Juan Cole writes: The Syrian upheaval has gone through several stages. It began with relatively peaceful protests by crowds in a handful of small and medium-size cities outside the large metropolitan areas of Damascus and Aleppo. Severe repression by the national regime led some revolutionaries to turn to guerrilla tactics. The ruling Baath government subjected the quarters held by the Free Syrian Army to heavy artillery and tank assaults. More recently, as the rebellion continued to spread in small towns, the military has provided cover to death squads that have massacred civilians in an attempt to scare them into submission. The most frightening thing about this spiral of ever greater violence and brutality is that some of the now-hardened lines have been sectarian.
The Syrian army assault on the rebellious Sunni village of al-Haffa in Latakia province, which has left it a ghost town, exemplifies this move toward religious war. Latakia is heavily Alawite, and protecting members of this religious group from Sunni dominance is one of the latent functions of the regime. The upper echelons of the ruling Baath Party and its officer corps are dominated by the Alawite sect of Shiite Islam. Only about 10 percent of Syrians are Alawite. On the order of 70 percent of Syrians belong to the rival Sunni branch of Islam. (Many Syrian Sunnis are secularists.) The car bomb that recently damaged the Shiite shrine of Sayyida Zaynab in Damascus may have primarily targeted nearby Intelligence Ministry buildings, but those who detonated it may have been happy enough to hurt Shiite religious sensibilities.
The death squads, Shabiha, deployed by the regime against the towns of Houla and Mazraat al-Qubair in recent weeks are drawn from the Alawi sect. Many of the Sunnis being targeted have been organized by the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood. Houla and Mazraat al-Qubair are largely Sunni hamlets surrounded by powerful Alawi towns.
The black-garbed Shabiha, or “ghost gangs,” began as criminal organizations in the Alawite-dominated port of Latakia in the 1970s after the Alawite Assad family came to power in Syria, and some of its members are drawn from the Assad and related Deeb and Makhlouf clans. Although the groups were curbed in the 1990s after they became too arrogant even for the Assads to countenance, they re-emerged in 2011 as paramilitary adjuncts to the army and security police. In Alawite areas, they have been accused of detaining Syrians with Sunni names at checkpoints and doing away with them.
The Baath Party was founded in the 1940s by two Christian intellectuals who advocated a secular Arab nationalism. In some ways, the “Resurrection,” or Baath, party was to resemble the Communist Party, but instead of championing the working class and being universal it would uplift ethnic Arabs and unite them to throw off the vestiges of Western, colonial domination. This attempt to subvert socialism with an appeal to essentially racist themes made the Baath an odd hybrid of fascism and Third-Worldism. Non-Arab minorities in Baath-ruled countries, such as the Kurds, often faced discrimination or worse.
Baathists came to power through coups in Syria and Iraq in the 1960s. Ironically, the Baath one-party state became a vehicle for well-organized minorities to take over the government. Thus, in Syria the Alawite Shiites dominated the Baath regime from 1970, whereas in Iraq control of the ruling Baath party was held by a Sunni clan from Tikrit (that of Saddam Hussein). [Continue reading…]