Syria’s crackdown

In so desperately and violently clinging to power, the behavior of the Alawite ruling minority conforms with perfect consistency to fears it has expressed for 75 years of what majority rule would mean for them.

Syrian tank in Hama 311 (photo credit: Reuters)
Syrian tank in Hama 311
(photo credit: Reuters)
"Damascus is at one and the same time the fount of modern Arab nationalism and the exhibit of its frustrations,” Henry Kissinger once observed. “Syrian history alternates achievement with catastrophe.”
Since mid-March, that alternation has cycled ever more rapidly, with the achievement of growing antiregime protests, inspired by the defiant examples of Egypt and Tunisia, being met with an increasingly catastrophic and draconian crackdown that has left at least 2,000 civilians dead.
Syrian President Bashar Assad, who inherited power from his father, Hafez, in 2000, tried at first to paint the protests as the result of conspiracy of foreign “saboteurs” fomented by the US and Israel. Then he tried concessions. He dismissed his cabinet on March 29 (though the new one included many members of the previous one) and lifted the emergency law (only to introduce an “anti-terrorism” law with similar provisions).
Foreign Minister Walid Moallem pledged Saturday that free parliamentary elections would be held by the end of the year.
But even such feeble concessions are rendered meaningless by the escalating violence perpetrated by the regime on its own citizens. Over the past 10 days, in the bloodiest assaults yet, Syrian security forces have tightened their siege on the city of Hama, a hub of the protests and site of a 1982 massacre at the hands of Hafez Assad’s troops. Now, the son’s forces are ringing the city with tanks, shelling neighborhoods, sending in snipers, and cutting off communication, food, water and medical aid. On Sunday, armed forces launched an assault on the eastern city of Deir al-Zour, killing dozens and causing thousands to flee.
The American response has seemed inconsistent, improvised, and insufficient. A week after protests erupted in Deraa, a Syrian city near the Jordanian border, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton referred to Assad as a “reformer.”
There is mounting frustration among Syrian dissidents over the failure of the United States to call for Assad’s departure. Last Tuesday, Clinton met with USbased Syrian activists who demanded that President Barack Obama ask Assad to step down immediately.
She assured them that the US has “nothing invested in the continuation of a regime that must kill, imprison and torture its own citizens to maintain power.”
One reason for American hesitation is the fear of fullscale sectarian conflict erupting between a resentful Sunni majority (more than 70 percent of Syria’s population) and the ruling Alawite minority (about 12%).
The fear is not wholly unjustified. Assad and the other leaders responsible for the ongoing outrages – his brother Maher Assad, commander of the army’s feared Fourth Division, Defense Minister Ali Habib and Chief of Staff Gen. Dawoud Rajha – depend on the Alawite-dominated authoritarian structure.
In so desperately and violently clinging to power, the behavior of the Alawite ruling minority conforms with perfect consistency to fears it has expressed for 75 years of what majority rule would mean for them.
Understanding these fears helps to understand the present crisis.
In 1936, six Alawite notables sent a memorandum to French prime minister Leon Blum. To explain why they refused to be annexed to a Muslim Syria ruled by the Sunni majority who regarded them as infidels, they pointed to the treatment of Jews under Islam: “The condition of the Jews in Palestine is the strongest and most explicit evidence of the militancy of the Islamic issue vis-à-vis those who do not belong to Islam. These good Jews contributed to the Arabs with civilization and peace, scattered gold, and established prosperity in Palestine without harming anyone or taking anything by force, yet the Muslims declare holy war against them and never hesitated in slaughtering their women and children, despite the presence of England in Palestine and France in Syria.
“Therefore, a dark fate awaits the Jews and other minorities in case the Mandate is abolished and Muslim Syria is united with Muslim Palestine... the ultimate goal of the Muslim Arabs.”
One of the signatories of this remarkable appeal was none other than Sulayman Assad, father of Hafez and grandfather of Bashar.