Archive for ‘Alawis / Alawites’

June 3, 2012

Syria’s Alawites (and other Minorities) beyond Wikipedia and the News

by Gedalyah Reback

Wikipedia is a great website. Ignore it at your own peril. Teachers and professors talk it to hell, but not using it is to ignore a tremendous tool that Google considers the automatic top result on virtually any academic topic. Most professors don’t understand that the reason you shouldn’t cite it as a source isn’t due to its lack of reliability. It’s because the information of its articles are constantly changing. You should be checking the footnotes and hitting the links listed at the bottom of the page. New information makes the date you accessed it originally constantly irrelevant, but letting it point you in the right direction is assuredly a good strategy for writing a paper or thinking of a research topic.

So when it comes to Middle East topics, it’s not so much the subjectivity I worry about – even on articles covering things like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It’s the outdated information. In terms of minorities, Wikipedia seems much more like an aggregate for recycled, archaic information than it does a reliable source of the modern state of different religious or ethnic groups.

The particular page of concern for me is this one: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religion_in_Syria. What the page has to say about Alawites is peculiar: “Although they are settled cultivators, Alawis gather into kin groups much like those of pastoral nomads. The four Alawi confederations, each divided into tribes, are Kalbiyah, Khaiyatin, Haddadin, and Matawirah.”

The information is correct. But it was a better summary about 100 years ago. Alawites, Ismailis and Druze have not been left out of the age of the internet, digital music, cars or the urban explosion. Every group has moved away from rural lifestyles into Latakia, Hama, Homs and Damascus. But most importantly of all, the community’s conservative roots have been decimated by the modern age. A combination of Arab nationalism, feigning devotion to religion and the marathon of Western cultural influences into the year 2012 have made religion a weak link among Alawites. In the spirit of the age, the experience is defined by a raw, dark, realpolitik approach to life. Alawites’ main concern right now is living under the thumb of political Islam defined by the Muslim Brotherhood. More relevant than referring to the group’s religious history is its political history. The Ottoman Empire made great efforts toward the end of its existence to push Syria’s Alawites to embrace the Hanafi school of Sunni Islam in custom, law and sect. By the time the empire fell, the community’s leadership was either running to Shi’ite Islam for legal inspiration or enthusiastically defining the community’s independence.

After 90 years of secular Arab nationalism and a Western culture not at all defined by religious tradition, secularism is perhaps the more dominant trend in Alawite and other minorities’ religious identities in 2012 Syria. bear this in mind for your next term paper. But also bear in mind “secular” doesn’t imply atheist, agnostic or apathetic regarding religion. It can merely imply someone doesn’t live his or her life in accord with it, or doesn’t want religious affairs mixed up in government or politics. But in terms of tribal authority, or the authority of religious figures, it’s virtually non-existent. The effective leadership of the Alawite community is Bashar al-Assad and the disproportionately Alawite Syrian armed forces.

This doesn’t mean religion is finished for the Alawites. It would be just as naïve to say the same for the American Northeast and West Coast. Religion is hardly on its way out. How Alawites deal with religion in the future will likely change, but contemporary Western trends will hardly be the end of the story or the ushering in of a sudden wave of secular or atheist Humanism. Alawites have had the opportunity for years to eliminate other elements of religion in Syria’s political life and have balked at the opportunity. A number of minorities are converting to Twelver Shi’ite Islam.

So when you look at a map on the news describing where the Alawites are, or what percentage of people actually believe in a certain religious idea, take the statistics and the graphics with a grain of salt. A lot of the research is out of date and the conclusions conveniently organized. Surveys have never been rich enough to absolutely define the beliefs of many Middle Eastern minorities, much less nail down an arbitrarily line on the map defining where they live. The information is helpful, but trends like urbanization and the ability to commute long distances make looking at these sources as infallible or perfectly accurate extremely precarious.

April 22, 2012

Golan Heights’ Druze: An Intro

by Gedalyah Reback

The Golan Heights is a disputed territory to the southwest corner of Syria and in the northeast corner of Israel. Once used as a high ground from which to launch shells into the Galilee Valley, the Israelis captured it in two days during the Six Day War. It was not an empty area. Maybe 100,000 Syrians lived there. But most of its poor inhabitants fled immediately. The only group that largely stayed were the Druze: “Around 7,000 remained in six Druze villages: Majdal Shams, Mas’ade, Buq’ata, Ein Qiniyye, Ghajar and Shayta. They are estimated to number 20,000 today.” There are populations of Druze in Israel and Syria. Nothing was particularly different about the Golan’s Druze until this moment. None could have guaranteed they’d be virtual Israelis into infinitude, but that has what happened.

