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An invented country, about to fall apart 22 mars 2012

Posted by Acturca in France, History / Histoire, Middle East / Moyen Orient, Turkey / Turquie.
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National Post (Canada) March 22, 2012, p. A17

By Geoffrey Clarfield *

Since the collapse of the Ottoman empire, Syria’s Sunnis, Alawis, Kurds and Christians have been held together by a succession of dictators. That will soon change.

From outside Syria, it appears that a government is waging war against citizens who are demanding change and democracy. That is certainly how many media outlets are reporting the ongoing violence in that country. But as many Syrians know, this war is about something else entirely. Something much larger.

A century ago, Syria was still part of the Ottoman Empire. Although the administrative sub-districts of what is now called Syria changed many times under the Turks, by the early 20th century they comprised a number of distinct administrative units that centred around key cities, such as Damascus and Aleppo. Beginning in 1874, they also included the areas around Jerusalem (which had a Jewish majority). The British called the area “the Levant.”

The area was, and still is, made up of a number of occasionally co-operating, occasionally competing ethnic groups: Sunni Arabs, Maronite Christians, Arabic-speaking Greek Orthodox Christians, Aramaic-speaking Christians, Arabic-speaking Alawis, Muslim Gypsies, Armenians, Jews, Yezidis, Kurdish-speaking Sunnis and nomadic Sunni Bedouin — each with their own distinctive history, loyalties and competing interests.

Until the end of the First World War, Syria was governed by Turkish administrators appointed from Istanbul. The local elites were Sunni Arabs who lived in the cities, but whose wealth came from rural land holdings: Their custom was to hold their peasant villages in almost serf-like dependency, while living in urban luxury through the wealth extracted from agricultural estates. Beyond the relatively fertile rainfed agriculture tended to by the Syrian peasants lay the desert, the home of nomadic Bedouin who wandered between the settled areas of Iraq and Syria. This was the sleepy life thrown into upheaval by the destruction of the Ottoman empire.

After the defeat of the Ottomans by the Allies during the Second World War, some dreamed of a grand Arab state extending from Morocco to Iraq — or even a smaller Syrian state made up of the lands between Egypt and Anatolian Turkey. Instead, the victorious British and French divided up the eastern Mediterranean into two mandates. The French got what are now Syria and Lebanon. The British got what are now Israel and Jordan.

As the Sunni Arab elites of Aleppo and Damascus clamoured for independence from the French, they became enamored with three overlapping ideologies. The first was that of Pan-islam, which many rejected because it was seen as too similar as that of the defunct and discredited Ottoman Empire. The second was Pan Arabism, which held that the Arab world was once one country, and was destined to become one again. (This school of thought would survive until Nasser’s era in the 1950s and 1960s, but no one talks about it anymore.)

The third was “Greater Syria.” This theory held that the peoples of the eastern Mediterranean were all members of one unit — including present-day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and southwestern Turkey. Extreme versions of the “Greater Syria” ideology include Cyprus and the Sinai desert. In none of these worldviews is there any room for an independent Jewish homeland, a Christian Lebanon or, in the maximalist cases, even a Greek Orthodox Cyprus. Unlike Pan Arabism, the ideology of Greater Syria still has some resonance in the region.

Even Palestinian Arab nationalism is rejected by Syrian nationalists, who have argued that Palestine is merely “southern Syria.” This also explains why Syria has been loathe to recognize the state of Lebanon, and why it has always been a major player in every one of Lebanon’s civil wars, as its goal is to one day incorporate the country into the greater Syrian whole.

The early history of the reallife Syrian state, on the other hand, was one violent coup and counter-coup after another, creating regimes based on the cult of personality of whichever leader happened to be more ruthless at the time. Until the early seventies, it was the Sunni Arabs who came out on top in these struggles. But behind the scenes, a small nonSunni religious minority called the Alawi slowly rose in the ranks of the Syrian armed forces — until their leader, Hafez el-assad, took over the state in a coup d’état in 1970. He ruled Syria until his death in the year 2000, whereupon his son Bashar took over. He rules to this day.

