Assad is not Syria. Part 1: Assad the neo-colonialist sectarian hypocrite.

Crispin Blunt MP, and chairman of the UK Foreign Affairs Select Committee, summed up the crisis in Syria on the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire programme in December 2016, with the throwaway line that minorities in Syria saw their interests were best protected by the Assad regime, and therefore the regime enjoyed much greater support than was anticipated. This from a conservative MP with great influence on the foreign policy of the UK government, who is supposed to be well-informed on the background of the conflict in Syria.

He also said something similar in an article in the centre-right UK Daily Telegraph on the 31st December 2016:

“Our stance [of demanding Assad goes] encouraged the defiance and the formation of the Free Syrian Army, which failed to topple a regime stronger and more implacable than we had allowed for. Uncomfortably, the regime also enjoyed support from Syria’s minorities as well as the more secular Sunni establishment, all of whom look to the regime for protection from the more fundamentalist forces of revolutionary Islam.”

[“Removing Assad is not the solution to Syria crisis, senior Tory says.” 5/9/2015, Daily Telegraph.]

This reminds me strongly of an October 2016 article by Yassin al-Haj Saleh a Syrian activist who has been struggling against the Assad regime for over 35 years:

“The Assad regime has become a representative of the internal First World in Syria, the Syrian whites. I think the elites in the West find Bashar al-Assad more palatable than other potential interlocutors. He wears expensive suits and has a necktie, and, ultimately, these elites prefer a fascist with a necktie to a fascist with a beard. Meanwhile, they don’t see us, the Syrian people. Those who are trying to own the politics of their own country have been rendered invisible……..They [Assad regime] employ sectarianism as a strategy of control, as a means to seize power forever. In their own slogans they openly say, ‘Assad or we burn the country,’ and ‘forever, forever,’ in reference to holding absolute power over the country……..In secularism, there is inherently the idea of not discriminating between people on the basis of their religion or confessional community. Is this the case in Syria now? No, it is not. If you are an Alawite, your chances of getting a job or having real power in society are greater than if you are a Sunni or a member of another group.”

[“Syria’s “Voice Of Conscience” has a message for the West.” Yassin al-Haj Saleh, 26/10/2016, The Intercept.]

The fundamental intrinsic reality about the Assad regime is that it has always been about keeping power by any means, while exploiting the majority of the Syrian people. The use of systematic torture and aggressive social division have kept the corrupt clique around the Assad clan in power since 1970. The principal driver of the uprising against the Assad regime, is the legitimate demand by the Syrian people for a representative government to replace the Assad clique’s dictatorship. According to Emile Hokayem Syria under the Assad regime has always involved hidden sectarianism:

“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 unravelling 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.”

[” ‘Assad Or We Burn The Country’: misreading Sectarianism and the regime in Syria. ” Emile Hokayem, 24/8/2016, War On The Rocks.]

While the Assad regime promotes itself to the gullible as secular and pluralistic, the slogan of the regime militias “Assad or we burn the country” communicates the reality. Emile Hokayem then goes on to get to the heart of the regime Hafez Assad set up after a military coup in 1970:

“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.”

[” ‘Assad Or We Burn The Country’: misreading Sectarianism and the regime in Syria. ” Emile Hokayem, 24/8/2016, War On The Rocks.]

The orientalist view of Syria as hopelessly divided needing a strong authoritarian ruler has a long history going back to similar arguments made by French Colonialists when the Levant was carved up after the First World War as the Ottoman Empire collapsed. Hypocritically during the French Mandate (1920−1946) the tactics of divide and rule were extensively used. This echoes the arguments of Western Assad Apologists and the hypocrisy of the barbaric Assad regime. Daniel Neep describes the colonialist view of Syria after the First World War:

