While opposition in Syria has been sustained and international pressure relentless, the
al Assad regime still holds strong. Its power is based on a complicated history that must be understood to know how the situation there might develop. Unable to take on the regime’s military might in a straightforward fight the opposition has turned its tactics to guerilla warfare. Salafist jihadists have also begun to emerge among its ranks. This is a worrying development for the rebellion and the MENA region as a whole. It could turn international opinion against the opposition and this militant element could potentially spill over into other countries. MENA Fund Review spoke to Reva Bhalla of intelligence agency Stratfor about the strengths of the regime and potential outcomes of the conflict
Despite this, on closer inspection, it is clear that the regime in fact remains fairly solid and unlikely to be going anywhere soon.
So what has held the Syrian regime firm while others in the region have crumbled?
Protests organized on Facebook were quickly stamped out in early February, but by mid-March, a faceless opposition had emerged from the flashpoint city of Daraa in Syria’s largely conservative Sunni southwest. Demonstrations then spread to the Kurdish northeast, the coastal lake area of Latakia, to Aleppo and the suburbs of Damascus as well as to the Sunni urban strongholds of Hams and Homs
According to Reva Bhalla, director of global analysis at global intelligence agency Stratfor, “Feeling overwhelmed, the regime experimented with rhetoric on reforms while relying on much more familiar iron-fist methods in cracking down, arresting hundreds of men, cutting off water and electricity to the most rebellious areas, and making clear to the population that, with or without emergency rule in place, the price for dissent does not exclude death.”
It was able to do this and remain in a strong position because four key pillars sustain the minority Alawite-Baathist regime’s power: Power in the hands of the al Assad clan; Alawite unity; Alawite control over the military-intelligence apparatus; and the Baath party’s monopoly on the political system.
“Though the regime is coming under significant stress, all four of these pillars are still standing,” says Bhalla. “If any one falls, the al Assad regime will have a real existential crisis on its hands.”
The reasons all four pillars must remain in place in order for the al Assad’s to retain power, and the reasons they are, are embedded in a mixture of historical and demographic factors. Around three-fourths of the country’s roughly 22 million population are Sunnis, including most of the Kurdish minority in the northeast. Most estimates put the number of Alawites in Syria at around 1.5 million, or close to seven percent of the population.
Non-Sunni Muslims average around 13 percent, Christians, including Orthodox and Maronite, make up around 10 percent of the population and the Druze make up about three percent.
“Alawite power in Syria is only about five decades old,” says Bhalla. “The Alawites are frequently (and erroneously) categorized as Shia, have many things in common with Christians and are often shunned by Sunnis and Shia alike. Consequently, Alawites attract a great deal of controversy in the Islamic world.
“The Alawites diverged from the mainstream Twelver of the Imami branch of Shiite Islam in the ninth century under the leadership of Ibn Nusayr (this is why, prior to 1920, Alawites were known more commonly as Nusayris). Their main link to Shiite Islam and the origin of the Alawite name stems from their reverence for the Prophet Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, Ali. The sect is often described as highly secretive and heretical for its rejection of Shariah and of common Islamic practices, including call to prayer, going to mosque for worship, making pilgrimages to Mecca and intolerance for alcohol. At the same time, Alawites celebrate many Christian holidays and revere Christian saints.”
Alawites are historically divided between rival clans, split between mountain refuges and the plains. The Alawite homeland is the province of Latakia. It provides access to the Mediterranean coast and for this reason any attempt to create an autonomous Alawite region there would meet string Sunni resistance.
Alawites were historically impoverished and lived in the countryside, while Sunnis dominated the urban areas and made up the business and political class.
The French changed the standing of Alawites, by a process of legitimizing them and gave them power, along with the Druze and Christian communities, as a counterweight to Sunni power.
“The lesson here is important,” says Bhalla. “Syria is not simply a mirror reflection of a country like Bahrain, a Shiite majority country run by a minority Sunni government. Rather than exhibiting a clear Sunni-Shiite religious-ideological divide, Syria’s history can be more accurately described as a struggle between the Sunnis on one hand and a group of minorities on the other.”
Critically, the French system encouraged Alawites to join the military, police and intelligence posts and gave them a taste of power. The end of French rule saw them become a prime target for attacks led by the urban Sunni elite presiding over a newly independent Syria.
“The Sunnis quickly reasserted their political prowess in post-colonial Syria and worked to sideline Alawites from the government, businesses and courts,” says Bhalla.
“However, the Sunnis also made a fateful error in overlooking the heavy Alawite presence in the armed forces. While the Sunnis occupied the top posts within the military, the lower ranks were filled by rural Alawites who either could not afford the military exemption fees paid by most of the Sunni elite or simply saw military service as a decent means of employment given limited options. The seed was thus planted for an Alawite-led military coup while the Sunni elite were preoccupied with their own internal struggles.”
The birth of the Baath Party in Syria in 1947 created another pillar of power to the al Assad regime.
