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Dr. Josef Olmert

Dr. Josef Olmert

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Bashar Assad, the Alawite Community and the Future

Posted: 04/25/11 12:56 PM ET

While the streets of most of Syria's cities and villages have become killing fields, one region in the country is still quiet. This is Jabal Ansaria [the mountain of the Alawites in Arabic], with the village of Kardaha, the home ground of the Assad dynasty in its center. No big surprise, as the Alawite community has had until now very few reasons to resent the regime of its favorite son, President Bashar Assad. Things are changing fast in Syria and they lead to an important question. Can the besieged president continue to rely on the communal support of the Alawites in his armed forces?; or maybe these very Alawites will be the ones who bring him down in a desperate bid to prevent an all-out Sunni-Alawite civil war.

In order to answer this pivotal question, some background on the Alawite community is of the essence. Historically, the community had always been torn apart by internal divisions. Religiously, the community is divided into four sub-sects, and there is also a tribal division. There are four main Alawite tribes, and at times there has been fierce rivalry among them. The tribes, in turn, are also divided into clans.

The Assads, for example, belong to the Numaylatiyya clan of the Matawira tribe. The intensity of the internal Alawite rivalries was strengthened by the fact that the various tribes do not live separately from each other. Rather, they are mixed up in the same villagers and towns. Thus, tribal in-fighting has often led to the destruction of villages. In recent times, the communal frictions were also manifested when members of the community rose to political prominence in the ruling Ba'ath party and in the armed forces. The initial Ba'ath military junta, which took over in Syria in 1963, consisted of Alawite, as well as Druze and Ismaili [Shiites] officers, alongside Sunnis, who were known to be dedicated Ba'athis and came from poor regions of Syria.

During the 1960's, the junta rid itself of most of the non-Alawite officers, so that when Hafiz Assad came to power in 1970, the regime was already heavily associated with the Alawite community, but not all of it. The purges of the 1960's took their toll also among Alawite officers and their clans. Two notable examples were General Muhammad Umran, murdered by the Assad regime in 1971, and General Salah Jadid, who spent many years in a Syrian jail until his death.

All the above clearly indicates that the Alawites were never an unshakeable monolith; however during the Hafiz Assad rule, from 1970 to 2000, the community closed ranks behind a regime which did its utmost to promote their interests, as well as to protect them. The need for protection was dramatically highlighted by the Sunni uprising of the 1970's which was finally crashed with the Hamah massacre of early 1982. Soon after these momentous events, Hafiz Assad 's grip over power was challenged from his own clan, after he suffered a heart attack in November 1983.

His own brother, Rifa'at Al-Assad tried to stage a coup, which was thwarted, and was forced into exile in Europe. The crisis caused latent Alawite tensions to surface rather forcefully. Many Alawites who did not belong to the Assad Matawira tribe were opposed to the idea that Rifa'at should succeed his brother by virtue of their blood relationship. This was an interesting lesson to Hafiz Assad upon his recovery from his illness and return to full power. He understood that many Alawites opposed an Assad dynasty, while remaining loyal to him personally. The last years of his control, from 1995 onwards, were characterized by a relentless effort to facilitate his son Bashar's accession to power. The ailing dictator did it, and a dynasty was created after all.

Now, over a decade after Hafiz Assad death, his great achievement is called into question. The Alawite military elite is confronted with the same decision they had to make during the Rifa'at-Hafiz clash of 1983-4. The difference is that there are no more members of the Assad clan who can replace Bashar Assad and expect to enjoy even the slightest measure of respectability and legitimacy. No Maher Assad, Bashar's brother, and no Assef Shawqat, his brother -in-law.

The Alawite military elite is stuck therefore with Bashar Assad. So, after all these years, the fate of the entire community is tied inseparably to that of the Assad clan.