In the summer​ of 1992, I took a ‘luxury cab’ from Damascus to Amman. The cab’s class was important: luxury cabs provided extra services at the border crossing, helping to circumvent the humiliations reserved for Syrian men every time they left the country. When we reached the Syrian border, the driver got out and promised to get my documents stamped in five minutes. He came back in two with an apologetic look: ‘I’m afraid you have to come in too: they’re asking about your draft status.’ I wasn’t worried: my passport stated that I was exempt from military service. But the officer demanded to see my official draft book. ‘I don’t have it on me,’ I replied. ‘Well, you can’t leave the country then,’ he said. I tried to explain but he wouldn’t listen. So the driver took me to see the man’s commanding officer: an army major sitting behind a big desk under the ubiquitous picture of the president, Hafiz al-Assad. I approached him, explained my situation and showed him my passport. The major barely looked at it, but said in a Damascene accent: ‘This document is not enough. You will have to bring your official draft book or you will not cross the border.’ ‘But Damascus is more than two hours away,’ I replied. ‘That’s not my problem,’ he said, and turned back to the two men sitting across from him, indicating that our discussion was over.

On our way out, the driver asked: ‘Do you have any wasta?’ Wasta is the term for a high-up connection. ‘I do, but he is in Damascus and I don’t know how I can contact him.’ My resourceful driver talked to a security agent, who pointed me to a telephone on a desk. I called my wasta, an army general I knew well. He promised to call the major and told me to go back to his office in ten minutes. As I entered the office for the second time, the major stood up and walked around his desk to me with a big smile. ‘Why didn’t you tell me you’re a friend of General X?’ he exclaimed with an unmistakable Alawi accent, with its emphasis on the letter qaf. ‘Please accept our apologies and give our greetings to the general.’ He ordered his assistant to get my documents in order right away and accompanied me to the door, where he shook my hand as he said goodbye.

I was taken aback by the change in the major’s accent. He had at first sounded like a Damascene, and his name, which was written on the door, clearly indicated that he wasn’t an Alawi. But after my wasta intervened, he switched to the dialect of most of the senior officers in the army and intelligence services in Syria as if to proclaim: ‘I too belong to that power structure.’

Many high-ranking non-Alawi officials shared the major’s anxiety as they struggled to make their way in the face of the regime’s dominant Alawi character. Sometimes a change of accent was all that was necessary. At other times, they had to accept a reversal of rank: there were stories of generals at the head of army divisions having to concede authority to lower-ranking Alawi adjutants. People saw in these and similar practices evidence of the Assad regime’s pervasive sectarian structure: a formidable system of control, based on fear and a degree of loyalty, enabled an Alawi minority to rule over the Sunni majority. But the regime also exploited a secular ideology based on the principles of the Ba’ath Party, the pan-Arabist political organisation that had ruled Syria since 1963. Secularism and pan-Arabism allowed the Assad regime to mask its sectarian tendencies and to offer Syrians a promise of equality as well as a grand cause to believe in.

The eruption of popular protest in March 2011, and its escalation into the civil war still being fought today, upset that equilibrium. But it hasn’t lost its relevance. The rebels are mostly Sunni, covertly supported by conservative Sunni regimes in the Gulf and an international network of fundamentalist Sunni organisations. The Assad regime still relies heavily on elite Alawi-majority army divisions, aided by Shi’ite troops recruited from Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan. But it also benefits from the continuing acquiescence of the urban middle classes, worried about the territorial expansion of Islamic State in the east of the country, as well as the loyalty of large numbers of non-Alawi businesspeople and functionaries, whose fortunes are closely tied to the regime. This complex situation is the result of both a long history of Alawi victimhood and a shorter history of manipulation of the levers of power by the Assads and their friends and allies.

The Alawis (or Nusayris) are a small sect whose members have lived in villages in the coastal mountains of Syria for more than a millennium. Today, in the absence of any reliable census, the Alawis are thought to constitute about 12 per cent of the population, just over two million people. Many have migrated to the cities, especially Damascus, where they can easily find jobs in the army or the security services. A smaller number has distinguished itself in recent years by occupying prominent positions in academia, the media, arts and literature. And, of course, two Alawis, father and son, have held the presidency since 1970.

Neither the origin nor the religious doctrine of the Alawis is very clear, and this seems to be deliberate. Like most offshoot sects, the Alawis practise taqiyya (caution), a term used to describe the habit of concealing one’s true beliefs in order to avoid the castigations of the dominant religion. What is known, however, is that the Alawi creed combines elements of Islam in its extreme Shi’ite form with Sufism, Christian symbolism and ceremony, Gnosticism and elements of Syria’s ancient religions. The dominant Shi’ite component has its origin in the developments that followed the death of the 11th imam and the ‘occultation’ – the hiding from public view – of his son, the 12th imam, al-Mahdi (the Saviour), in Samarra in Iraq in 873. The founder of the Alawi sect, Muhammad ibn Nusayr, is believed to have been the bab (spiritual representative) of both imams, before founding his own sect. The Shi’ite connection was renewed in 1973, when Musa al-Sadr, a charismatic mullah who came from Iran to revitalise the Lebanese Shi’ite community, declared that the Alawis were true Shi’ites.

