Asad's Alawi dilemma
"Not one inch of the occupied territories will be returned to the Arabs using National feelings or any other secular ideology. The one and only way to win them back is to harness Islamic beliefs." So said the Sunni Vice President Abdel Halim Khaddam ten years ago while speaking with friends around the dining room table. According to a source close to the Khaddam faction in the Syrian government ( I will call him Khudr), Khaddam remains convinced that in an overwhelmingly Sunni and deeply religious society like Syria, Baathism will never mobilize the people so long as it remains a strictly secular ideology. The only hope for the Baath in the future, the Khaddam faction argues, is if it Islamizes.
You wrote yesterday that "Ahmad al-Hassan, the outgoing Minister of Information, is known to be quite ideological and a true believer in the special role of the Baath Party." I would add that he belongs to the Khaddam wing which staunchly believes that the Baath should integrate Islamist beliefs in its principles and be turned into a semi-Islamic Arab Nationalist party. They think that only with such a transformation can the Baath secure for itself a socially acceptable and leading role in an increasingly fundamentalist society.Dakhlallah is a Sunni born in 1947 in the province of Dara`a in the south-east of Syria. He received his BA in Politics from Zagreb University in Yugoslavia and a Ph.D. in Development there as well. On his return to Syria he began work in the Research Section at the National Leadership (Qiyada Qawmya) from 1983 until 2001. He rose through the ranks of the party and was respected for his intelligence and knowledge of the party`s ideology and history. He became the speechwriter for Abdullah al-Ahmar, Assistant Secretary-General of the Baath Party before he was appointed Editor-in-Chief of Al-Baath Newspaper. [See my previous post, "What Does the New Syrian Cabinet Portend? and the biography of Dakhlallah at All4Souria.org Oct. 6, 2004.]
Ahmad al-Hassan's objectives and vision for the Baath are certainly not in line with Bashar`s policies (supposing he really has one). So I was not a bit surprised that Bashar replaced Ahmad al-Hassan; rather, I was very surprised that he put him in that post to begin with, and still surprised that he keeps Khaddam in his post, although he has tried many times to divest him of power. [The government announced several months ago that Khaddam would retire in the near future.] Why was Mahdi Dakhlallah chosen to replace Hassan as Information Minister? For the same reason that Hassan was chosen before him: Bashar does not have a vision of his own; he listens to everybody, and makes arbitrary decisions.
Ahmed al-Hassan, an Alawi from Tartous, was an Auxiliary-Member (`udu-Ihtiyat) of the National Leadership. He was demoted from full-membership in 1984, when late president Hafez al-Asad decided to cut the wings of Khaddam`s faction after Asad's brother Rifa`at tried to take power. [See the new memoirs of ex-Defense Minister Mustafa Tlass for the dirt on a number of generals and Party officials who had their wings clipped after 1984.] Al-Hassan was born in a small village near Latakia. However, he moved as a child to Banias city, which explains how he met Khaddam, who is from Banias, and became one of his supporters. He later moved to Tartous city itself.
The Alawis of the coastal cities even under the French Mandate were the first to adopt the language of the Sunni nationalists of Damascus. Because of their intermingling with the Sunnis of the Alawite region, who only lived in the larger cities, they were the first to break away from the communal loyalties of the Alawis of the mountain towns. It should be remembered that in 1920 when the French extended their control over Syria, no Alawites were registered residents of the coastal cities - Latakia, Jable, Banias, or Tartus. They were effectively reserved for Sunnis and Christians.
In fact, the first French census shows that Alawis and Sunnis lived together in no town with a population exceeding 200 inhabitants! Discrimination against Alawis and social segregation were profound. Alawis shared towns with Christians but not Sunnis. Only after the imposition of French rule did Alawis begin to migrate to the larger cities of the coast. It was these Alawis, like Ahmad al-Hassan, who have become least fearful and distrusting of Sunnis and Islam in general.
Ahmad Al-Hassan was consistently and fiercely attacked by liberal opponents of the regime because of his attempt to enforce his views about Islamizing during his tenure as Information Minister. Nabil Fayad and his group at the annaqed website were leaders in this campaign and criticized him vigorously. They were particularly critical because he opened access to the TV and state media to religious sheiks and clerics in an unprecedented way. This may be one of the reasons that Bashar was not happy with him [Khudr refers here to al-Hassan, but it may also be a reason that Fayyad was arrested - the government's way of evening the score. By the way, a contributor just wrote that Fayyad's colleague, "Mr. Jihad Nasra is free now, but the Syrian Liberal Gathering http://www.liberalsyria.com/ was dissolved, and Mr. Nabil Fayad, its spokesman remains arrested." See my post of a few days ago about Fayyad's arrest] Another reason why Bashar may have replaced al-Hassan is because of his very close relations with the Iranian regime. [He served as Ambassador to Iran for 10 years, where he established good relations with the regime.] His close connection to Iranian officials continued after his return to Syria and throughout his tenure as Information Minister.
