Syrian Conflict: Legacy of Imperialist Divide-and-Rule

DIVERSITY vs. DIVISION: The Syrian government led by President Assad has been working to bring together the country’s many religious and ethnic groups, while armed insurgents funded from abroad exploit tensions created by French imperialism. – Nina Westbury

Workers Vanguard

Before World War I was even over, the British and French imperialists, with the assent of tsarist Russia, divided up the spoils of their impending victory over the Ottoman Empire, which was allied with Germany, in the secret Sykes-Picot treaty of 1916. The publication of that document by the Bolshevik workers state in late 1917 exposed the imperialists’ machinations and had an electrifying effect across the Near East. Strikes and demonstrations swept Egypt in 1919, and in Mesopotamia (today’s Iraq) the masses stood up to the more than 130,000 British troops deployed to occupy the territory.

Until it was dismembered in the carve-up of the Near East, the vast region known for centuries as Bilad al-Sham (the lands of Damascus), or “greater Syria,” included Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine. Although it was almost never a politically united entity, its inhabitants saw it as a whole homogeneous culture with close economic ties. Against the wish of its inhabitants, who vehemently opposed the Sykes-Picot treaty and demanded a united Syria-Palestine, France took Syria and Lebanon and Britain occupied Jordan and Palestine.

In 1920, seeking to fashion a pro-Western enclave in the Levant, France created the entity that it called Grand Liban (Greater Lebanon) by annexing Muslim regions of Syria to Mount Lebanon. To divide and rule, the French combined the Muslims, among whom nascent Arab nationalism was growing, with the Christian Maronite majority, among whom they nourished a myth of non-Arab heritage and who would look to France for protection. On the eve of World War II, in a desperate attempt to persuade Turkey to join the Allies against Germany, France detached the northwestern province of Alexandretta from Syria and handed it over to Turkey. (Turkey kept Alexandretta, renamed it Hatay, but sided with Germany anyway.)

Over the centuries, the inaccessible valleys high above sea level and the rugged terrain on the eastern Mediterranean coast of Syria and Lebanon have provided a physically protected refuge for diverse religious and ethnic minorities who fled persecution at the hands of both Christian and Muslim rulers. The Alawites and the Ismailis, who both have Shi’a origin, found in Syria a refuge from the wrath of successive Sunni rulers. Christian Armenians flocked to Syria when the Seljuk Turks of Anatolia conquered their country in the eleventh century. Centuries later, more waves of them poured in, fleeing the 1915-18 genocidal terror of the Young Turks. The Druze, a tenth-century offshoot of Shi’ism, fled persecution by the Fatimid caliphate in Egypt. Palestinians fleeing massacres by the Crusaders after the conquest of Jerusalem in 1099 settled on the slopes of Mount Qassioun. The Greek Orthodox and Greek Catholics settled in the region following successive splits of the Christian church. After the handover of Alexandretta to Turkey in 1939, more Kurds and Armenians fled south to Syria.

The majority of inhabitants of Syria are Arabic-speaking Sunnis (about 60 percent). The other major religious minorities are the Alawites (12 percent), Christians, with more than seven denominations (14 percent), Druze (3 percent) and Ismailis (1.5 percent). The principal ethnic minorities are Kurds (9 percent), Armenians (4 percent), Turcomans and Circassians. While the Kurds, Turcomans and Circassians are almost exclusively Muslim, the Armenians are Christian. Alawites, Druze and Ismailis as well as the Greek Orthodox are Arabic-speaking.

Roots of Alawite Ascendance

The bloodletting that marked much of the history of Syria (and Lebanon) is a legacy of Ottoman rule and late French domination and the interpenetration of the myriad religious and ethnic communities coupled with imperialist intervention, combining to retard capitalist development and prevent the consolidation of a modern state. What is currently taking place in Syria is in great measure a continuation of mutual hatreds (some dating back centuries) that were manifested in the countless bloody coups and countercoups, ethnic and religious conflicts that were a feature of Syrian history since it gained independence in 1946.

