Anatomy of the Syrian Regime

Nasser Rabbat

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.

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