Alawites control nearly all aspects of the Syrian power network and have dominated the state for decades. Ethnically they are Arab; but religiously they are an obscure and unique sect. They have built their collective successes around the Assad regime and the Syrian military. Once a downtrodden and peripheral mountain dwelling people, Alawites have managed, with French support, to become the premier political force in Syria. For them, their power will be difficult and dangerous to relinquish. Furthermore, the Assad regime’s collapse means more than a loss of privileges for the Alawite collective; it is a threat to their entire existence.
Unlike Mubarak and Ben-Ali, the Assads will not relinquish power easily. The Sunnis consider the Alawite religion as heretical and this being as such; they were formerly persecuted under Sunni rule. The fragility of the Alawite identity in the Arab world means the Assads must not only consider their own family, but the collective future of the entire Alawite community.
In the Middle East, being a powerless minority, whether ethnic or religious is often a harsh reality. This fact only increases the will of a minority to remain dominant. To end the bloodshed, the Arab League’s proposed peace plan fails to discuss the real sectarian concerns, which are at the heart of the conflict. Seeking concrete democratic reforms in Syria is a non-starter. To stay in power, Alawites know they must maintain control overSyria’s positions of influence. If Bashar al-Assad were to grant greater Sunni representation at the governmental level, Alawite rule in Syria would soon collapse.
The debate over whether Bashar should step down is also irrelevant. The real authority within Syria is not Bashar, but rather his brother, Maher. Maher is a ruthless military commander and leader. Allegedly, there is even video footage depicting Maher, flanked by supporters and dressed in civilian attire, firing a rifle upon a crowd of protestors. This video provides a vivid example of the ruthless measures Maher is willing to employ. With superior credentials, he commands the Syrian élite 4th Armored Division, which is an Alawite unit through and through. This unit is regarded as being so loyal; it is tasked with carrying out the “necessary” killings for suppressing the Sunni uprising. It is also widely believed that Bashar lacks both the will and determination to rule Syria. Thus, behind the scenes, Maher is a real force. Unless he or other senior Alawite commanders are removed, any change in leadership would be merely symbolic.
The Syrian regime is also finding itself ever more isolated in the international community. Today,Syria’s primary international supporters are China and Russia. However, as the fighting escalates to civil war, these ties are jeopardized. In the Middle East, the regime is left with two strategic allies, Hezbollah and Iran. Therefore, the regime in Damascus has found itself cornered. The question remains: how far will the Assad regime go to stay in power and to what avail?
It cannot be overstated how crucial the Syrian state is for Alawite identity. It could be argued, the Syrian state has become their identity. As long as the Assad regime seeks to safeguard Alawite dominance, few options are left other than to fight.
Popular protests and non-violence failed to topple Alawite rule. The opposition is increasingly turning to armed conflict, as the use of force remains the last effective option for dismantling the Assad regime. Syrians are aware of the dangers posed, as the memory of Hafez al-Assad’s crackdown in 1982 remains a collective memory. Although brutal, the violence thus far pales in comparison to the 1982 Hama massacre, which resulted in tens of thousands dead in mere weeks. At present, no suitable option exists to thwart a recurrence. Thus, the current stalemate is a zero-sum game and a victory for one side will come at the expense of the other.
The overarching issue is the Alawite domination of Syria. The current conflict has more to do with sectarianism than democracy. Indeed, sectarian tensions were always present in Syria; however the breakdown of the regional balance of power structures has reignited historical animosities. Until Alawites are removed from power, the conflict will only escalate to a fight for survival. With that being said, it remains to be seen if Bashar and Maher al-Assad are willing to employ the same level of force used by their father some thirty years earlier. The Assads have left themselves with little choice…