In April 1964, Sunni fundamentalists staged an uprising in the city of Hama, a stronghold of Sunni conservatives, ransacking wine shops, beating up members of the nationalist Ba’ath party and killing and mutilating an Ismaili guard. The government responded with brutal force, killing up to one hundred. In 1979, more than 30 Alawite officer cadets were murdered in a massacre led by a Sunni officer at the Aleppo Artillery School. More murders of Alawites occurred in the city of Latakia. The government immediately responded with a countrywide campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood.

The violence continued throughout the early 1980s. The Muslim Brotherhood attempted to assassinate Hafez al-Assad, father of current president Bashar, in 1980. Assad responded by murdering in cold blood some 500 Muslim Brotherhood members imprisoned in a Palmyra jail. The sectarian confrontation between the Sunni fundamentalists and the Alawite-dominated government’s reached its climax in February 1982 with the bloodiest showdown in modern Syrian history. The government’s leveled the city of Hama, killing an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 Sunnis.

The sectarian confrontation continues. While Western bourgeois media publicize the government’s repression, atrocities perpetrated by Sunni fundamentalists receive scant, if any, coverage. The massacre in Houla in May, for example, which the media reported to be carried out by the Assad government’s militia, was, according to one German newspaper, carried out by Islamist forces. No one can predict the outcome of the conflict, but the fate of religious and ethnic minorities has already been decided by the Islamic fundamentalists as they chant: Al-Alawi ala taboot, wa al-Masihi ala Beirut (the Alawi in the coffin, and the Christian to Beirut).

The Alawis (or Alawites) are members of a schismatic offshoot from mainstream “Twelver Shi’ism.” Like the Druze and Ismailis, they are a remnant of the Shi’a upsurge that swept the Islamic world around the ninth century. The name Alawi (i.e., a follower of Ali) is of recent coinage, dating from the French conquest after World War I. Before that they were known as Nusayriya, after the founding leader Muhammad ibn Nusayr. The Alawites share with other Shi’a the belief that Ali, the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law, was his rightful heir but was robbed of his inheritance by the first three caliphs (rulers). In addition, they see Ali as infused with “divine essence.”

For this and other esoteric beliefs they were denounced by Sunnis as infidels deserving death. The 14th-century Syrian jurist Ibn Taymiyyah, a champion of Sunni orthodoxy, condemned them as more dangerous than Christians. Urging Muslims to wage holy war against them, he declared that their blood and wealth were permissible for the taking; they were apostates who had to be punished, even exterminated, wherever they were found. To this day, this pronouncement provides ammunition for their adversaries.

In the upland settlements of the wild mountains, Alawites, neglected by the Ottoman rulers, lived in destitution. They were denied education, jobs and services of any sort. Over many centuries, generations of impoverished Alawites were driven by hunger down to the central Syrian plains around Homs and Hama to work as serfs and sharecroppers for wealthy Sunni landlords. After the French occupation, the Alawites, to the chagrin of the majority Sunnis, were awarded privileges as they, along with other “reliable minorities” with limited nationalist ambitions, were recruited to the Troupes Spéciales du Levant, which the French used to ruthlessly suppress Sunni nationalists. By the time of independence, the Alawites were dominant in the military. In 1955, no less than 65 percent of noncommissioned officers were Alawites, an advantage that enabled them to wrest control of the Ba’ath party and government.

The Ba’ath Party

The Arab Socialist Ba’ath (Rebirth or Renascence) party was founded in Syria during the rising tide of Arab nationalism and anti-colonial struggle in the 1940s by two Damascus schoolteachers, Michel Aflaq, a Greek Orthodox Christian, and Salah al-Din al-Bitar, a Sunni Muslim. The party advocated independence from foreign rule, secularism and pan-Arabism. It raised the utopian slogan “One Arab nation with an eternal mission,” which was intended to address the centuries-old burden of humiliation suffered under the rule of the Ottomans as well as the colonial powers.

The Ba’ath party steadily established a base among the rural poor, urban petty-bourgeois intellectuals, religious Arab minorities and within the army. Ba’ath secular ideology appealed especially to Arab religious minorities, who hoped that the Ba’ath would free them from their minority status and that Sunni domination of Syrian political life would be broken. Sunni Arab nationalists have traditionally assigned a central role to Sunni Islam and regarded Arabic-speaking religious minorities, whether heterodox Muslims or Christians, as timid “subordinates” and “imperfect” Arabs. However, “deviant” nationalist aspirations other than Arabism were severely suppressed by the Ba’ath, and non-Arabs like the Kurds, Armenians and Circassians were denied party membership unless they accepted Arabization and gave up their ethnic identity.