“For economically disadvantaged religious outcasts like Alawites, the Baathist campaign of secularism, socialism and Arab nationalism provided the ideal platform and political vehicle to organize and unify around. At the same time, the Baathist ideology caused huge fissures within the Sunni camp, as many – particularly the Islamists – opposed its secular, social program,” says Bhalla.
Beyond this, history conspired to cement Alawite rule and unity through military coups, which placed Alawites into positions of power within the army and a migration of Alawites to the cities, which put an end to the sectarian urban-rural divide.
In 1970 a string of coups and counter-coups were ended when then-air force commander and defense minister general Hafez al Assad took power. He was able to unify Alawites and began to populate the security apparatus with loyal clansmen while bringing the Druze and Christian communities on side.
So, in a remarkably short period of time and not that long ago, the Alawites rose from poverty to power in Syria. And over the past forty years the al Assad clan has carefully maintained those pillars of power that keep it standing strong.
A large part of that strength is born out of fear, both on the part of Alawites and other minority groups in Syria that were marginalized before the al Assad regime took power. They remember what it was like to be at the bottom of society and they don’t want to go back there, according to Bhalla.
“You can see why not only the Alawites but other minorities within Syria, including the Jews and the Christians, are very hesitant to put their support behind the opposition forces which are Sunni lead, which is more than likely going to end up marginalising the minorities again,” she says.
So what shape is the opposition beginning to take and is it gaining or losing strength?
To some extent it has become more coherent, with the Free Syrian Army taking the lead. It is the force that has been given most recognition by foreign sponsors of the rebellion, in much the same way that in Libya the Transitional National Council was given legitimacy even before it could be considered a legitimate political authority, according to Bhalla.
While it has received growing recognition it has also come under heavy operating constraints and has been forced to change tactics from open to guerilla warfare.
While the military opposition has gained a figurehead organization, the civilian opposition has begun to fragment. Rivalries and fears are at the heart of this. Sunni opposition is split among numerous factions, not least secular Muslims and more hard-line Islamists. The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, which was previously cracked down on hard by the regime, is now beginning to revive itself and oppose more moderate organisations.
A worrying development, for the rebels, is the emergence too of hard line jihadists among the military opposition ranks.
“We are seeing the radicalisation of the insurgency taking place now as the rebel army is looking for more hardened and more experienced fighters,” says Bhalla.
This is in part driven by foreign intervention, particularly that of Saudi Arabia, she says. Saudi Arabia’s traditional strategy is to exert political influence in a military situation like that in Syria by exporting militancy, she adds.
There are many jihadists in Saudi rehabilitation centres who have returned from campaigns in places such as Afghanistan and Iraq and are now potentially being funded to wage guerilla war in Syria.
“You can expect to see more of these Salafist jihadists operating in the country which of course has its implications,” says Bhalla.
Those implications are many and could spread across the MENA region. It is a huge issue for minority groups in Syria. The more extreme the opposition group appears the less likely they are to throw any support behind it.
It could also affect foreign backing for the rebellion. “It would be very difficult for the United States to continue showing it public support for this rebellion the more jihadist it appears and so that’s why the Free Syrian Army is probably going to make an effort to distance itself from the more jihadist sounding groups,” says Bhalla.
“But that’s where the trend is going and so I definitely think that’s going to complicate the rebellion’s ability to attract Western foreign sponsorship.”
This jihadist element could also hold “big risks for the region”.
“Syria did a really good job of managing what I call the jihadist supply chain in the Levant region,” says Bhalla.
“You have a lot of different kinds of militants milling around there that were on the payroll of a number of different foreign intelligence agencies, but particularly the Syrian Mukhbarat was very disciplined and very effective at managing all those different militant relationships. Syria would use that to its advantage; for example in bargaining with the United States and bargaining over the Iraq situation; trying to show that either Syria could contain security problems or exacerbate them. That was kind of how Syria developed its bargaining position.
“Now it is very distracted and the Saudis and other Gulf states are trying to fortify this rebellion. You have a lot of Salafist linkages and so you can see those factors shaping up into a pretty dangerous mix where you’ve got a lot of militant actors starting to run loose again and that sort of militant spillover could have a destabilising effect on the region as well.”
The Syrian conflict looks set to rumble on for some time to come. It is unlikely that foreign powers will intervene directly and equally unlikely that the al Assad regime will give up power or collapse soon. There will probably be a gradual intensifying of the insurgency, according to Bhalla, with the regime resorting to harsher military crackdowns as a result.
Iran will play its part in trying to maintain the al Assad clan in power as a friendly face in Syria is crucial to it maintaining a foothold in the Levant region from where it supports Hezbollah in Lebanon and controls a large share of lucrative illicit trade in the region.
Maintaining that hold in the Levant will prove difficult though. There are considerable forces stacked against the al Assad clan, both within and outside the Middle East, that want Syria brought into the US backed-Sunni Arab camp.