Not surprisingly, given this legacy, the Alawis were treated with hostility by the majority Sunni population. The remoteness of their home territory and their habit of secrecy made it easier to distort and exaggerate their beliefs. Many Sunni religious authorities didn’t accept that they were even Muslims, and a number of punitive campaigns were launched against them between the 12th and the early 20th century. Men were killed, women and children enslaved, and villages destroyed. The scars left by this history of oppression can still be detected when senior Alawi figures vow never to allow their people to be subjugated again. Their standing changed only after the French occupied Syria in 1920. Following the usual colonial method of divide and conquer, the French split the country into four statelets: Damascus, Aleppo, the Alawite state and the Druze state. The relative autonomy conferred by the French led to a desire among a segment of the Alawi leadership to entrench their region’s separation. But the sense that they were part of Syria won the day and the Alawite state finally rejoined the Syrian Republic in 1936.

Another practice introduced by the French had a great effect on the Alawis’ future. This was the policy of recruiting members of minority groups to the newly formed Troupes Spéciales du Levant, which served as auxiliary forces to the French army. Alawi regulars and officers made up one third of the 10,000-strong force which formed the basis of the nascent Syrian army after independence in 1946. Between 1946 and 1963 favouring minority groups wasn’t official policy, but they continued to constitute the bulk of the army, with the Alawis concentrated in the infantry.

But it was a post-independence political development that ultimately made possible the Alawis’ rise to power in Syria. Two parties, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), which advocated a Greater Syria including the Lebanese, Palestinians and other groups in the Fertile Crescent, and the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party, which aimed at a united Arab nation stretching from Morocco to Oman, tried to appeal to marginalised minorities on grounds of their preference for historical or linguistic rather than religious solidarity. The Ba’ath Party, founded in Damascus by a group of French-educated intellectuals of mixed religious backgrounds in 1947, was particularly active in recruiting members of minorities, especially in the disenfranchised rural communities. Wahib al-Ghanim, one of the party’s founders, enlisted a number of Alawis – the young Hafiz al-Assad among them.

By the mid-1950s the Ba’ath Party was challenging the traditional parties of the bourgeoisie in parliament and competing with other radical parties in the streets. But after suffering a few setbacks its leaders realised that recruiting from the army would be more effective than dependence on the ballot box, and the party’s ranks were swollen with eager new members, mostly from minorities. The new policy soon changed the balance of power inside the party. Serious disputes ensued between the founding generation, mostly educated urbanites, and the base of rural and military recruits, reaching a nadir after the leadership decided to go along with Nasser’s edict that all Syrian parties must dissolve themselves as a precondition of the country’s union with Egypt in 1958.

The union with Egypt saw a number of Syrian officers stationed in Cairo. A group of Ba’ath officers among them, angry that their party had been disbanded, formed a secret Military Committee with the aim of restoring it and plotting a coup in Syria. Three of the six original members of the committee were Alawis: Muhammad Umran, Salah Jadid and Hafiz al-Assad. The committee’s composition changed a few times, but its members effectively dominated Syrian politics between 8 March 1963, the date of the military coup that brought the Ba’ath Party to power, and 10 June 2000, when Hafiz al-Assad died. Given that the committee’s existence was never publicly acknowledged and that Syria is notoriously difficult to control this was a considerable feat. The most extraordinary achievement, of course, was that of Hafiz al-Assad, who managed to rule Syria single-handedly for thirty years and to pass the reins of power, against great odds, to his son Bashar.

The Ba’ath Party’s first few years in power were unstable, partly because of external challenges: the careful pas de deux with Nasser, the hostile split with the Iraqi Ba’ath, the humiliating defeat at the hands of Israel in the 1967 War, and the rise and metamorphosis of the Palestine Liberation Organisation before its mortal fight with the Hashemite regime in Jordan in September 1970. But through it all, the Military Committee kept control. It isn’t clear whether the committee’s Alawis pursued a deliberate sectarian agenda or not. Available evidence supports both possibilities. On the one hand, younger and more brazen Alawi officers were rising to the upper echelons of the army. On the other hand, in their jockeying for power, the officers on the committee conspired against one another with non-Alawi collaborators. The two junior officers, Jadid and Assad, managed to expel their senior colleague, Umran, in 1966. Assad took control of the Syrian state in November 1970, removing Jadid; two years later Umran was assassinated. Jadid was held in prison without trial until his death in 1993.

It was plain that the army and security forces were being purged of ideological undesirables as the Ba’ath Party consolidated its grip. Between 1963 and 1967, hundreds of capable Sunni officers, who mostly belonged to the urban middle class, were forcibly retired or moved to civilian posts. Many people ascribed the devastating and quick defeat of the Syrian army in 1967 at the hands of Israel at least in part to the absence of experienced officers. The purging of non-Alawis became even more pronounced after Assad took over.