By the mid 1950s, the Ba’ath had become a major political force with a sizable parliamentary representation. It was influential in the Egyptian/Syrian unity that eventually resulted in the formation of the United Arab Republic (UAR) in 1958, which the Ba’athists saw as a step in the direction of their program of pan-Arabism. However, the party was soon disillusioned by Egypt’s economic and political domination of Syria and Gamal Abdel Nasser’s repression and outlawing of all political parties, including the Ba’ath. The Ba’ath supported the 1961 coup that brought about the separation of Syria from the UAR.

The period that followed Syria’s separation was characterized by a struggle for power by senior (mainly Sunni) military officers, which took the form of successive coups and countercoups, with resultant purges by one side or another. The numerous purges greatly weakened the position of Sunni officers in the upper echelons of power. Officers from minority religious groups suffered less from the wear and tear in the army since they were not part of the political struggle. By the early 1960s, they were able to occupy important positions of command.

When the Ba’athists staged a successful coup and took power in 1963, the majority of the officer corps was from the minorities, mainly Alawites, Druze and Ismailis. The highest leadership of the Military Committee that led the coup was in the hands of three Alawites: Muhammad Umran, Salah Jadid and Hafez al-Assad, who soon moved to consolidate their power by purging the army of opponents, including Nasserites, Sunnis and even their allies from other minorities. The purges were so massive that many believe that one of the main reasons for the defeat of Syria in the 1967 war with Israel was that Syria went into it with a greatly depleted officer corps.

Several coup attempts by the Alawites’ opponents throughout the 1960s were met with bloody repression. At the same time, factional divisions and personal rivalries appeared within the Alawite military leadership itself. In 1970, through the purging of Jadid’s faction, and in a coup that he called the “corrective movement,” Hafez al-Assad emerged as the strongman who would rule Syria until his death in 2000, when Bashar took over. While Assad’s 1970 coup put an end to the cycle of military seizures of power that punctuated Syrian politics, it did not end the internal bloody feuds, including within the Assad family itself. In 1984, Rifaat al-Assad, Hafez’s younger brother, laid siege to Damascus with tanks and artillery. The attempted coup was suppressed and Rifaat was exiled to Western Europe, where he still resides.

To broaden his base of support, Hafez al-Assad established the so-called National Progressive Front (NPF), which included parties that would accept the leadership of the Ba’ath. Among these outfits was the Syrian Communist Party (SCP), which eagerly joined Assad’s government and to this day remains a close ally of the regime. He also extended a hand to sections of the Sunni elite of Damascus and Aleppo and appointed many of them to key military and government positions. (Bashar’s wife is a scion of a wealthy Sunni Damascene family.)

To further placate the Sunnis, Hafez al-Assad issued a new constitution whereby only a Muslim can be a president. Against Alawite beliefs, he regularly attended Friday prayers and made the pilgrimage to Mecca. He started opening his speeches with religious phrases and quoting verses from the Koran. (Alawites do not build mosques, nor do they practice fasting during Ramadan or go on pilgrimage.) He dispensed with the Ba’ath’s pan-Arabism, discarded the party’s civilian leadership, including its founders, and reversed the nationalizations and meager agrarian reforms that were implemented in the mid 1960s.

The regime’s claim to secularism is belied not only by the elder Assad’s attitude toward Sunnis but also by the state’s increasing reactionary conservatism—from the building of mosques to appointing imams and vetting their Friday sermons to the increasing number of women wearing the veil on the streets of Damascus and Aleppo.

Syria and the World Powers

With its strategic position on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean, Syria has historically been a magnet for domination by the world powers. The city of Aleppo, situated at the crossroads of the Arab, Turkish and Persian worlds, was a major stop on the Silk Road. Over the centuries, successive conquerors occupied the region: Alexander the Great, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Arabs, the Crusaders, Saladin’s Ayyubid dynasty, the Mongols, the Ottomans and the French.

