Alawi tribal politics and Syria's future

More than tribe, family became the core component of power in Damascus.

assad 298.88 ap (photo credit: AP [file])
assad 298.88 ap
(photo credit: AP [file])
The assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri on February 15 set in motion the dramatic events that could lead to the collapse of Bashar Assad's regime in Damascus. The UN-appointed International Independent Investigation Commission headed by Detlev Mehlis concluded in its preliminary October 19 report that "there is converging evidence pointing at both Lebanese and Syrian involvement in this terrorist act... Given the infiltration of Lebanese institutions and society by the Syrian and Lebanese intelligence services working in tandem, it would be difficult to envisage a scenario whereby such a complex assassination plot could have been carried out without their knowledge." On December 12, the same day that noted Lebanese journalist and anti-Syrian parliamentarian Gebran Tueni was killed in a car-bombing in Beirut, Mehlis submitted his second report on the Hariri assassination. He identified 19 senior Syrian and Lebanese suspects, accused Syria of destroying relevant documents, and called for investigating Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Shara. President Bashar Assad, politically and internationally targeted as the godfather of the Hariri assassination, is being tested whether he will be able to weather this storm, or ultimately drown in its murky waters. For the past 40 years, a small, historically marginal, demeaned and despised, heterodox religious minority has dominated and ruled Sunni-majority Syria. This Alawi people, never considered to be Arab, lived a concealed village existence in their mountain hideouts for 1,000 years, adhering to a religious stream so divergent from Islam that its members were not considered Muslims. Indeed, they turned mosques that intermittent alien Muslim rulers imposed upon them into horse stables. They did not fast during Ramadan, or go on the haj to Mecca. Yet, by determination, subterfuge and violence, and essentially through the ethnic-cultic bonds of solidarity, the Alawis seized power in Damascus in 1966, holding it until today. At the core of the Alawi political enterprise, only 12% of Syria's population, lies the networking of peoplehood, tribes and families. To unravel the tapestry weaving tribalism and politics can provide insight into the foundations of the Syrian regime and its future. THE ALAWI people, perched in 79 impoverished villages in the Jabal Ansariyya in north-western Syria, are composed of four tribal formations: Kalbiyya, Khayateen, Haddadeen and Matawira. There are further cultic divisions among the Alawis; the Assads, for example, belong to the Kamari sect. Considering that Assad means "lion" in Arabic, the fact that the original family name until the French mandate period in the 1920s was Wahsh, meaning "beast," suggests the degradation that Hafez Assad successfully overcame in grabbing power in Damascus in 1970. In 1970 two Alawis, both senior figures in the Ba'ath Party and the army, competed for political primacy in Syria. Hafez Assad from the Kalbiyya tribe, stronger than his rival within the military forces, overwhelmed Salah al-Jadid from the Haddadeen tribe. Assad imprisoned Jadid, who later died in jail in 1993. Other Alawis were purged from power, Stalinist-style. Another Assad power competitor at the time, Muhammad Umran from the Khayateen tribe, was murdered in Lebanon in 1972. Such vicious inter-tribal actions are never forgotten in traditional and structurally factionalized societies. The family, tribal and "national" levels of Alawi group organization assumed central political importance during the Hafez Assad era from 1970 until his death in 2000. Assad's minority sectarian regime still remains the pillar of Bashar's power base in 2005. The key security and military posts in the Assad era - father and son - have been filled by Alawis. In the inner sibling circle were two brothers of Hafez, Rifaat commanding the Defense Companies and Jamil responsible for security in the Latakia area of the Alawi homeland, where the family's village of Qardaha is located in the mountains. Adnan Assad, a cousin, led the Struggle Companies for a time. Assad's wife's cousin, Adnan Makhlouf, was responsible for the Presidential Guard. Yusuf Assad and Muhammad Assad, family relatives, were responsible respectively for the Ba'ath Party in Hama and the Defense detachments in Aleppo. Other Alawis from Assad's Kalbiyya tribe filled sensitive security positions: General Ali Duba headed Military Intelligence, Muhammad al-Khuli Air Intelligence, and Ali Aslan served as deputy chief of staff. Ali Haydar, of the Haddadeen tribe, commanded a Special Forces Unit in the army. ASSAD BROADENED the religious appeal of the regime by appointing Sunni figures to key political posts. However, armored units around Damascus and intelligence units in civilian and military affairs remained the prerogative of Alawi officers. Vice President Abdul Halim Khaddam, a Sunni, married an Alawi woman from Assad's tribe, despite the fact that Islam forbids a Muslim to marry an Alawi. Despite the strategic