By Malik Al-Abdeh
How do we explain the de facto civil war unfolding in Syria today? How do we predict what course it will take? How do we come up with a viable and long-term solution?
A good starting point is to compare Syria with a country that bears a striking resemblance: Lebanon. This may seem surprising because the two countries (and two peoples) appear to be somewhat different.
Syrians regard themselves as being superior to Lebanese because their country suppresses confessional and ethnic identities in favour of a secular and all-embracing Arabism.
The Lebanese on the other hand look at the Syrians and they pity. Fortress Damascus is not a good place if you value creativity and free expression. It is the GDR of the Levant.
Broadly speaking, Syria is about unity, Lebanon is about freedom.
In reality, these differences developed recently and are superficial. What Syria and Lebanon have in common is grounded in shared experience: for centuries they were part of the Byzantine empire, they were conquered by the Muslim Arabs at the same time, both were later ruled by the Ottoman Turks for 400 years, and both fell under French mandate after the end of the First World War.
Something else they had in common were significant groups of non-Sunni Muslim minorities who chafed under Ottoman Turkish rule and vowed never to fall under Sunni overlordship again.
It was during the formative Mandate years (1920-46) that non-Sunni Muslim minorities (Christians, Alawites, Druze, Ismai’lis) began to develop survival strategies to adapt to the reality of living in newly-created nation states. It is by recognizing and analyzing these survival strategies and their long-term consequences that one can trace the historic roots of the Lebanese civil war (1975-90) and the Syrian civil war (2011-present).
The modern history of Syria and Lebanon is the story of how religious minorities turned the tables to become political masters, and how that often brought them into conflict with the Sunni Muslim majority.
The minoritarian order
After the retreat of the Ottoman Turks from the Levant in 1918, Non-Sunni Muslim minorities faced an acute dilemma: how to survive and flourish within societies that were overwhelmingly Sunni.
The Maronites of Mount Lebanon came up with a survival strategy that was not at all original: cessation. They successfully lobbied France not to remain part of Sunni-majority Syria but to be given a state where they could enjoy a monopoly on political power. Thus, the State of Greater Lebanon was born, later to become the Republic of Lebanon.
At the time of its creation, it had a slim Maronite Christian majority yet the distribution of wealth and power was weighed heavily in the Maronites favour. Despite its outwardly secular constitution, it was a country created because of religion, and its various sects competed with one another for wealth and power within the framework of a liberal (but flawed) democracy.
For the non-Sunni minorities of Syria, it was a different story. The Alawites and Druze initially went along with French plans to have their own mini states but the hostility of the economically influential Damascene and Aleppine bourgeoisie scuttled plans for long-term independence. Quasi-independence under the Ottomans and long-term French patronage made the Maronite Christians uniquely able to “fly the roost”, while long-term discrimination and neglect by the Ottomans denied the Alawites and Druze the opportunity to follow suit. Socially and economically they were too weak to go it alone.
The Alawites and Druze opted to be part of a unified Syrian Republic not out of choice, but out of necessity. They still had to meet the challenge of surviving and thriving in a Muslim-majority country where democracy entitles them only to a paltry number of parliamentary seats reflective of their numerical inferiority; not quite the political power that would ensure that the Ottoman experience would never be repeated.
Instead of seeking independence as the Lebanese Christians had done, the non-Sunni minorities in Syria did quite the opposite. They embraced a secular, socialist brand of pan-Arab ideology and adopted it as their own. The Ba’th Party became a magnate for young, aspiring but poor Alawites, Druze and Ismai’lis who were drawn to its secular creed and socialist policies.
By adopting pan-Arabism, the minorities had performed a great feat of one-upmanship; they demonstrated the to the Sunni Muslims that they were uber-patriots, prepared to relinquish centuries-old sectarian loyalties for the benefit of the entire Arab nation. They had laid down a gauntlet and the Sunni Muslim majority, represented ineffectually by wealthy urban notables and tribal chiefs, failed to respond.
In reality, it was all a ruse. The religious minorities of Syria were still very much obsessed with the Ottoman trauma, and nothing short of a complete capture of power would allay their fears of becoming once more second-class citizens. At first the Ba’th Party campaigned on issues of social justice such as agrarian reforms, which benefited poor Sunnis as well as impoverished Alawite peasants who got the opportunity to own their own land for the first time.
The minorities were not content to remain farmers however. Social progress was made possible through service in the army, and it was through an active policy of de-Sunnification of the officer corps following the 1963 Ba’th Party coup that the minority cause caught a glimpse of what could be achieved under the guise of pan-Arabism and class war.
Ultimate power would eventually be held for thirty years by a Ba’thist son of a minor Alawite notable and one-time air force pilot named Hafiz Al-Assad.
The centre cannot hold
The religious minorities in modern-day Syria and Lebanon responded differently to the challenge of living within a sea of Muslim. In Lebanon, they seceded; in Syria, they embraced pan-Arab unity. These were different approaches to dealing with the same essential problem.
