“Assad or We Burn the Country”: Misreading Sectarianism and the Regime in Syria
Prior to the uprising that ignited in Syria in 2011, whenever I discussed politics with my urbanite Syrian interlocutors, they would often tell me: “You, the Lebanese, you are violent, corrupt, sectarian, with no sense of a nation or a state.” (I also noted that Iraqis would endure similar lecturing). Frankly, they were largely right, but their real point lay somewhere else.
The smug implication, of course, was that Syria under the Assad regime was different: Contrary to the fractured polities of Lebanon and Iraq, it had achieved a superior sense of national belonging and purpose, a genuine supra-confessional identity. Sectarianism was not an issue, I was told. Syria was no democracy, to be sure, but Bashar Al-Assad had married a Sunni woman who wore stylish Western clothes, women could walk around unveiled, and alcohol was available (that’s a lifestyle liberalism of the kind that appeals to Western audiences but actually obscures more than it reveals). Many Sunnis populated the high spheres of business, politics, and the military, and minorities could worship at will as long as they remained loyal to the Assads. No wonder that this image of Syria, marketed ad nauseam, partially hid the country’s unraveling during the previous 15 years. While admitting it was not perfect, many of those who bemoan the Syria of yesterday cannot seem to find the link between this romanticized narrative and the current catastrophe.
In fact, in Syria, like in Lebanon and Iraq, all the ingredients for cataclysmic upheaval were already there. The explosion, crystallization, and weaponization of sectarian passions owe much to circumstances, local agency, political structure, and leadership choices.
War of the Rocks published two revisionist articles by an author writing under a pseudonym that brought back to mind all these conversations and many more since the uprising-cum-civil war engulfed Syria and civil war recurred in Iraq. Here, I respond to the author’s account of Syria. I am not qualified to discuss Iraq, so I will refrain from addressing this angle.
The author makes some important points. These include that fact that Sunni disfranchisement in Syria and Iraq is often exaggerated, that it alone does not explain and fuel the rise of Sunni extremism, that Salafism (and takfirism) pose a threat to diverse societies but also to Sunnis themselves, that viewing the Syrian conflict primarily through the Sunni-Shia prism is simplistic, and that Sunni identity is fluid. Fine and fair, though contrary to what the author boldly asserts, none of these findings are particularly new or even controversial.
The argumentation goes downhill from there. The piece sets out to prove that Washington has fallen victim to a wrong and purposely manipulative Gulf-fueled sectarian narrative about the Middle East. It argues that because of these sectarian narratives, Western states broke with and then supported the fight against Assad.
The solution to the current chaos and sectarian violence, according to the unnamed author? “A counter-ideology [that] should promote citizenship and secular states, […] the model [the West] is currently destroying in Syria.” Yes, you read that right. The author touts the Assad regime as a model of citizenship and secularism. This presumably Arabic-speaking contrarian author would have performed a service to his readers had he translated one of the popular pro-Assad slogans: “Assad or we burn the country.” That’s citizenship for you….
Revisionism has adepts, so these articles are circulating widely and will likely be the basis for many op-eds arguing for a fundamental rethink of Western policy on Syria and the broader region. Those seduced will include segments of the policy community unhappy with some of Washington’s approach, those who want to ally with Assad, those who want to drop America’s traditional if problematic Arab allies in favor of Iran, and those who want the United States to retrench or even withdraw from the Middle East. One can suspect that there will be sympathetic ears even in the White House.
Let us first dispense with the policy discussion, in this case the illusion propagated by the author that Washington has a Sunni-first policy in Syria (or Iraq for that matter). To start, the groups the United States bombs are exclusively Sunni jihadist, while it suffers, tolerates, or accommodates Shia jihadist militias. Before my words are twisted, this is no argument to stop bombing the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) or al-Nusra or to start bombing Lebanese Hezbollah, Iraqi Abu al-Fadel Abbas, Afghan Fatemiyoun, or any of the dozen Shia groups operating there but rather a call for honest analysis.
Of course, the groups Washington arms in Syria are exclusively Sunni (and interestingly, a Marxist-Leninist Kurdish group that has become the darling of Washington), but anyone following the Obama administration’s Syria policy would know by now that such support has been conditional and restraining. The United States, at least during this administration, seems unwilling to allow an outright rebel victory (a highly improbable eventuality) for fear of chaos and a jihadist takeover and to preserve what it thinks are the remaining state institutions. That very fear as well as the risks and costs of stopping the Assad war machine translates, in the eyes of many Syrians, into a de facto policy of assenting to the mass murder of Sunni civilians in places like Idlib, Aleppo, and Eastern Ghouta. At this point in the conflict, there are no serious analysts calling for regime change of the kind the author decries in the piece. Responsible analysts agree on the need for a settlement that includes the remnants of the Assad regime.
