Joshua Landis writes: The Asads stand atop the last minoritarian regime in the Levant and thus seem destined to fall in this age of popular revolt. When they do, the postcolonial era will draw to a final close. Following World War II, minorities took control in every Levant state, thanks to colonial divide-and-rule tactics and the fragmented national community that bedeviled the states of the region. It is estimated that, due to their over-recruitment by the French Mandate authorities, Alawis already by the mid-1950s constituted some 65 percent of all noncommissioned officers in the Syrian military. Within a decade, they took control of the military leadership and, with it, Syria itself.
Unique among the Levant states was Palestine, where the Jewish minority was able to transform itself into the majority at the expense of Palestine’s Muslims. Neither the Christians of Lebanon nor the Sunnis of Iraq were so lucky or ambitious. Nevertheless, both clung to power at the price of dragging their countries into lengthy civil wars. The Lebanese war lasted 15 years; the Iraqi struggle between Shiites and Sunnis, while shorter, has yet to be entirely resolved. The Alawis of Syria seem determined to repeat this violent plunge to the bottom. It is hard to determine whether this is due to the rapaciousness of a corrupt elite, to the bleak prospects that the Alawi community faces in a post-Asad Syria, or to the weak faith that many in the region place in democracy and power-sharing formulas. Whatever the reason, Syria’s transition away from minority rule is likely to be lengthy and violent. Even though the Alawis make up a mere 12 percent of the total population, the regime continues to count on support from other minorities who fear Islamists coming to power and from important segments of the Sunni population who fear civil war.
The Asads have been planning for this day of popular insurrection all their lives. Hafiz al-Asad did not make the mistake of Hosni Mubarak, allowing his sons to go into private business, while leaving the military in the hands of others, who ultimately turned against him. The Asads were less trusting, and for good reason. Syria’s urban Sunnis looked at the Alawis as interloping aliens when they first took power — muwafidiin, as they were called. It was not long before the Muslim Brotherhood took up arms against them, labeling them as non-Muslim and non-Arab (shuubiyun) — only to be crushed brutally after the notorious Hama uprising in 1982. The use of excessive force was then a clear sign of the regime’s determination and sectarian nature; the forces sent to retake Hama were largely Alawi.
The Asads tutored their children in the arts of war so they could take command of the military and police their population. They marshaled in-laws, cousins and coreligionists into the upper ranks of the security forces. Despite the rhetoric of Arab nationalism, the Asads were keenly aware that only the traditional loyalties of family, clan and sect could cement their rule. In essence, they upheld the notion that it takes a village to rule Syria, a formula that successfully brought an end to political instability. For over two decades following independence, Syria had been known as the banana republic of the Middle East because of its frequent coups and changes of government. Under the Asads, loyalty quickly became the ultimate qualification for advancement into the upper ranks of the security forces. They packed sensitive posts with loyal Alawis and Baathists. Some analysts estimated that as many 80 percent of Syria’s officer corps is Alawi. This is undoubtedly an exaggeration, but it underscores the sectarian safety measures the regime has taken. The main strike forces, such as the Republican Guard led by Bashar’s brother, are overwhelmingly Alawi. Many of the divisions made up of enlisted Sunnis have not been deployed to quell the uprising. Instead, the regime has built up special forces and irregulars, often called shabiha, which are heavily Alawi or Sunnis of known loyalty. Policing loyalty in order to coup-proof the regime has been a paramount concern. Alawis were placed in strategic ministries other than defense. The foreign ministry is a case in point. Recently a Syrian ambassador who has sought refuge in Turkey told Hurriyet, “There are 360 diplomats within the Syrian Foreign Ministry. Of these, 60 percent are Nusayri [Alawi].” He added, “The number of Sunni diplomats does not exceed 10 percent.” Even if these numbers are an exaggeration, there is little doubt that the regime has been careful to staff the upper ranks of important ministries with loyalists and coreligionists. This attention to staffing is a key reason that major defections have not occurred in the top ranks of government and why we have yet to see a repeat of the Libya example, where whole sections of the country fell out of central control and turned to the rebel cause within weeks of the uprising’s debut. Ironically, the minoritarian character of the regime makes it more durable than its republican counterparts in North Africa, where the population is largely homogeneous.
The sectarian nature of the regime may protect it from major desertions when economic difficulties make paying for the far-flung patronage networks impossible. Patronage serves as essential glue, binding the interests of disparate social groups to the regime. Just as important, patronage frustrates the emergence of corporate groups that might compete with the government.The regime has skillfully doled out jobs and benefits to fragment the opposition and buy off opponents.
For this reason, opposition leaders hope that sanctions will promote the collapse of the regime. They reason that, once government money runs out, widespread defections will take place, a coup by top-ranking Alawi officers may occur, or a Tahrir Square moment will overwhelm security forces in the major cities. Such hopes have not been fulfilled in 10 months of growing violence and protest. There is little reason to think they will be in the coming months. Despite increasing defections among the military’s rank and file, the elite units, special forces and intelligence agencies may have little choice but to rally around the Asad regime, given their bleak prospects in a post-Asad Syria. Heavily Alawite elite units with sizable numbers of loyal Sunnis will likely see no alternative.
The broader Alawi community is also likely to remain loyal to the regime, even as the economy deteriorates. Almost all Alawi families have a least one member in the security forces as well as additional members working in civilian ministries, such as education or agriculture. Most fear collective punishment for the sins of the Baathist era. Not only do they assume that they will suffer from wide-scale purges once the opposition wins; many also suspect that they will face prison or worse. Opposition leaders have tried to calm Alawi anxieties provoked by hotheaded sheikhs. The most notorious is Adnan Arur, who threatened, “We shall mince [the Alawis] in meat grinders and feed them to the dogs.” The head of the Muslim Brotherhood has assured ordinary Alawis that they will be protected. Those guilty of crimes will face proper courts and be tried according to the law. Such assurances only go so far in calming Alawi anxieties. Many do not expect an orderly transition of power, just as many remain convinced that a spirit of revenge may guide the opposition, which has been so badly abused.
In short, because the Syrian military remains able and willing to stand by the president, whether out of loyalty, self-interest or fear, the regime is likely to endure for some time. [Continue reading…]