in neighboring Iran, Iraq and Turkey. Historically, the Kurds once ruled their own land known as Kurdistan which included eastern Turkey, northern Iraq, northwestern Iran and northern Syria. The Kurds in all of these countries are persecuted by the current ruling regimes in their respective countries.
In 1957 the KDPS (Kurdistan Democratic Party of Syria) was founded. The Syrian central government never recognized the Kurds as a separate entity, thus the KDPS remained an underground organization. In 1960 a number of its leaders were imprisoned. In 1961, after the dissolution of the UAR – United Arab Republic with Egypt, the Syrian government decided to “recognize the Kurds” as a separate entity and in the summer of 1962 conducted a special population census of the predominantly Kurdish province of Jazira. All of the identified Kurds were stripped of their Syrian citizenship and declared “aliens.” At the same time a media campaign was launched against the Kurds with such slogans as “Save Arabism in Jazira” and “Fight the Kurdish Threat.” These policies coincided with the beginning of Mustafa Barazani’s Kurdish uprising in Iraq and the discovery of oilfields in the Jazira province. In the summer of 1963, Syrian forces joined with the Iraqi military in attacking the Barazani led revolt to reestablish an independent Kurdistan.
In the mid-1980’s through the early 1990’s, following the unsuccessful revolt against the al-Assad regime by the Sunnis, the Kurds too clashed violently with the regime which only resulted in mass arrests and killings of Kurdish Syrian civilians. And while the al-Assad government's ongoing persecution of the Kurds is part of its general suppression of any form of political dissent, it continues the previous policy of repression because a separate Kurdish identity is still viewed as a threat.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s involvement in last year’s so-called “Arab Spring” in Tunis, Egypt and Yemen, induced the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood to take their opposition to the al-Assad Alawite regime up another notch and the protests/riots began followed immediately by the al-Assad style ruthless oppression.
As the daily violence expands, and the death toll rises, one hears the cacophony of statements such as Secretary Clinton who said on March 27, 2011: “Many of the members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe he’s a reformer.” But by November 18, 2011, Mrs. Clinton finally awoke to the fact that Bashar al-Assad’s so-called reformist attitudes were baseless. Speaking to ABC News, she reversed herself and said: “We heard what Assad said about what he wanted to do for reform. But when it came to it, in the Arab Spring and as people actually demanded some freedom and their rights, he responded, as we have seen, very violently.” Considering Syrian history in the past 30 years alone, one wonders why she is surprised.
Syria is the scene of an ongoing civil war of sorts between the Sunni majority led by the Muslim Brotherhood and the minority Alawite controlled regime led by the al-Assad clan with various minor religio-ethnic players scattered over the field. If the al-Assad regime falls, it is not merely the al-Assad family that is in trouble, the entire Alawite population can expect similar or worse persecution by the Muslim Brotherhood led Sunnis as they attempt to turn the clock back to a modern version of the Ottoman period. Bashar al-Assad is fighting for both Alawite dominance and survival.
Secretary Clinton and Co. must realize that life is not a Hollywood movie and Syria isn’t a western country. Syria is a serious mess and there is no happy ending in sight soon
The author is a veteran journalist specializing in geo-political and geo-strategic affairs in the Middle East. His articles have appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Times, Insight Magazine, Nativ, The Jerusalem Post and Makor Rishon. His articles have been reprinted by Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and in the US Congressional Record.