Let us also examine the rebellion, which is undeniably and overwhelmingly Sunni, mostly anti-Alawite and anti-Shia, and increasingly dominated by hardliners. The more it veers toward sectarianism and extremism, the less its chances of prevailing. As someone who has advocated more support for mainstream rebels since 2012 (and direct intervention only in 2013 after the Assad use of chemical weapons), I have noted that support for rebels among Syrians has declined in recent years. Options for arming select rebel groups have dwindled and are riskier, in part because of Gulf-Turkish divisions and incompetence and in part because of Washington’s calculated reluctance and mistakes (the design of the ill-fated Pentagon train-and-equip program being the more glaring one). Even then, one cannot discount Assad’s utilitarian complicity in the rise of jihadi movements since 2003 and how he purposely created the conditions for such radicalization and sectarianization.
Contrary to the arguments of “Cyrus,” there is a wide spectrum of rebel groups. Ignoring the many that don’t subscribe to Salafi-jihadism is both expedient and disingenuous. ISIL and al-Nusra are genocidal cults, while Ahrar al-Sham and other groups in the Salafi universe would want to replicate the discriminatory system in place in Saudi Arabia (sadly, every country in the Middle East is fundamentally discriminatory, including Israel, Iran, and every Arab state). But discussion about whether “moderate” rebel groups exist has been interminable, toxic, and devoid of context. For a start, “moderate” is the wrong standard here as Westerners judge these groups against their own values. “Mainstream” is a better term as uses Syrian society itself as reference and many groups meet this standard. Moreover, it is interesting to see analysts such as the writer call for more Western nuance in understanding the Arab world and then proceed to lump all rebel groups together. There are operative differences between these groups.
Finally, the stated goal of those who advocate the use of coercion and the select arming of rebel groups is not an improbable military victory but leverage and options in a political process meant to achieve a settlement that delivers political inclusion, minority rights, and security guarantees and also creates the conditions for the isolation and ultimately weakening of jihadi groups. The much-maligned Gulf states do not have the ambition to install the most radical regime in Damascus, and while their calculations and dangerous wishful thinking are to blame for the rebellion’s radicalization (though, in reality, Turkey is the bigger culprit), they have always cultivated a wide spectrum of Syrian interlocutors. You would not know it from this unnamed author’s articles, but Riyadh has often shunned and had difficult relations with Salafi groups fighting in Syria. When it facilitated the formation of the opposition’s High Negotiations Committee in December 2015, it made sure that the body was diverse and broad. It is tempting to believe that Saudi state policy favors Salafis, but look at Lebanon, where the Saudi-backed Hariri dynasty pretty much embodies the opposite of Salafism.
The author claims that his on-the-ground experience and Arabic language skills have given him special insights and unique understanding into the dynamics of the Syrian conflict. Unfortunately, the author seems to have a definition of sectarianism and secularism that is as simplistic and expedient as the one he admonishes Washington for allegedly embracing.
In this account, the Assad regime is secular and inclusive. The evidence? A long list of Sunnis serving in the upper echelons of the Assad regime and in its fighting ranks, the fact that most Sunnis live in regime-held areas, and the obedience and support of the Sunni urban and business classes as well as important tribes.
What is not discussed, however, is these groups’ motives, incentives, and calculations. There is little about the system of cooptation, exclusion, and coercion that the Assad regime built over almost five decades. Hafez Al-Assad saw Baathism as an ideology that would not simply transcend but more importantly crush other forms of identity in Syria even as power was ever more concentrated in chosen Alawite hands. This experiment in social engineering and Arab nationalism, of course, has been a failure across the region.
In typical fashion, the regime has adopted a divide-and-rule strategy. Sunni tribes tamed Aleppo urbanites during the rule of Hafez Al-Assad in exchange of local power and benefits. When rebels overtook eastern Aleppo, they rushed to kill the head of the Berri clan, a thug who served as Assad’s local enforcer. In the Jazireh, Arab tribes were tasked with oppressing and containing the Kurds, for which they were rewarded with land and other benefits. However, only Alawite elders and clans handled intra-Alawite dissent.