Kudr's description of the debate within the Party, which revolves around the question of how to change the party and reanimate public participation and faith in Baathist ideology, is telling. Many Sunni party members and even a number of Alawis, such as Ahmad Hassan, are convinced that the Baath will have a future only if it Islamizes in order to respond to the religiosity of the public. Saddam Hussein had been taking the Iraqi Baath down the road of Islamization since 1991. After the traumatizing experience of the Gulf War and the Islamist uprisings that ensued, he decided to abandon Iraq's secularism and embrace Islamic nationalism. He placed the logo "God is Great" at the center of the Iraqi flag. He introduced a number of Islamic laws and he began to inject more Islam into state rhetoric in order to appeal to Iraqis.
How much change can someone like Dakhlallah, an intellectual who spent his entire career writing, actually bring about? Very little, I suspect. The Information ministry, like all the ministries, is composed of mafias that are hard to break even for someone who is politically strong like Ahmad al-Hassan. What I mean by politically strong is that he has enough backing to stand against the enormous interference of security apparatuses and other power-groups. How long can someone with no factional backing, such as Dakhlallah, expect to withstand such power-groups? Even the very best of the technocrat ministers, such as former Industrial Minister Issam al-Zaim, failed to bring about change because of the powerfully entrenched interest groups in his ministry.
Ahmad Hassan has been involved in politics since 1960. He became head of the first Baathist School in the 1960s [The Baath National Preparation School -- Madrasset Al- Eedaad Al-Qaumi in Banias] and was very adept at navigating within the old power groups. All the same, he was powerless to change the culture of the Ministry of Information during his tenure. He looks on the new emerging power groups with disdain. I don't believe he was at all displeased to be relieved of his duties. He does not believe the new groups represent the best interests of the Baath, the Alawis, the Sunnis, or anyone. They are merely out to advance their own private interests. Ideological as Hassan is, he did not see a role for himself in this new system. I would bet good money that Dakhlallah will end up as frustrated as Hassan.
The recent changes broke a long lived power-distribution rule that Hafiz established: Information Ministry is for Alawis, Interior Ministry is for Sunnis. Bashar is obviously faced with a dilemma in his attempts to reform. He is trying anything. His is arbitrarily switching ministers around in desperation. Dakhlallah might not be a staunch member of the old guard. Most likely he belongs to no guard at all, which is worse in the long run, because that makes him powerless to carry out reform.
Bashar's problem is that he is an Alawi, and most Alawis will not hear of Islamization. They fear Islam. The Muslim Brotherhood pushed Syria toward civil war in the late 1970s and early 1980s and accused the Alawis of being neither Arab nor Muslim. My father-in-law, a retired Alawi Admiral of the Syrian Navy, was on the Brotherhood hit list and nearly assassinated by a neighbor who turned out to be a member of an underground organization. Needless to say, this had a profound effect on the family (a neighbor from a family they liked).
Many Alawi generals and officers still in power today experienced the same fear and danger in the 1980s. They will not permit the Baath to embrace Sunni Islam for fear that it would become fundamentalist and hostile to Alawis. Many are worried about Bashar's flirtation with the Iraqi resistance groups lest they get out of control, establish roots in Syria, and the whole thing backfires on them. When they think Islam, they see Jihadists and the Muslim Brotherhood of the 1980s, not some watered down and ultimately responsible variety such as we are seeing in Turkey who have turned out to be real democrats.
Bashar faces a tug of war within his government and society over the issue of Islamization. When Hafiz al-Asad came to power in 1970, one of his primary goals was to establish a new balance between the government and Islam. One of the central planks of his "Corrective Movement" was to abandon the radical secularism and socialism of the Jadid regime that preceded him. Although he reached out to Sunni clerics, giving them greater leeway in society, he strictly limited their influence in politics. At the same time, he encouraged Alawites to embrace mainstream Islam. He declared the Alawites to be nothing but Twelver Shiites, forbade Alawite Shaykhs to venerate Ali excessively, and set the example for his people by adhering to Sunni practice. He built mosques in Alawite towns, prayed publicly and fasted and encouraged his people to do the same.
In short he tried to turn Alawites into "good" (read Sunnified) Muslims in exchange for preserving a modicum of secularism and tolerance in society. (For a better understanding of this process see my article on Islamic education in Syria.) To police this understanding, he squashed any semblance of democracy in Syrian political life, forbidding elections even within professional organizations and trade unions. As a result, civil society was crushed, ministries became havens for mafia groups, and any political life outside the secretive factions in the regime came to a standstill.