Not everything seemed to point to a sectarian consolidation of power, however. Analysts in the 1970s and 1980s, including the Lebanese journalist Salim al-Lawzi – who was killed in 1980, perhaps because of his writings on the Syrian regime – detected a process of ‘bourgeoisification’ and ‘Sunnification’ among the new Alawi urban classes. There were signs of gradual changes in behaviour: Alawis began praying in mosques, fasting at Ramadan and losing their mountain accent – all of which brought the city Alawis closer to mainstream Sunnis. There was also an increase in marriages between members of the Alawi and Sunni upper classes, the most famous being that of Bashar al-Assad, Hafiz’s son, to a British-Syrian woman whose Sunni family comes from Homs.

As Alawis migrated to the cities the mercantile and business class expanded. Some members of the ruling family and the families of top army and security officers began to accumulate tremendous fortunes, benefiting directly from the patronage of powerful kin and from preferential treatment in business and investments. Stories of their corruption are legion and anger at their appropriation of wealth has been a significant factor in the civil war. But the core of the sectarian preferential system remained control of the army, the surest foundation of the regime. Majority Alawi elite divisions were set up, notably the Republican Guard and the 4th Armoured Division, formed after the dissolution and restructuring of the infamous Defence Brigades of Hafiz’s younger brother, Rif’at al-Assad, who tried to take over in 1984 while the president was in hospital. The number of security services grew under Hafiz, with the overlapping agencies all reporting directly to the president to avoid any intra-agency plotting against him.

This complex structure​ is what Hafiz al-Assad bequeathed to his son Bashar in 2000. He quickly rid himself of his father’s so-called old guard and promoted a younger group of military supporters, most of them members of his extended family. He also expanded the neoliberal form of state capitalism hesitantly established under his father, and opened it up to his friends and their friends, regardless of sect. Cronyism became almost a state policy, encouraging loyalty to the regime and widening the already huge gap between rich and poor. The spread of ritualistic Islamic piety in the 2000s could be seen as a form of objection to the regime’s excesses, especially given that the repression of militant Islamism under Hafiz – which resulted in the flattening of the city of Hama and the deaths of between ten and twenty thousand people there in 1982 – was still a painful memory.

Bashar proved incapable of scheming as expertly as his father (a shortcoming that had been clear to Hafiz, who initially chose Bashar’s older brother, Basil, as his heir but was forced to switch to Bashar after Basil died in a car crash in 1994). Where the father maintained a careful balance in his policies, the son’s rash and sometimes conceited pronouncements lost him the goodwill of both the Syrians, who had hoped to find him the measured reformer he seemed to be, and the international community, which was at first enthusiastic about his Western education and modern outlook. In ten years, he undid most of what his father had taken forty years to build. He thwarted all the proposals for democratisation by Syrian intellectuals that he had initially encouraged. His army was forced out of Lebanon, controlled by his father since 1976, after his regime was openly linked to the assassination in 2005 of the former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. He repeatedly blundered in his response to the American occupation of Iraq in 2003, shifting alliances and nurturing covert radical organisations – some of this rebounded on him later. And, most disastrously from the perspective of sovereignty, he relinquished the parity his father had painstakingly upheld in his strategic alliance with Iran: in return for only small gains, Syria effectively became Iran’s client state.

Bashar also turned out to be a poor reader of momentous events. In a long-winded interview with the Wall Street Journal in January 2011, he asserted that Syria was immune to the kind of protest that was rocking Tunisia and Egypt because his regime shared the people’s ideals. He was proved wrong less than two months later. After his security forces fired at unarmed demonstrators in the southern city of Dar’a on 18 March, protests erupted across the country, especially in the depressed agricultural towns and the shantytowns around the cities. True to its legacy, the regime responded in the only way it knows: with extreme violence. When Bashar finally appeared on TV two weeks after the demonstrations began, he neither acknowledged the protesters’ demands nor regretted the killings.

By May 2011, a fully fledged armed uprising had begun, with defectors from the Syrian army returning fire at the security forces. Soon the defectors, now organised as the Free Syrian Army, faced increased violence from the regime, which began using heavy weaponry against the cities and towns involved in the revolt. Islamisation came on the heels of militarisation, fuelled by the regime’s sectarian reaction to the decidedly non-religious early protests, and eventually encouraged by fundamentalist states and rich foreign individuals with ambitious regional plans. What started as a popular protest movement devolved into a savage civil war pitting not only Syrians against Syrians but the global forces of Sunnism against those of Shiʼsm.

It had been coming for a long time. The anxiety felt by the major at the border crossing had been pressing on the mind of every Syrian for four decades. When the revolution finally exploded and the regime reacted with violence, Syrians, having been denied any political power for so long, responded in kind. They took up arms because the regime that had tormented them used violence to maintain its grip. They turned to religion partly because they loathed the regime’s only slightly disguised sectarianism and partly because they felt that after the world had let them down they had no helper but God, as they chanted during demonstrations. That the militarisation and Islamisation of the revolution were eventually hijacked by competing global agendas has obscured their root causes.

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