Magazine article New Internationalist

Syria's Catch-22

Magazine article New Internationalist

Syria's Catch-22

Article excerpt

In 2008 a random phone call ordered me to the headquarters of the Syrian security services in Damascus. When my Syrian acquaintances learned that Abu Hyder, an Alawi intelligence officer, had interviewed me, they stared at me in disbelief. In the experience of these Homsis and Hamawis (as people from Horns and Hama are called) those who went in rarely came out. But for Western students like myself these sorts of interviews were standard procedure; visits from intelligence officers were common when too many lectures were missed. What my fellow students did not know was that the interview had been about them. The intelligence officer suspected them of being part of the Muslim Brotherhood and I was spending far too much time exchanging English and Arabic with these undesirables. The experience made me realize the deeply entrenched sectarian positions which policymakers must take into account before formulating a response to Syria's running crisis.

Of course, Abu Hyder never let on that our interview was about the suppression of the Sunni majority. The rhetoric was about the maintenance of the integrity of Syria. 'Syria was the third-safest place in the world for a reason,' said Abu Hyder, a middle-aged bumbling Columbo. He joked about his country while his colleague, another Abu, knelt on the floor boiling loose tea on a gas stove, reminiscing about his days as a tennis coach. I was even privy to pictures of Abu Hyder's family and the other Abu's tennis shorts and racquet. Both talked about family, pan-Arabism, and memories of their village in the coastal idyll of Latakia. The trivialities were interspersed with questions designed to ascertain the political inclinations of both myself and the friends I conducted my language exchange with. When I mustered up the courage to ask what the issue was, I was told that I was being 'radicalized' by these students. Abu Hyder made it clear that any form of political activism that questioned the regime was unacceptable. That was hardly surprising: Abu Hyder would lose just as much as the regime would if it fell. I suspected he would fight tooth and nail to maintain the status quo: Alawi hegemony at the expense of the Sunni majority.

Siege mentality

Abu Hyder was the archetypal rural Alawi and had reaped the rewards from the ascendancy of the minority regime. His generation still remembered the contempt that some Sunni families had for the Alawi community. Some Alawis recalled a time when Alawi families were used as indentured labourers. They were the gypsies of Syria, viewed with a mixture of contempt and suspicion. And Alawis, even the religiously uninitiated, are well aware of how the majority of Muslims, both Shi'a and Sunni, regard them: as heretics and infidels, due to their syncretic and heterodox beliefs. In the past, this had resulted in pogroms. In 1936, Suleiman, the grandfather of Bashar al-Assad, explained the Alawi community's predicament to Léon Blum, France's first Jewish Prime Minister: if Islam takes root, the Alawis would be driven into the sea just like the Jews. Suleiman's pronouncements have a grain of truth: the Alawi-led uprisings of 1946, 1952 and 1954 were swiftly crushed by the majority. Though Syrian Sunnis don't seem to be of a genocidal bent, the views of some Gulf clerics who declare the Alawis infidels are unhelpful and fuel fears of extermination. Thus the Alawi regime's siege mentality continues, with only Alawis finding favour in the state apparatus.

The fear of extermination has to be addressed if a lasting solution is to be achieved, because it has led to a group solidarity that encourages Alawi dominance irrespective of merit. Had it not been for the regime, Abu Hyder would have stayed in his picturesque mountain village in the Latakian governerate. But, as a result of independence in 1946, the pan-Arab government's attempt at incorporating the disparate Alawi communities in rural Latakia and the Horns plain resulted in Alawis enjoying the fruits of education and military service. …

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