By Hugh Graham, Dec 8, 2012
Only history can untangle the confused, living hell that is Syria. One of the most well funded and effective of the many rebel groups fighting to topple the Assad regime is Al Nusra, a Salafist group explicitly linked to Al Qaeda. Quite naturally, the US has warned the all-embracing ramshackle Syrian opposition that association with Al Nusra will cost them US support. Syria’s Al Qaeda franchise is only one element in an uncomfortable patchwork alliance, a grab-bag of nationalists, democracy activists, religious groups and other fellow travellers. And altogether they are likely to bring even more problems if Assad is overthrown as he surely will be. Even the units making up the Free Syrian Army have different agendas. It is no longer clear what many of these groups represent. It is not even clear what their opponent, the Assad regime stands for.
The Syrian civil war is far more fractured and confused than the struggles which ended the regimes in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. Why? The answer is that Syria, at the precise meeting point of East and West, is a palimpsest of both.
Literally, a palimpsest is a document that’s been repeatedly overwritten; alternatively, it’s the visible, layered remains of generations of ruins in the same place. In Syria, Christian Byzantine rule left hundreds of sects in its wake and the Islamic Caliphates, which followed, mostly tolerated them. Ottoman rule was so loose that Islamic sects flourished on top of all the others. Now those sects are all fighting.
The Alawite sect is the religion of the ruling Assad dynasty. The Alawites have been in Syria since around 1000AD, when Shia Muslim sects, the Alawites among them, found refuge in the coastal mountains of northwestern Syria. There they remain, inward-looking and resolutely tribal. Tribal networking helped them into the Arab nationalist Ba’ath Party in the 1950s. In fact, the Ba’ath party’s proto-Fascist ideology lies at the very heart of villainy of the present Assad regime. When Alawite officers found themselves sidelined from party membership, they launched the series of coups which brought President Assad’s father, Hafez Assad, to power in 1969. The Assads’ only justification remains the Ba’ath Party. In Ba’thism, a relic of the 1950s and 1960s, transnational Arab identity precedes Islam as the unifying force. Arab Nationalism is a thing of the distant past. Now it defines little but the corruption and cronyism of the Assad regime.
Like the Alawite Shia, other Shia minorities now live in fear of the country’s Sunni majority. The two main sects of Islam became implacable enemies after the battle of Karbala in 681 when the Shia were defeated by the Sunni Ummayad Caliphate (661-750). The Sunni Caliphate, of course, was based in Damascus, Syria’s present day capital. That is why many Sunnis see the Assads’ Alalwite regime as foreigners, interlopers, a minority ruling a majority.
The Sunnis are also the majority in the opposition. But the opposition is amorphous. It contains Islamists as well as democrats and nationalists of all sects and ethnic groups. Even the secular democrats can take some pride in Syria’s Ummyad Caliphate. Liberal by ancient standards, the Umayyads respected minorities, synthesized the best of foreign ideas and sponsored the translations which gave us Greek philosophy.
The relatively moderate Sunni Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, has chosen logistical support for the opposition over radicalism; they have, after all, been a target of the regime since Assad senior, Hafez Assad, had them slaughtered at Hama in 1982.
Opposition Democrats and nationalists can look back to Syria’s early twentieth century secular governments and resistance to French colonial rule. With increasing ethnic and religious fragmentation, the glimmer of a united, democratic Syria at the end of World War One still remains a promise. In defiance of the French Mandate, the Arab National Government of 1918-1920 united Jews, Christians, Muslims and others in opposition to European interference, especially attempts by France to divide and weaken Syria along ethnic lines. In 1925-1926, a decidedly secular revolt against the French galvanized the national consciousness which led to independence in 1946. And it was the Druze minority, a group related to the Shia, who led the revolt and determined its secular character. Today’s Druzes, wary of all the religious hatreds, have only reluctantly begun to move against Assad.
Syria’s homegrown Islamists can also claim a legacy from the 1920s. Despite the secular nationalism of 1918-1920, a sectarian Sunni identity persisted and strengthened with the revolt of 1925. Some Sunni Islamists lay claim to the Umayyads and their Islamic purifiers and reformers, like Umar II- not to mention the expulsion of the Crusaders by Saladin in 1187 and by the Mamelukes in 1291.
Foreign Jihadist fighters are entering Syria from Lebanon, Jordan and elsewhere and most are Suni fundamentalist Salifists or “followers of the way of the ancestors.” They too remember the 1925 revolt if only because foreign fighters from Palestine, Transjordan and Lebanon provided leadership on the grounds that their homelands were part of ‘Greater Syria,’ a continuing dream of Syrian Islamists.
Among those who fear the Salafists most are Syria’s Christians. After a long history beginning about 40 AD, the Christians have become pariahs. In the 17th century, the Ottoman Sultan accepted France as protector of Syria’s Christians. Many have been seen the Christains as agents of the West. Once allied the Assad regime, they are now distancing themselves. As Westerners or collaborators, Christians are being killed by both sides in the civil war.
All the groups vying for power can look back to some edifying example in Syrian history. Unhappily, their views of the past are often sectarian, and the dream of a secular, multi-confessional Syria, born in 1918, is being destroyed, ironically, in the name of liberty.