The author commits the all-too-familiar blunder of mistaking cross-confessionalism for non-sectarianism and secularism (and lifestyle liberalism for liberalism). Cross-confessionalism is the overt, sophisticated display of religious tolerance even as political structures are sectarianized. In Syria (and indeed Lebanon) the mere and, on the surface, comforting sight of Sunni, Shia, Alawite, Christian, and Druze clerics and politicians praising coexistence serves to purpose of obfuscating the underlying issues. Of course, many others fall for the same traps (notably conservative Christian, leftist, and right-wing visitors to Damascus). However, one would think that such an experienced author could differentiate these concepts and dig below the façade of “a society where different religious groups and ethnicities lived together, not in perfect harmony, but at peace.” The fact that average Alawite, Christian, or other Syrian citizen values pluralism and “secularism” is totally understandable and warranted. These feelings should not, however, be conflated with the regime’s own instrumentalization of these concepts.
In fact, sectarianism has become an all-encompassing notion that can be twisted at will. In reality, and a bit like racism, sectarianism comes in all shapes and forms: It can be casual, soft, defensive, active, indirect, institutionalized, hegemonic, genocidal, etc.. Such nuance is absent in the author’s account because it would compel him to reflect better on the nature and structure of the Assad regime.
The author also chose to leave out or understates other inconvenient facts. Since the Syrian Arab Army is one of conscription and Syria is overwhelmingly Sunni, it would of course be disproportionately populated by Sunnis. Its best-performing, best-equipped, and most dependable units are markedly Alawite-heavy, such as Suheil Al-Hasan’s “Tiger Force.” As he rightly notes, the very army he celebrates as a national institution is struggling to attract and keep manpower, and it needs to be supplemented by countless foreign Shia militiamen. If Sunnis were indeed supporting in overwhelming numbers the regime, why such desperate measures? And while these forces are not as genocidal as ISIL, they remain brutish and abusive on a large scale.
More important than manpower or proportion of Sunnis in upper or lower ranks is the military’s internal, shadowy decision-making structure. The regime has perfected the art of coup-proofing through an intricate web of patronage within the military in which rank does not necessarily correspond to an officer’s actual authority. Defected Sunni officers, even those of a senior rank, complain that their career progression was all too often confined to service or logistical units, while command of elite combat units was more often than not an all-Alawite affair. They also complain of the way that their aide-de-camps were usually Alawites who reported their every movement to Military Intelligence and for that reason were often more influential than the officers themselves. Yet, it remains true that many Sunni officers remained loyal to the regime (a brilliant analysis by Kheder Khaddour explains why) but most still have to watch their back. When Hafez Al-Assad was challenged by his brother Rifaat in 1984, his Sunni military and political aides stayed loyal. When I asked Assad officials in the previous decade about this episode, the answer was startling: These aides were individually too weak to mount a challenge but together could counter one for some time. Importantly, they could not shift loyalties. Their power, position, and even lives depended on Assad himself. Many of them were stuck and would have been dispensed with under Rifaat. Senior Sunni officers (which the author helpfully lists) are hired, promoted, and kept around as individuals. Their success has little to no impact on their broader community or clan.
Let us turn to the often-referenced National Defense Force, a collection of local militias of varying capabilities and ideologies. Aside from the militia of the fascist Syrian Social Nationalist Party, commitment to the secularism of the regime is hardly the key driver of recruitment. These have often started as mostly communal self-defense militias that have evolved into full-fledged fighting units, criminal gangs, or both. Minorities and coopted tribal leaders are over-represented in the leadership of these militias.
What about civilians? The author is right that many of the Sunni urbanites chose not to join the uprising, but you would not know why from his account. I have interviewed many of them to understand their choices. The reasons are complex: Some have benefited directly or indirectly from the regime and wholeheartedly adhere to its narrative. Others enjoy the oppressive stability it offers even as they acknowledge its cost, and some are deterred by the massive toll of an uncertain transformation. Many (and notably the minorities) are genuinely repulsed by the rebels’ Islamist belief system. And others simply try to read the tea leaves and equivocate as much and as long as possible.
Fundamentally, in times of war, many people understandably prioritize preservation and survival. To interpret the behavior of Syria’s urban classes as active support for the Assad regime is at best naïve. Positions fluctuated considerably since 2011. Some engaged in double games, publicly supporting the regime while privately funding the opposition or providing humanitarian assistance to opposition-held areas.