ethnic key in the Hafez Assad regime, intra-Alawi tensions were not unknown. In particular, opposition to brother Rifaat erupted in the 1980s and fighting broke out in Damascus among competing Alawi-led military units. In Latakia, Alawi clashes took place in the 1990s. Yet the tribally divided Alawi community regime sustained its stability due to the singular authoritarian leadership of the Syrian president. The smooth transfer of power from Hafez to Bashar in 2000 demonstrated that political heredity was the surest guarantor of continuity and loyalty. The period of Bashar's presidency has operated as expected according to the Alawi ethnic principle adopted by his father. It is correct to suggest that family more than tribe became over time the core component of the pattern of power in Damascus. Bashar's brother Maher, suspected of direct involvement in the Hariri assassination, now heads the Presidential Guard. Assef Shawket, also a prime suspect in the murder, heading Military Intelligence, is married to Bushra, the sister of the Assad boys. Ghazi Kanaan, he too of the Kalbiyeen tribe and married to Bashar's cousin, served as Syria's strongman in Lebanon from 1982 to 2002. But on October 20, he mysteriously "committed suicide," leading us to assume that Kanaan took to his grave the full scope of Bashar's responsibility for the Hariri murder. Other senior Alawi personnel in the upper echelons of the regime hierarchy include Izz al-Din Ismail heading Air Force Intelligence, Muhammad Khalouf and Jamaa Jamaa, and Rostom Ghazali who governed Lebanon until his recent dismissal from the post in the aftermath of the Hariri assassination and the Syrian military withdrawal from Lebanon. THE RUTHLESS days of totalitarian tribalism seem to be coming to an end. Increasing international pressure on Syria, that includes the report of special UN envoy Terje Roed-Larsen charging that Damascus has not fulfilled Resolution 1559 for a complete withdrawal of all security personnel from Lebanon and the disarming of Hizbullah, will intensify brother-to-brother Alawi opposition and suspicion within the politically besieged sectarian community. From the beginning of the daring Alawi assault on Damascus until today, factionalism, fissures and fighting have tarnished the coherence of communal rule. Virtual schisms and tension within and between the tribes mar the ranks of this esoteric sect. In 1999, Maher Assad shot and injured his brother-in-law Assef Shawkat who had criticized uncle Rifaat Assad. Certainly the elimination of Ghazi Kanaan is a sign of inner-Alawi breakdown, against the dark shadows of the Hariri assassination examined under the illuminating light of Detlev Mehlis. The disintegration of the Alawi tribal state in Damascus is one among other possible outcomes of the present crisis in both Syria and Lebanon. This particular political script could send this rugged bunch of "heretics" fleeing for refuge back home in their mountain stronghold, unleashing the forces of centrifugal fragmentation in Syria to encompass, in addition to the Alawis, the Druse in the south and Kurds in the northeast. A new map for Syria would carry sweeping regional implications for Iraq and Turkey, Lebanon and Israel. The "Zionist virus," as the Arabs call it, would then spread and grant liberty to small peoples on the model of the Jews of Israel. Buoyed by a dialectical twist of history, the political transformations would serve Israel's strategic benefit. A tamed or divided Syria would neutralize Israel's last major Arab protagonist after Egypt and Iraq, from active aggression. The source for this enigmatic Assadian scenario can be traced to Sleiman Assad, Hafez's grandfather, who offered his own contribution to this possible turn of events. He, along with five other Alawi representatives, signed a letter on June 15, 1936, sent to French prime minister Leon Blum. Its contents are remarkable when set in contrast to the views of his Ba'athist pan-Arabist grandson and great-grandson. Considering the Zionist national enterprise, Sleiman and his friends refer in their letter to "those good Jews who have brought modernity and peace… and spread fortune and prosperity in Palestine, without hurting or taking anything by force. Despite this, Muslims declared a sacred war against them and slaughtered their children and women [in 1929 and again in the Arab Uprising of 1936]. The Jews and the minorities of the Middle East are destined for a black future…" This foreboding prophecy can explain the shifty ideological path chosen by Hafez and his son, and of the Alawi community in general, flaunting their Arabism at every turn, even feigning Islamic faith. But the game may be over now, but opening up another option. The "minority equation" within a pluralistic Syria can be animated with vigor, if the Alawis throw off the chains of Arab nationalism and join other politically compatible fellow peoples for a modest life of dignity and freedom in the Middle East. The writer teaches Middle East Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Among his books are Minorities in the Middle East: A History of Struggle and Self-Expression and The Conscience of Lebanon: A Political Biography of Etienne Sakr (Abu-Arz)