The Alawites and the Struggle for Power in Syria

Maher al- Assad: President's brother and commander of elite Syrian Fourth Armored divison (wlcentral)

Recent reports from Syria show a full-out civil war is becoming more likely. While the uprising has been portrayed as mostly non-violent and has been, this form of revolution has failed to dethrone the Alawites from power. Calls for direct military intervention from outside forces or supplying weaponry to revolutionary forces are mounting.

Syria, controlled top to bottom by the minority Alawite sect, is facing its greatest crisis in decades. Opposition forces are undoubtedly taking up arms and there have been reports of revenge killings against high-ranking and prominent Alawite figures or regime supporters in Syria. Thus far, Bashar al-Assad, the President of Syria, has been successful in remaining in power and maintaining control over his populace. However, with the military aid from regional Sunni powers, like Saudi Arabia and Turkey, resorting to a widespread armed revolt is only a matter of time for Syrians. As long as protests continue and the regime remains in place, the temptation to escalate the uprising by force grows. What is unnerving about Syria, unlike Egypt, Libya, or Tunisia, is that an entire minority, the Alawites, depend on the survival of Assad’s regime. Their economic, political, social, and military status is at stake and they are proving they won’t relinquish their favored status without a fight. Today, an amazing and incredibly in-depth article from The New Republic highlighted the fragile and complex nature of Alawite rule in Syria.

Theo Padnos’s The Cult: The Twisted, Terrifying Last Day’s of Assad’s Syria, paints a gloomy picture of the current crisis in Syria. In essence, the Alawites, a small religious sect, have based their entire national well-being on the al-Assad regime. Their religion, secretive and exclusive, plays almost no visible part in Syrian public life. However, Alawism, which is somewhere in-between Christianity and Shia Islam, has seemingly morphed into state worship. The state of Syria is g-d and all other religious doctrines or ideals are subservient to worshipping the Assad’s and Syria. Padnos states this was a tactic used by Hafez al-Assad to create a form of legitimacy. With Sunnis representing a majority of Syrians, followed with Christians, Druze, Kurds, and Alawites, Assad knew he would have to form an all-encompassing national structure to hold this fragmented society together. Syrian Baathism was his answer.

The Alawites, once a downtrodden and poor mountain dwelling minority, now control all aspects of Syrian society. They are the Syrian state. Their history, often troubled with conflicts among the majority Sunnis, and the way they have brutally ruled Syria from the Assad regime’s start, give them, in their view, no other choice but to fight for power.

While the head of Syria is Bashar al-Assad, many believe the real power broker is with his brother Maher al-Assad. Maher is brutal, cold, and has a reputable hot-tempered nature. This was possibly one of the reasons why he, the more qualified candidate for regime succession, was passed over. He controls the Republican Guard and the Syrian Fourth Armored Division, the country’s top military unit. The division is the best trained, funded, and politically reliable of all Syria’s security forces. Since the uprising began, the Fourth Armored Division has conducted most of the regime’s operations to put down the revolt. Personally commanded by Maher, the division has bounced from city to city, killing and torturing any regime opponents. Like previous revolts in Syria, Maher and his kinship have resorted to extreme brutality. Political prisoners are picked from the streets, sent to prisons, and returned home mutilated as a warning. Maher al-Assad has even been filmed in front of a crowd of regime supporters, personally firing an AK-47 into a crowd of anti-regime rioters. In addition, in 2008, Maher was tasked to put down a prison revolt by political opponents. The bodies of the prisoners were mutilated and laid out in the streets, as Maher can be seen standing by taking photos of the bodies with his cell phone. These examples illustrate just how far the Alawite regime is willing to make sure its survival.