Several of my pro-opposition contacts in Damascus went silent after seeing the cost paid by Homs and Aleppo. The destruction of these cities was meant in part to deter unrest in other cities. Hama’s middle class, which deeply hates Assad, remains traumatized by the 1982 massacre and razing of its central areas and is thus unwilling to rebel as neighboring Homs did. Many Sunni residents of the Eastern Ghouta have moved to regime-held areas of the capital to flee Assad’s bombings. As Stathis Kalyvas demonstrates, loyalties and preferences in civil wars are frequently reshaped by the conflict’s own dynamics and notably by the respective military performance of the warring parties.
I was in Beirut in August and September 2013, awaiting like everyone else the announced U.S. and French strikes after Assad’s use of chemical weapons. Upper-class Sunni Syrians flooded the city seeking refuge. These Syrians, many of whom had never a bad word to say in public about the regime since 2011, were suddenly brutally criticizing Assad in cafes and wishing his demise. When the strikes were suddenly called off, however, the mood shifted significantly. Sensing the changing winds, opposition sympathizers felt dejected and abandoned. Fence-sitters either withdrew into despair or detachment, while others joined the government side. The more these people feel that Assad will survive (thanks to Russian or Iranian support) and enjoy a measure of international legitimacy (and possibly Western acquiescence), the more they will stay coy or stick by Assad.
The fact that most Syrians (including Sunnis) flee to regime-controlled areas is of course notable. The unnamed author puts a great deal of weight on this. Some are certainly regime loyalists or are escaping rebel or jihadi rule. But here are key considerations for internally displaced people: Barrel bombs and missiles rain on rebel-held areas, making local governance and provision of services impossible, but not in regime-held areas, where international organizations and NGOs provide humanitarian assistance that the regime does not allow to flow into rebel-held and besieged areas. And what about the five million mostly Sunni refugees?
There is a logic to Assad’s violence. It cannot be blamed on ill-disciplined Alawite militias as the author does with regards to the massacres of Houla or Baniyas. The nature and extent of Assad’s violence is strategic in design and effect. He is pursuing a strategy of terror, siege, and depopulation in key areas, calculating that winning back the loyalty of much of the Sunni middle class and underclass is highly unlikely and certainly not worth the resources and political capital. Better to level half the country than to give it over to the opposition.
Glaringly, the author understates the sectarian logic to the regime’s strategy. It is telling that in the author’s articles, Iran is mentioned only in passing and Hezbollah in largely benign terms. Iran and Hezbollah are not in Syria purely because of power politics: Both are drivers of sectarianism, not of the genocidal type as ISIL but of the hegemonic one. As I and other analysts have argued, the fighting alongside the corridor from Lebanon’s northeast into Homs and west followed a strategic of sectarian displacement. Sunni villages were attacked and evacuated to secure a safe, contiguous corridor from Beirut to Damascus and Homs for the regime and Hezbollah. Some of my Alawite interlocutors have at times raised the idea of territorial continuity from northwest Syria to Lebanon to link the Alawites with Lebanon’s non-Sunni communities. This remains a far-fetched scenario but such sectarian thinking is making inroads.
The author has clearly traveled around Syria. Perhaps he could pay a visit to the Sunni village of Tal Kalakh along the Syrian-Lebanese border, where residents joined the uprising early, and research the story from the ground up. As studies of the political geography of the uprising show (such as my own), the story is one of changing political economy and sectarianism. This village, like nearby Alawite villages, lived off of smuggling with Lebanon, which corrupt Syrian government officials allowed in return for bribes. When the government embarked on its flawed liberalization program, it clamped down on border security (the main beneficiaries were of course Assad’s cousins who opened duty-free shops on the Syrian-Lebanese highway). But while smugglers in Tal Kalakh had to give up their business (even while being forced to keep paying bribes), government officials closed their eyes on contraband flowing to and from Alawite villages. Poverty hit, resentment grew, and the Sunni smugglers had access to small arms and support from tribal relatives in Wadi Khaled across the Lebanese border. The rest is bloody history, and Tal Kalakh is now subdued and many of its residents are refugees.
The unnamed author rightly bemoans the existence of sectarianism and Salafism “among Syria’s Sunni rural class and its urban poor,” but does not ask why besides blaming it all on Saudi Arabia. The Saudi kingdom deserves much criticism but as Greg Gause argued, “the Saudis lost control of global Salafism [since the 1980s], if they ever really had it.”
The Saudi government does not export an ideology that serves as a state instrument of power. Instead, because of problematic domestic entanglements, it empowered dangerous quasi-state and non-state religious actors who in turn spread extreme versions of Sunni Islam over which Saudi Arabia has little to no control. The relationships between Riyadh and Ahrar al-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam, two powerful Syrian Salafi rebel groups, are not without tensions. They certainly do not compare to the organic, structured relationships between Iran and Hezbollah or any of the main Shia militias in Iraq.
