For Assad’s Alawites, a grim post-war future
LONDON - Whatever the recent military successes of the Syrian regime, for example in recapturing Palmyra from Islamic State (ISIS), two experts in a recent stimulating collection of essays — The Alawis of Syria: War, Faith and Politics in the Levant — on the country’s long-dominant minority Alawites foresee continuing violence and uncertainly.
First, Reinoud Leenders, reader in international relations and Middle East studies at King’s College London, argues that rather than resting on “senseless violence and repression” as commonly portrayed, the Assad regime has proved “calculative, rational, and learning — if by trial and error”, leaving it “shaken, damaged but alive and kicking”.
Leenders takes issue with commentators — as well as UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi — who portray Syrian President Bashar Assad as out of touch. He points out that while Assad did suggest in a January 2011 Wall Street Journal interview that Syria was immune to the “Arab spring”, he responded with guile when protests broke out two months later.
Governors were replaced, protests were portrayed as local and the regime manipulated tribes and clans. This was not irrational, argues Leenders, even if it faltered as demonstrators raised national demands: “At first, both the regime and the protesters stressed their all-inclusive credentials when it came to Syria’s multi-sectarian society.”
While Leenders argues that “prime responsibility” for the conflict’s turn towards sectarianism lies with the regime, many of its actions — such as moving military bases to Alawite or Christian areas — were practical rather than sectarian in intention.
Neither was manipulating the ethnic divide between Kurds and Arabs irrational. Early concessions to the Kurds, including giving citizenship to the stateless, helped divide them from the mainstream Syrian opposition, built a relationship with the Democratic Union Party (PYD), allied to the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and “saddled Turkey, initially perhaps the most vocal enthusiast of Syrian regime change, with… an armed, unpredictable entity waving PKK flags on its very doorstep”.
Leenders avoids moral judgments, which is evident in his analysis of improving conditions in government-held areas — higher state salaries, subsidised food, maintained electricity supplies — while the regime has made life in rebel-held areas “as miserable as possible”, even blocking humanitarian aid.
In using violence, he writes, “there is little doubt… (the Assad regime) has consistently calibrated repression to reflect its assessment of how the international community — in particular the US and its European allies — would respond”.
In particular, Leenders argues, government forces have escalated their use of weapons once convinced there would be no response from the international community, which stood back in 2013 when the use of chemicals provoked a global outcry.
Regime propaganda, meanwhile, has highlighted the presence of foreign fighters and Sunni extremists, especially in Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS, and their links to Arab Gulf backers. Leenders detects trial-and-error rather than a master plan and suggests Assad’s “proven responsiveness and adaptability” will help with challenges ahead.
How long this may go on is moot. Fabrice Balanche, assistant professor at the University of Lyon 2, examines the demographic roots of the conflict, going back to the Alawites drifting down over the last century from the mountains where they had escaped persecution for centuries. In 1947, the Alawites were only 7.8% of the population in Latakia and 12.8% in Safita, both now mainly Alawite cities.
Balanche highlights policies under Hafez Assad to bring Alawites to the cities, including Damascus (home to 4,200 Alawites in 1945 and now 500,000), and into education and public service, including the army. Today, 81% of Alawites in Latakia work in the state sector, compared to 57% of Christians and 44% of Sunnis.
While such demographics have fostered an Alawite-led state, there have been problems. First, as the Alawites urbanised, their birthrate fell from eight to two per couple in two generations (two-thirds of the rate among Sunnis), a tendency encouraged by a more “secular” culture among Alawites that has encouraged women to pursue educational and employment opportunities.
Second, pro-Alawite policies have fostered Sunni resentment. Hafez Assad gave the Alawites power but in the long-term risked making the regime unstable.
Worse for his son and successor, “despite vicious repression in the Sunni-majority areas, and strategies verging on ethnic cleansing in the Alawite region, the combination of an ageing Alawite population, low birth rates and mass migration mean that the principal source of demographic support and military personnel, so critical to the regime’s grip on power, is drying up”.
Balanche is non-committal on whether demographic polarisation could make a separate Alawite state more viable than in the 1920s, when the French tried and abandoned the idea. But he does quote one Alawite refugee in the coastal Alawite-dominated region: “Before the onset of the crisis, I never felt myself to be Alawi… Since 2011, however, we’ve felt the hatred directed towards us… We came to Tartus and we’ll stay here. I don’t think we can ever return to live in Aleppo.”