Ever since the Crusades, when Raymond of Toulouse captured the flourishing port cities of the Levant, French rulers have had interests in the region. The persecuted Christian Maronites saw the Crusaders, with whom they allied against the Muslims, as liberators. The Maronites served as a base for colonial penetration by the French. The British in turn became the benefactors of the Druze, and tsarist Russia extended protection to the Orthodox Christians. In 1859, Maronite peasants rebelled against Druze feudal lords, who responded by massacring over 12,000 Maronites. The massacre provided a pretext for France to intervene militarily. On the eve of the French invasion, commenting on the “Events in Syria,” Karl Marx wrote in the New York Daily Tribune in August 1860:

“The conspirators of Petersburg and Paris had, however, in case their temptation of Prussia should fail, kept in reserve the thrilling incident of the Syrian massacres, to be followed by a French intervention which…would open the back door of a general European war. In respect to England I will only add, that, in 1841 Lord Palmerstone furnished the Druses with the arms they kept ever since, and that, in 1846, by a convention with the Czar Nicholas, he abolished, in point of fact, the Turkish sway that curbed the wild tribes of the Lebanon, and stipulated for them a quasi-independence which, in the run of time, and under the proper management of foreign plotters, could only beget a harvest of blood.”

The French occupation of Syria was ruthless. General Henri Gouraud, commander of the French Army of the Levant, “transformed Damascus into a pile of ruins,” wrote Jean Genet, who served in the French army in the late 1920s. Standing in front of the tomb of the historic Muslim leader Saladin (who was a Kurd) and evoking the Crusades, Gouraud declared, “My presence here signifies the victory of the cross over the crescent.” A series of revolts against French rule were ruthlessly suppressed. The city of Damascus was bombed from the air several times. Nationalist Syrians were jailed, murdered and sent into exile in other French colonies. After years of struggles, Syria won independence in 1946.

After the departure of the British and the French following WWII, the American imperialists sought to inherit the region. Before Iran (1953) and Guatemala (1954), the CIA engineered its first coup against the Syrian nationalists in 1949, following Syria’s refusal to allow Aramco to build a pipeline from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean. The coup lasted only a few months, and its leader, Husni al-Zaim, was killed. But the U.S. never stopped its attempts to dominate Syria, plotting more coups throughout the duration of the Cold War as Syria increasingly allied itself with the Soviet Union. In 1979, the U.S. designated Syria a “state sponsor of terror,” a designation that has brought a raft of economic sanctions ever since. Today the imperialists, aided by the reactionary Gulf monarchs, are intending to bring down the Syrian government to weaken its Iranian and Hezbollah allies.

The Syrian Communist Party

The SCP was formed in the 1920s as the Communist Party of Syria and Lebanon. While banned by the French colonial rulers, it played a major role in the struggle for independence, organizing demonstrations and strikes. Its membership was drawn mainly from the Kurdish and other minorities. Its secretary Khalid Bakdash and most of its leaders were Kurds.

The SCP emerged from illegality in 1954 as a small but extremely active and well-organized party. In the general election that year, Bakdash became the first Communist leader elected to parliament in the Arab world. The SCP rapidly became the largest and most organized Communist party in the Arab world and one of the leading political forces in Syria. It gained control of major trade-union organizations. By the summer of 1957, “it might perhaps have been able to make a bid for political power,” wrote Walter Laqueur in The Middle East in Transition. However, the SCP pursued the Stalinist popular-front line of subordination of the working class to bourgeois forces. Khalid Bakdash declared more than once that his party was radical-nationalist rather than Communist, telling parliament that “Syria is Arab nationalist, not Communist, and will remain so.”

When Assad gained control in 1970, he lifted a ban imposed on the SCP after the Ba’ath coup and allowed it to join his “progressive front,” provided that the SCP accepted his conditions. The SCP dutifully obliged and was awarded ministerial positions in the government. In 1976, when Syria intervened in the Lebanese civil war on the side of the Maronites against the Palestinians, the SCP split, and an opposition group calling itself the Political Bureau was formed, led by Riyad al-Turk. The party split again in 1986 over Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika (market-oriented “reforms”) and glasnost (political liberalization) policies, with Bakdash and much of his Kurdish base critical of Gorbachev. Both sides have remained part of the Assad government’s National Progressive Front.

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