In fact, the overlap of sect, class (to which he pays scant attention to), and geography illuminates the complex dynamics of the conflict better than the author’s main focus on Saudi-fashioned Sunni identity.
Ultimately, sectarianism does not capture the complexity at play here. Class, tribal, or clan affiliation, as well as the rural-urban divide, geography, and other factors, matter enormously in the organization of Arab societies. Assabiyya (kinship or group solidarity) is a considerably better explanatory concept for policymakers, analysts, and observers. If reading Ibn Khaldoun, the 14th-century Muslim historian and sociologist, is too much, try Michel Seurat. This French sociologist wrote a series of essays published 30 years ago as Syrie, l’Etat de Barbarie. This still is the best book to understand the Assad regime. Incidentally, Seurat was kidnapped by Hezbollah in 1985, allegedly at the behest of a scorned Assad the Elder, and died in captivity.
The concept of assabiyya helps explain other of the many misconceptions about the Assad system. For example, because it stems from and relies upon the Alawite community, many assume that Alawites have benefited disproportionately from the regime. This is not supported by the available data: Alawite fortunes have improved because their initial level of development was very low because of preferential access to government jobs and other benefits and organized migration to cities. This progress did not occur in a uniform or dramatic manner across the community. Anyone who travels through Alawite regions would notice wild differences in wealth and development.
When I asked an Alawite businessman about this in 2009, he explained that Alawites certainly needed to associate their improving standing to the regime but also that moving most of the community to the middle class would be costly social engineering. He said it would make it “rich, fat, and lazy” and unable and unwilling to fight for the regime’s survival. The regime needed Alawites to be on their toes, alert to a potential Sunni uprising.
If the regime were not following a assabiyya-based rapacious sectarian logic, how would one explain its efforts since the 1970s to organize the geography of Damascus to prevent coups and encourage Alawites to resettle from their traditional northwest areas in specific neighborhoods of the capital? What about the massive urban engineering suffered by Homs in the 2000s, when grandiose plans to develop the city led to the eviction of thousands of Sunnis from central areas while Alawite neighborhoods were left untouched? Why did Ismailis (a Shia offshoot now under threat from ISIL) join the uprising in large numbers in its early days?
Michel Samaha, a close Lebanese associate of the Assad regime and Hezbollah, used to advocate for an alliance of minorities to contain the “sea of Sunnis.” Samaha was a favorite pseudo-intellectual of Western visitors to Beirut and Damascus and is now in prison for plotting bombings against Sunni and even possibly Christian targets in Lebanon at Mamluk’s behest to inflame sectarian passions.
Of course, to work, such an “alliance of minorities” requires minorities as well as loyal and cooperative Sunnis to operate under the cover of the strongest party in town: conveniently, this would be Hezbollah in Lebanon and Assad in Syria. In exchange for giving up all say on foreign, defense, and security policy and on agreeing on their institutionalized power at home, all others were allowed to live and pray. This model is a far from the one of citizenship and secularism the author claims Assad embodies. If anything, such a model contains in itself more destruction
Real, principled secularism of the kind much-needed in the Arab world and the safety of minority groups will suffer greatly from rationalizing the mass murder of tens of thousands of Syrians (mostly Sunni, poor, and conservative) in the name of preserving the Assad regime’s phony, brutal, expedient secularism. “He kills a lot more but for the right reasons” or “he kills massively but does not seek the annihilation of an entire sect” are hardly convincing arguments. Justifying mass murder today in order to prevent a potential genocide tomorrow all but guarantees the worst outcome. And suggesting, as the author does, that communities that “embraced” ISIL deserve to pay a social and perhaps other costs stinks of collective punishment at odds with the proclaimed goal of inclusion and ignores why communities allow at times radical groups to emerge.
It is a brave undertaking to set out to fundamentally correct others’ perceptions and understanding of a complex conflict. But if so, one better provide a solid diagnosis and argumentation rather than the seductive but ultimately disingenuous and highly politicized account offered by the author under a false name. Finally, any claim to be speaking truth to power, perhaps the author’s most daring claim, simply cannot be evaluated given his or her anonymity.
Emile Hokayem is the Senior Fellow for Middle East Security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. He is the author of Syria’s Uprising and the Fracturing of the Levant (2013) and other studies on Levant and Gulf security.