Unlike his father, Bashar has not used the brunt of his arsenal to crush protests. His father, who attacked the Sunni stronghold of Hama in 1982 in response to an armed revolt, ended the campaign in 21 days killing some 40,000 people. No one knows the exact death toll. Bashar, who has always seemed rather detached and unmotivated to run Syria, may not be running the show. While he is the figurehead, Padnos states that Maher and his Alawite Generals are actually ruling the country. Given Maher’s military prowess and political abilities, such an assumption is very real. With Maher seemingly in charge, an all-out armed revolt would be met with extreme violence that could surpass 1982.

Given that all aspects of Syrian society point to the Baathist Alawite regime, its tipping point could be very dangerous for the region. Bashar has indicated that if NATO or another power were to attack Syria, which is being contemplated and promoted, he would respond with an unprecedented action. Most likely, this action would involve hitting Tel-Aviv. Today’s Debkafile post highlighted this possibility. While we may assume this may be another empty threat, Israel must prepare for any scenario. Considering that “resistance” to Israel has always been an important card for the Alawites legitimacy, a last ditched and desperate action to stay in power is very possible. Describing Assad’s August 21 TV interview, Padnos stated; “Early in the interview, he spoke ofSyria’s geographical “position,” by which he meant its proximity to Israel. If NATO were to attack Syria, he would bring outSyria’s weaponry, “some of which they [NATO] don’t know about,” and this would produce a “result” which they (the West?Israel? who?) could not bear.”

In order to understand just how imbedded state worship is in Syrian society, Padnos’s article is a must. He writes: “Sunni detainees, shot by the Shabeeha, pro-Bashar vigilantes, for refusing to render the Islamic testament of faith as, “there is no god but Bashar,” or for refusing to prostrate themselves over portraits of the president. In Homs, according to some reports, the Alawis have erected a death zone around a minor statue of Hafez Al Assad, and have been shooting those they suspect of approaching this totem with ill intentions.” While Alawites are from a particular religion, they are by no means exporting or forcing their religion on the majority Sunnis. Thus, they are not fighting to protect their religion per see, but rather their place in the state, to which their religion is now devoted. This unprecedented power and prestige for the Assad’s and their Alawite kin is hard to walk away from.

The potential geopolitical fallout from a regime collapse is considerable. It’s tempting for outside powers or spectators to wish for this regime’s demise. However, the consequences of this, sparing emotive or humanitarian sympathies for anti-regime protesters, could be devastating for Syria and the region. As stated before, the regime’s response to such a situation is unknown and it could act out against regional states, most likely Israel. There are policy thinkers who believe that a Sunni takeover would be beneficial to the West, as the new regime would be supported by Saudi Arabia, an American ally. Yet, this is short-sighted and America’s regional withdrawal and economic woes has Riyadh looking east for new support. A Sunni dominated Syria, void of any ethnic threat, could act more freely visa vi Israel. Alliances in the Middle East are often short-lived and the détente between the Saudi’s and Israel is no different. This strategic partnership, if we can call it that, exists only in response to Riyadh’s greatest threat, Shia Iran. If Assad falls, Iran will lose its greatest strategic ally in Syria. In addition, Iran’s second strongest regional ally, Hezbollah, would be severely weakened if Assad falls. This may sound great for Israelis, yet the quiet along the Syrian border would likely dissipate. With a Wahhabis and Saudi backed Sunni state in Syria, heavily influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood, an eventual stronger and more aggressive Sunni Syrian state is likely to emerge.

About Daniel Brode

Senior Intelligence Analyst with Max-Security Solutions, a geopolitical risk-consulting firm in Israel. Articles have been published in The New York Times, Jerusalem Post, Al-Arabiya, and Hurriyet. Matriculated at the Virginia Military Institute; completed US Army Airborne School and an exchange program at the University of the German Federal Armed Forces Hamburg. Studied at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem before receiving a B.A. from Duquesne University in History and a Minor in German. Graduated with a M.A. in Security & Diplomacy from Tel Aviv University. Interned as a research analyst for the Institute for National Security Studies in the Military and Strategic Affairs Program and represented Tel Aviv University in the Wikistrat International Grand Strategy Competition. Completed mandatory military service in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).
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