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Friday, February 23, 2007

The Alawis - I

In Syria, the 41-old Bashar Asad ... stumbles along, but
probably has no more than a couple of years left as leader.

from "Those dynastic Arabs"
published by "The Economist"
in "The World in 2007"

This post is more like a follow-up on Daniel Pipes' The Alawi Capture of Power in Syria. This post basically intends to highlight some additional aspects of the Alawis' control of Syria and to detail one of the possible scenarios of its coming to end.

In the conclusion to his article Pipes writes:

The manner of the 'Alawi ascent reveals much about Syria's political culture, pointing to complex connections between the army, the political parties, and the ethnic community. The Ba'th Party, the army, and the 'Alawis rose in tandem; but which of these three had the most importance? Were the new rulers Ba'thists who just happened to be 'Alawi soldiers , or were they soldiers who happened to be 'Alawi Ba'thists? Actually, a third formulation is most accurate: these were 'Alawis who happened to be Ba'thists and soldiers.

True, the party and the military were critical, but in the end it was the transfer of authority from Sunnis to 'Alawis that counted most. Without deprecating the critical roles of Party and army, the 'Alawi affiliation ultimately defined the rulers of Syria. Party and career mattered, but, as is so often the case in Syria, ethnic and religious affiliation ultimately define identity. To see the Asad regime primarily in terms of its Ba'thist or military nature is to ignore the key to Syrian politics. Confessional affiliation remains vitally important; as through the centuries, a person's sect matters more than any other attribute.

The Sunni response to the new rulers, which has taken a predominantly communal form, bears out this view. The widespread opposition of Sunnis - who make up about 69 percent of the Syrian population - to an 'Alawi ruler has inspired the Muslim Brethren organization to challenge the government in violent, even terroristic ways. Although unsuccessful until now, the Brethren have on several occasions come near to toppling the regime.

It appears inevitable that the 'Alawis - still a small and despised minority, for all their present power - will eventually lose their control over Syria. When this happens, it is likely that conflicts along communal lines will bring them down, with the critical battle taking place between the 'Alawi rulers and the Sunni majority. In this sense, the 'Alawis' fall - be it through assassinations of top figures, a palace coup, or a regional revolt - is likely to resemble their rise.


i think it would be accurate to say that in many ways the Alawi rise to power in Syria was about climbing too high to the point of losing the ability to get down safely. The resulting tensions and successive attempts by the Sunni fundamentalists to overthrow the regime has produced a situation in which the Alawi ruling elite, hit by paranoia and existential fears, has created a near totalitarian political system that eventually suffocated the country and destroyed the last traces of a normal society within.

The socialist orientation of the Baath has paralyzed the economic development and not only the Syrian economic indicators are among the worst in the region, it is a safe bet that Syria is also hugely mis-developed and a big part of its state sector will go bust at the first attempt to liberalize the economy.

This combination of the stagnating economy and utterly oppressive regime has doomed the country for decades of pointless drifting with no real possibility for change. As several generations of Syrians grew up in the shadow of Mukhabarat, intense political brainwashing and other shit it's a small wonder that many people give little credit to the ability of Syria to keep itself intact after the Alawis go.

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I also think that Pipes is absolutely right when he stresses the overwhelming importance of sectarian affiliations for understanding the situation in Syria. They are indeed a key to understanding the future of not only Syria but of most of the Middle East. The future of Syria will be decided along the sectarian lines dividing the Alawis and the Sunni Arabs.

While there is no reliable information about the actual public mood in Syria there are recurring reports of Islamic renaissance. Eyewitness accounts based on using such a standard barometer of the level of society's Islamization as the presence of veiled women on the streets all point out to the growing influence of Islam in the Alawite Kingdom of Syria. Moreover, the ruling elite is actively playing with the idea of growing its own domesticated version of Islamic piety by grooming moderate Sunni clergy.

It is also reported that wifes of high ranking Alawite officials have got very enthusiastic recently about veiling themselves in public as the Alawites are known to invest a considerable amount of thought and energy into presenting themselves as a legitimate sect inside Islam. Yet the puristic orientation of the modern fundamentalists leave the Alawites little chance in this respect. Little is known about the Alawite religion as the only person who broke the secrecy in religious matters practiced by the sect was promptly assassinated. And that little information that is available reveals a bizarre syncretistic creed based on deification of Ali (not Chemical one but Muhammad's son-in-law NB) and which as some scholars claim is actually closer to the Gnostic Christians than to the Twelver Shia with whom the Alawis are trying to associate themselves (not that for many Sunnis it makes such a hell of a difference :) NB).

Anyway, until the Alawis show their books and dispel the mystery surrounding their religion (probably they should better never do it NB), no sane Muslim scholar will be ready to confirm that the Alawite religion is indeed a legitimate movement inside Islam. Sure the Muslim Brothers will be never satisfied with anything less than this. Neither the fact that the Alawis are also known to have occasionally practiced Taqiyya (concealing one's faith or disguising oneself as a practitioner of another religion) gives their claims to be legitimate Muslims additional credibility. Something more is clearly needed here than just claiming to be more Muslim than the rest of Muslims and more Arab than the Arabs themselves. In fact the regime's striving to position Syria at the spearhead of pan Arabism and resistance can be seen as an attempt to avoid tough identity questions which some people in Syria and elsewhere would sure love the Alawis to answer.

To be continued . . .

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