Despite the fact that they had lost political power, the Muslim bourgeois business and religious elite of Damascus and Aleppo did not resist the minoritarian order established by Al-Assad. Instead, they carved their own niche as the useful merchant class – those who kept the economy ticking over, shared in the administration of the state, oversaw Muslim religious affairs and quietly enjoy the privileges of being partners in the mafia state run by the Alawite godfather.
Al-Assad pursued a systematic policy of positive discrimination in favour of religious minorities. In Assad’s Syria, it paid to be a Christian or an Alawite because it meant you had considerably better access to state education and to government jobs, both civilian and military. Over a forty year period, this led to a disproportionate number of non-Sunnis becoming members of the elite. The Syrian novelist and former political prisoner Mustafa Khalifa notes in this excellent Arabic article that Christians in Syria currently represent only five per cent of the total population but account for 15-20 per cent of the bourgeoisie. A similar pattern can be drawn for Alawites and Druze. For the non-Muslim minorities, Syria was their country, it wastheir project.
The arrangement worked rather well so long as the state was able to keep in check the outsiders in this neat arrangement: the Sunni Muslim working class. It did so, through a twin policy of repression by a multitude of security forces, and by providing the basics: water, housing, electricity, fuel and cheap food.
With rapid population growth, however, and economic mismanagement, the state was able less able to provide these basics. The Sunni Muslim proles in this Oceania bore the brunt of Bashar Al-Assad’s economic liberalization policy. Prices shot up and earnings did not keep up. All the while, wealth and political power was increasingly concentrated in the hands of a minoritarian clique, represented by Bashar Al-Assad and his billionaire cousin Rami Makhlouf. Unlike the poor Alawites, Druze and Christians, the Sunni working class had little affinity with the Syrian state; they did not fee that they truly belonged to Assad’s Syria because the politically-correct national identity, created in a minoritarian image and pushed through education curricula and the state-controlled media, made little sense to them.
The Sunni working class is a mixed bag of farmers, day labourers, small shop keepers, mechanics, taxi drivers, and of course, the unemployed. Because they had little money, they could not buy influence with the Alawite military elite as the wealthier Sunnis of Damascus and Aleppo have done.
Many lived in shabby and over crowded neighborhoods like Baba Amr in Homs for instance, or in small and dusty towns that enjoyed few amenities like Jisr Al-Shughur in Idlib. Because the doors of state patronage was locked to them, they felt the heavy hand of undeclared but institutional sectarian discrimination more than most. They watched on satellite television the unfolding of the Arab revolutions elsewhere and they saw an historic opportunity to vent some of their anger and frustration. The protests in Deraa started over a local issue, but predictably, it grew into a nation-wide movement. The chant at the first major demonstration on 18th March was “Syria’s protector is its thief!” The indignation felt by the people of Deraa was echoed by millions across the country.
The “Syrian revolution” is a revolt by Syria’s Sunni Muslim working and lower middle-classes who have fared poorly under the minoritarian order. The Al-Assad mafia state has proved to be particularly prejudicial to their interests: the inequity in the distribution of political power and economic wealth was too stark, and too unjust. It is against this order (and not the Alawites per se) that the revolt is targeted against.
The survival strategy developed by the Alawites and other religious minorities in Syria to guarantee their privileged status has now failed because it did not evolve new mechanisms to share wealth and political power with a burgeoning and increasing aspirational wider population.
The sectarian balance of power in Syria has been shaken and the consequences are not difficult to predict. Look no further than to Lebanon circa 1975, when the entry of the heavily armed (Muslim) Palestinians into the sectarian melting pot created a volatility in the system, causing a civil war that lasted for 15 years. That only ended in 1990 when a new political order was established following the signing of the Taif Agreement which established a more equitable distribution of wealth and political power between Christians and Muslims.
Lebanon was, in the words of the brilliant historian Albert Hourani, a lost star from the Ottoman galaxy. So too is Syria. We should not be surprised at the civil war that is unfolding there now. It is a struggle of wills between the minorities of Syria who do not want to be ruled by Sunni Muslims given the Ottoman experience, and between Sunni Muslims who no longer wish to pay the price for minoritarian privilege.
On the ground this battle is being fought with street protests but increasingly with bullets, tanks and roadside bombs. In the media, it is fought euphemistically, using the language of “democracy” and “human rights”, “salafists” and “terrorists”, “shabiha” and “Arourites”, etc. Neither side is willing to be honest and admit to the sad reality of the situation; that would be considered too “Lebanese”, unbefitting of a proud Syrian.
Malik Al-Abdeh, born in 1981, is founder-member of the Movement for Justice and Development (est. 2006) which is a leading force in the Damascus Declaration opposition coalition in Syria. He has worked with BBC and is a King’s College, London and SOAS alumni. Currently he is the Chief Editor of the pro-democracy satellite channel Barada TV.