In order to reform and shake the corruption and incompetence out the ministries, Bashar must change the way the administration works. If he makes it more representative and allows for greater democracy, he may be swamped with Islamists and alienate the Alawite support that is the backbone of the regime. The same thing will be true if he really goes after corruption and the mafias in the ministries. He has no constituency save the Alawite generals and old guard that put him into power and maintain him there. If he pushes reform too hard, he will either undermine the generals and Baathists, causing the regime to collapse, or he will be replace by the generals. This is Bashar's Alawi Dilemma. Syria remains a deeply fragmented country, where the religious communities still do not trust each other.
Khudr, writes of these comments I have just added to his story:
Your analysis here at the end, and of course this is my personal opinion, but I really don`t think that if greater democracy is allowed in Syria the government posts will be swamped with Islamists. Although I agree with you that Bashar might be thinking this way. Look at the present presidential elections in Indonesia the land of the largest Sunni popluation; contrary to what many expected, among the five candidates, the two that won the most votes were the non- Islamist ones: Megawati and Yudhoyono, the latter won finally. As a BBC commentator puts it: people want Islam at home but not in the administration.This is the same problem facing Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, and most of the Arab republics. Their leaders want to turn themselves into Kings like the rulers of Jordan or Morocco so they can rule through the generations and manage society into the distant future. They don't trust their people and fear unleashing the forces of Islam and the broader public. They fear giving up their privileges and control, knowing that the men that replace them may take everything away from them and seek revenge rather than enshrine the rule of law.
I personally believe this is true in Syria as well. Ahmad al-Hassan and his colleagues think that it is necessary to mobilize people through Islam to reach the goals of the Arab Nation articulated in the Baath ideology. People against Islam fear that such a mobilization would jeopardize civil rights and non-Islamic ideas. they fear it will endanger the Alawaites and other minorities. Both parties forget that 60% of Syrian population is under 20 year old (official census) and probably more than 85% less than 35 year old. These people don`t give one little damn for all the grand goals of the older generation and can not relate to them. As in Indonesia, in the end, people will elect representatives that can get them jobs and put food on their tables, not who promise to give them Qurans or librated lands.
The real problem Bashar fails to come to grips with is the political system in the Ministries and the government apparatus. This system, from the bottom up, is based uniquely on appointed posts. Appointments are determined according to security service reports and factional connections. Bashar is trying to break up these factions by attacking them only at the uppermost levels (Ministers and consultants), but he doesn't dare tackle them at the lower levels. This is what must be done to bring about real and necessary change. He probably thinks that empowering people on the lower levels, in the same manner as he is doing to people at the upper levels, would cause his regime to crumble. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of democracy that I personally believe most people in our area share. For the majority of Syrians, democracy means politics and presidential elections.
Hafiz al-Asad instilled a firm conviction in the regime that even the slightest empowerment of the people would lead to total regime collapse. That is why he so infamously dissolved all elected syndicates and civil organizations in 1982 after the Hama crisis. In there place, he established a system based solely on appointed officials. Everything became administered from the top-down and distrust of the people reigned supreme.
Bashar should look at the Korean, Taiwanese, and Indonesian models, rather than the Chinese one. Dictators were able to keep their rule while educating people about democracy by introducing democratic change at the lower levels. This did not challenge their rule while they remained alive and in control of the state. Certainly it brought great changes the moment they stepped aside. The Chinese model by contrast means trying to enforce the rule of the regime beyond the life of one ruler. This is what Bashar is effectively doing. He is not bold enough or does not have the vision or power to reintroduce democracy at the bottom of society because he and his generals want to stay in power indefinitely.
Khudr believes this is where the appointment of Ghazi Kanaan as Minister of the Interior comes in. The Alawite generals are frightened and dismayed by Bashar's floundering about. They fear that he is migrating away from the essential tethers of regime stability - the Alawite generals and their factions. Kanaan represents the old guard and whether he was appointed by the generals or imposed himself on them, his elevation to Minister is an expression of the old guard trying to protect its interests and those of the old regime as they understand it -- and it might be added that they probably understand it very well.
In my next post, I will discuss Khudr's analysis of the class tensions within the Alawi community caused by Bashar's presidency. I would also like to thank Khudr for his friendship and courage in coming forward with this most interesting analysis. It is only thorugh such insider accounts that we will ever begin to understand the very real and important policy debates going on within the Syria government and society.