During this time, the reins of power and the commanding heights of the economy have come to be monopolized by the Assad family, whose kinsmen are clustered in the Alawi areas around Latakia, on Syria’s northwestern Mediterranean coast. In the language of international development, Syria became a hub of “crony capitalism.” By demonizing Israel, withholding diplomatic recognition of Lebanon until three years ago, and supporting Pan-islam, Pan-arabism and Greater Syria ideology in various combinations according to the regime’s fluctuating propaganda needs, Assad was able to deflect attention from the fact that Syria was governed by a small minority sect. On the world stage, the Assads consolidated their power through military adventures and assassination in Lebanon, a military/political/economic alliance with the Soviet Union and then Russia, and, more recently, an alliance with the Shia Mullahs of Iran.

Unlike the Shia, Alawis view Ali as an actual incarnation of God. Many Islamic theologians believe Syria’s ruling sect isn’t even Muslim.

The majority of Syrians are Sunni Arabs, and the Alawi comprise just 20% of the population. Yet under the iron fist of the Assads, this 20% has usurped control of virtually 100% the country — until the uprising that began in 2011 and persists to this day. Even if the Assad regime falls, it will still be able to withdraw to its home area near the northern coast and fight as a unit in a tribally based civil war, following the model of Lebanon and, more recently, Libya. The Alawi are an Arabic-speaking ethnic group, whose territory around Latakia was distinct enough to have been recognized by the colonial French authorities as an independent, ethnic homeland within their Levantine mandate. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, neither the Sunni religious scholars of Cairo’s Al Azhar Mosque nor the Shia clerics of Iraq and Iran recognized the Alawi’s distinct Muslim beliefs as being within the mainstream Islamic fold.

As Martin Kramer, an expert on the Alawi, notes, some of the features of Alawi religious life are drawn from Shiite traditions, and include the veneration of Ali and the 12 Imams. But in regard to Ali, this veneration carried over into actual deification (unlike in the mainstream Shia tradition), so that Ali was represented as an incarnation of God. “An important sign of Alawi esoterism,” Kramer notes, “was the absence of mosques from Alawi regions.”

As communications improved in the eastern Levant during the 19th and 20th centuries, the Alawis came under immense scrutiny by Sunni and Shia theologians — and many concluded that they were in fact kaffirs (unbelievers), which means a righteous Sunni theoretically can make holy war or jihad against them. Despite the rapprochement of the Alawi through the efforts of radical clerics such as Musa Sadr, who tried to bring the Alawi into the formal Shia fold by sending young Alawi to study with Shia clerics in Iran and Iraq, the Alawi are still on the borderlands of Islamic thought. This has made the Assad regime’s alliance with Iran touchy among doctrinaire Shia Muslims.

We should not be surprised that Syria’s Druze, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Christians still support Assad — for this latest Syrian revolt is largely a revolt of the masses, i.e., the Sunni majority, who have been excluded from power for 40 years. The Druze and Christian Syrians have seen the Arab Spring of Egypt leading to multiple attacks and killings against Egypt’s Coptic Christians, and the ascendancy of the (Sunni) Muslim Brotherhood theocrats. And they worry that this template will play out in Syria as well. That is why they back Assad.

No, the Syrian uprising that we are witnessing is not one of a military dictatorship against noble democratic activists. It is a conflict between the religiously heterodox Alawi and the religiously orthodox Sunni. It is also a battle of elites from different ethnic groups and denominations who, in the Arab world, customarily use the state as a way to enrich their own families, lineages, tribes and religious denominations.

If and when the Sunnis retake the Syrian state, they likely will establish a Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government, or something very much like it, that views the Alawi as an Iranian-backed Shiite fifth column. Syria will then tilt back into the Egyptian orbit and leave that of Iran. We can be sure that liberal democracy and the rights of women and religious minorities such as the Alawi, Druze and Christians will not be high on the agenda. And once the new regime is established, we can expect that the Pan Islamic and Greater Syria ideologies will be dusted off, leading to as yet unknown spasms of regional instability.

In 1929 a French expert on Middle Eastern affairs by the name of Robert de Beauplan, when contemplating the Levant, had this to say: “The nationalists affirm the reality of the Syrian nation, but it is a myth.” Rather, it is a nation made up of little pieces, and they all are about to fall to the floor.

* Geoffrey Clarfield is an anthropologist at large.


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