“Historians highlight that France’s special interest in Syria and Lebanon was based on three distinct factors. The first was its role as religious protector of Catholics in the Middle East, a role which originated in the seventeenth century and was reinforced over the years by a growing net-work of missionaries and educationalists. As Philip Khoury points out, this historical relationship between France and Arab Christians necessarily constructed a division between them and Muslim and heterodox minority communities. With religious identity valorised [overly exaggerated] as the most important of the ties that bind, the French saw the Levant as a complex, fragile mosaic of ethno-religious communities locked in internecine conflict. Each of these communities was seen as separate and self-contained; they were viewed as living alongside one another in a state of perpetual mutual mistrust. Levantine society was thought to be so fragmented that social peace could be guaranteed only by an external protector who stood above the petty squabbles of local communities. Divisions between Christians and Muslims, Sunnis and Shias, Druze and ‘Alawis, Greek Orthodox and Catholics, Kurds, Turcomans and Circassians, townsfolk and nomads were seized upon by the colonial lobby to support arguments for occupation. For them, colonial rule was in the objective interest of the region, even if their uncivilized state meant they were nor in a position to recognize this truth for themselves. Such paternalistic sensibilities were more than mere rhetoric to disguise France’s underlying material interests. French visions of a mosaic society productively informed the strategies by which the Mandatory Power consciously sought to govern the Levant.”

[page 25-26 Occupying Syria Under The French Mandate, Daniel Neep, 2012]

It was the orientalist hypocrisy of the French Mandate that laid the foundations for the neo-colonialist regime of the Assad clique. It is also just these same attitudes that are blocking effective action by the Western democracies to empower the Syrian people to gain a genuinely representative government.

Philip Khoury describes how the French laid the foundation for opportunistic elements in the independence era Syria Armed Forces that enabled the military coup that created the oppressive Assad regime:

“Another factor present during the Mandate which contributed heavily to the radicalization of the military after independence was its changing complexion. By French design, the army developed a strong rural and minority complexion, in which the Alawite community featured prominently. This was especially true of the army’s rank and file and its non-commissioned officer corps. By the end of the Mandate, several infantry battalions in the Troupes Spéciales [French Syrian Colonial Force that became Syrian Army] were composed almost entirely of Alawites. None was entirely Sunni Arab in complexion, and even those few cavalry squadrons with a significant Sunni Arab component were filled largely with elements from rural areas and far off towns.

The French preferred minority and rural recruits for the obvious reason that they were remote from Syria’s dominant political ideology, Arab nationalism. In addition, the ‘depressed economic condition’ of Syria’s rural and minority communities made the army a vehicle for their social mobility. In this way, the lower ranks of the army, including non-commissioned officers, became the preserve of the Alawites, the Druzes, and Sunnis from rural districts. Because Alawites were the largest and perhaps the poorest minority community in the country, they were most over-represented in the army. The Alawite impact, however, was not felt for a full generation after independence. Sunni commissioned officers held the levers of power in the army in the years after independence and Alawltes only came to dominate the Syrian officer corps in the 1960s, after successive purges had cleared the upper ranks of the army of Sunni officers. The Syrian governments of these years, like the French before them, saw the Alawites as remote from Syrian political struggles and therefore politically neutral. …..

To express their aims and aspirations, ascendant junior officers from the Alawite and Druze communities and from rural Sunni districts required an ideology. Baathism provided a framework of ideas which was sufficiently flexible for their purposes. Its program stressed land reform and other more egalitarian economic measures and it inveighed against religious sectarianism. By the 1950s, these officers began to penetrate the Barth Party through its base in the Syrian Army and each Institution reinforced the other’s radicalism. Together, they broke apart the economic and social foundations of the old regime’s power and replaced the political expertise of the veteran nationalists with a new, and ultimately, more effective way of playing politics.”

[pp629-630 “Syria and the French Mandate: The Politics of Arab Nationalism, 1920-1945.” 1987, By Philip Shukry Khoury]

The elitist nature of Nationalistic politics during the French Mandate, foreign intervention during the Cold War and Baathist military coups, meant that ordinary Syrians have never really had access to political power. Crispin Blunt and the rest of the Western Assad apologists of left and right need to see at least the reality of Syrian history.

[Originally posted: 8th May 2017, Updated 2022]

Next: Part 2: Hafez master of segregation, terror and illusion.


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