One Nation, Divided, Under Bashar
July 12th was an auspicious day in Syrian history. Government forces under the dictator Bashar al-Assad captured the city of Deraa and, accompanied by Russian troops, hoisted the national flag of Syria over the town square. Seven years ago, the rebellion against Assad was launched in that very city. Most experts agree that the war is coming to an end, and that Assad is victorious.
This will likely bring mixed results for the people of Syria. The long and bloody conflict is coming to a close, encouraging some Syrians to begin picking up the pieces and repairing the damage. The government is starting to revive vital services in the cities which it controls, and the radical fundamentalists such as the Islamic State are almost totally destroyed. But it seems that the nominally secular character of the ruling Ba’ath Party government has been abandoned permanently.
Most Syrians are of the Sunni sect of Islam, but Assad’s most loyal supporters are Alawites, Shia, or Christian. Assad’s opponents—the rebels—are largely of the Sunni faith. Nearly a third of Syria’s population has fled the country, and another third has been displaced internally; the vast majority of these refugees are Sunni. The government seems to be taking advantage of this, in part by encouraging Christians and other minority religious groups to move in and take over the abandoned property left by fleeing Sunni. The process was formalised by the passage of a decree called Law 10. This is a new tactic but an old strategy. Ever since the Assad family rose to power in the 1970 “Corrective Movement”—a bloodless coup d’etat carried out against the leftist government of Salah Jadid—they faced serious problems in governing such a large, multicultural, and multiethnic state.
The Assad family are themselves members of the Alawite sect of Islam. In many press reports about the conflict the elusive religion has been mentioned as the seat of Bashar al-Assad’s power, but little has been written in detail about it. Founded sometime in the ninth century by Ibn Nusayri, Alawites or “Nusayris” refer to their sect as moderate branch of Shia Islam, but the truth is far more complex. Alawites drink alcohol and do not condone the veiling of women; in addition, followers of the religion believe in a sort of Islamic “Holy Trinity” comprising of God, the Prophet Muhammed, and his cousin and disciple Ali. In an even greater diversion from the norm, Alawites believe that the five central tenets of Islam are merely symbolic, and do not therefore put them into practice. The Nusayris are famously very secretive about their religion’s practices, and little else is known about their beliefs or rituals.
After briefly achieving their own state under the French Mandate in the early 20th century, Alawites held little power till the Corrective Movement. As members of a tiny minority—today only 11% of Syria’s majority-Sunni population—the Assad family found in their early years that the best way to hold on to power was to replace Sunni army officers with loyalist Alawites. This proved to be an effective way to hold on to power, but also inflamed sectarian tensions which are increasingly becoming more overt, and more permanent.
Lastly, it seems that some of the most serious threats to Syria’s tentative stability could come from its staunchest ally. Assad has told the Russians to pack up and go home, but it looks like his Iranian backers are here to stay. Their continued presence in the country is a graver threat to Assad’s regime perhaps even than the fundamentalist rebels which he has just defeated. In neighbouring Iraq, the withdrawal of American troops was followed quickly by an influx of Iranian militias similar to those operating in Syria. The same nation that once almost defeated Iran in a costly war is now considered nothing more than an Iranian proxy. If Assad is not careful, Syria may soon share that fate. Alawites have been seen to chafe at the religious fervor of their immoderate Shia allies, whose Iranian-controlled militia groups number in the tens of thousands. Some of them have even engaged in deadly clashes with government forces.
For now, Alawites and Christians rejoice, the Shia bide their time, and the Sunni desperately seek safety. The sole certainty is that, for now, Bashar is here to stay.