Comments: On the inapplicability of the Syria - Indonesia comparison
From Lee Smith, Journalist for Slate and other Magazines.
Excellent post, Josh, and hugely informative. Thanks for it.
However, I have to say that I disagree with your informant's assertion that in voting for Islamists people will vote for candidates who can get them jobs, etc. I think his comparison to Indonesia is a very bad one: it does not matter that Indonesia is the most populous Sunni country; it is not an Arab one. It is strange that critics of Islamist movements, or sometimes so-called Islamophobes, are reminded that Islam is not a monolith, but different in every country, place, family, etc. advocates of Islamist movement should remember this as well: Islam is different in different places. Surely "khudr" doesn't think for instance that Saudi Arabia is like Indonesia just because it's Sunni.
I think the problem in Syria, the Arab world generally, is that because politicians cannot make good on their promises of jobs, a higher standard of living, etc., that all they have are Korans and talk of liberating Muslim lands. That after all is why they're seen as authentic. so, maybe you'd wind up with a party on the lines of the Turkish model, but most likely you'd have something like Jordan’s Islamic action front, which blocks virtually every reform-minded motion in that government and makes a lot of noise in the press about it. It's not clear to me Bashar could withstand the level of criticism abdullah is able to deflect; but maybe if Bashar were super smart, he'd give them a role just so he could use them to deflect criticism. Anyway, great post!
From RAYYAN SOUKI (I don't know who he is.)
I think that your recommendation for the Syrian regime to adopt the Indonesian model is way off target. Syria is not Indonesia, and Indonesia is not the largest "Sunni" country as you claim.
The nature of Islam in Indonesia is eclectic. Clifford Geertz, one of the most important authorities on Indonesian religions and cultures, named the dominant religion in Indonesia as "Agama Jawa.” This religion is a mixture of Buddhism, Hinduism, Animism, ancestor-worship, and Sufi Islam. He explained this concept by describing a grace over meal prayer for an Agama Jawa follower. He said: "The prayer honored the guardian spirits of the village and of the master of ceremonies, the household angel of the kitchen, the ancestors of all the guests, and the spirits of the fields, waters, and a nearby volcano. The prayer ended piously with, "There is no god but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet!!!!"
He also realized that many Indonesians in Jawa used to chop off the heads of bulls and bury them underground before building a hut or house in order to scare away the Evil Spirits!!!The Orthodox Version of Islam which he categorized as "Santri Islam" is in the minority. I must admit, however, that the Wahhabi strain of Islam, which was encouraged by the Saudis during the 70's and 80's, has been able to attract a greater number of recruits. Let me also disagree with you in your attempt to make a correlation between the political conditions in Syria with those of Taiwan and Korea. The latter 2 examples represent racially and culturally homogeneous societies with clear national Identities.
Syria, on the other hand, is everything but a nation-state. Syrians still look at themselves as Sunnis, Alawis, Ismailis, Druze, Christians, etc.
The Chinese model is also a non-option. The Chinese elite belong to the Han Majority which represents 92% of the population. The remaining 57 minorities Groups represent only 8% of the population. The Ruling Alawite elite represent only 11 percent of the Syrian people. In addition, the Monstrous capabilities and potentials of the "the most populous nation on earth" can't be compared with those of a medium-sized, third world country.
I believe that the only way for the Alawis to remain in power is to stop courting the Sunni Fundamentalists and Keep the "Hama Option" always Present on their minds. The Alawis should try to reorganize the Syrian Army in a way that will always keep the most potent divisions of the armed forces in their hands. Sunnis must be sidelined and prevented from having access to sensitive military and security posts. Any signs of weakness would send the wrong signals and might be fatal.
NOTE ON THE MARGIN:
I really felt sorry for the detention of Nabil Fayad. I admire this guy a lot and share with him a lot of Ideas. I believe he is one of few enlightened Sunnis who is capable of de-constructing a lot of the Myths that have engulfed Orthodox Islam for Centuries. My prayers are with him, and I hope that he is not subjected to any type of torture.P.S. The torture Techniques that are employed by the Syrian "Mukhabarat" are among the worst worldwide because they combine the brutality of the German Stazi and Soviet KGB. May God be with Nabil Fayad!!!!!!!
Ammar Abdulhamid, Director of the Tharwa Project and presently Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institute writes:
This is a very thoughtful analysis, Joshua, you and Khudr have done a marvelous job. We often neglect the Sunni-Alawi dynamic in our discussion of the reform process in Syria, despite the fact that this dynamic lies at the heart of the process itself. I am eager to read the next installment.
From my Mother: Wonderful new Syria Comment. Thanks for sending. Whew. Will you be welcome in Syria for all this outing of truths? XXX Your loving mommy