In 1981, Israel annexed the Golan Heights for several reasons. Unlike the West Bank, it was a direct front with a sworn enemy, unlike the West Bank regarding Jordan. Jordan was not as hostile an Arab state as Syria, nor did the issue of negotiating territory with the Palestinians come up with the Golan – it was never Palestinian. So only the Golan and East Jerusalem have been annexed from the conquests of the Six Day War, leaving both populations with unique residency rights in Israel. The Golan Druze face a different social situation than the Palestinians of East Jerusalem. They were citizens of Syria, and their territory was recognizably Syrian. East Jerusalem was void of an internationally recognized owner. So here, nationality was neither in dispute nor coalescing. East Jerusalemites have experienced waves of Arab nationalism, Jordanian citizenship and Palestinian nationalism both under the Jordanians and under the Israelis. Golan’s Druze were cut off from their indisputable home government.

Druze are generally labeled fiercely loyal to their home regimes, no matter who’s in charge. Along the same lines, the leadership is generally pragmatic. In Israel, Druze living in the Carmel and the Galilee aligned themselves with the Jews in the Israeli War of Independence. Today, they are the only ethnic or religious group aside from Jews who are obligated to serve in the Israeli Defense Forces (a request made by the group’s leadership).

The Druze of the Golan don’t have any sort of requirement. The reasons are simple. For one, their loyalty is ambiguous. There have been vocal pro-Assad demonstrations in the Golan for years. The community has either been motivated by a genuine patriotism for Syria or fear that a land-for-peace deal might bring vengeful Syrian police to arrest anyone who advocated against Damascus while the territory was Israeli. But secondly, while it’s practical for the Israeli government to hold back anyone whose loyalty to the Jewish State is just non-existent, it’s also a humanitarian gesture and obligation that they don’t serve in the IDF. It is illegal under international law to force residents of an occupied territory to serve in the conqueror’s army. Even if it weren’t, it would be cruel to compel service to anyone who is conflicted about their national identity.

Golani Druze carry Israeli residency cards and have virtually open access to the country’s services without some of the rigors of citizenship, but maybe about 10% of them have accepted Israeli citizenship. Many Druze have taken the opportunity to attend universities, a fictional example of which coming from the Israeli film “Syrian Bride.” On the Syrian side of things, there is an exchange between the two countries for Golani college students to go for free (with Syrian government funding) to universities in Damascus. Funerals also bring visitors, who more and more over the years have gotten more relaxed ruled on moving between the borders.

After almost 50 years on the Israeli side, the attachment to Syria is breaking. The lot of native Israeli Druze is noticeably good. Despite whatever social and economic issues might exist for the small Israeli Druze community, it doesn’t approach critical levels. Intermingling is also much easier than with Syrian Druze. The social scene is also available to the younger Golani Druze, being just another opportunity to immerse themselves on the Israeli scene.

With no clear way of returning the Golan Heights to Syria, much less to a Syria ruled by Bashar al-Assad, Golan’s Druze will probably continue to adopt Israeli citizenship at an increasing rate.

April 19, 2012

Turkey’s Alevis: An Intro

by Gedalyah Reback

There’s been attention on the Alawite sect of late. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad comes from the sect, and the sectarian implications of the violence in Syria is huge. I recently posted about members of the religion who live in the Turkish-Syrian border area and how their emotions could complicate Turkish intervention in Syria.

Another group weighs even more heavily on Turkish politics: the Alevis. Their name has a similar origin to the Alawis’, but there are few similarities after that, religiously. Both groups are outgrowths of mainstream Shi’a Islam. Politically, the two groups have been traditionally marginalized and faced discrimination for their unorthodox beliefs. But the ambiguity of both groups’ religious beliefs has caused a lot of confusion. Religion and Middle East scholars often mix the two groups up unintentionally, making studying the two minorities unnecessarily difficult. That confusion even runs through the groups themselves. Since Alawites kept many particulars to their dogmas under wraps to a degree and Alevis are both secularized and don’t emphasize religious practice, the two groups have members who think the two religions have a lot more in common than they actually do.

Their beliefs are much more esoteric than mainstream Islamic sects. There are ideas similar to the Catholic trinity, heavy borrowings from Sufi ideas & a heightened appreciation of Muhammad’s cousin Ali.

Alevis might make up as much as 20% of Turkey’s population, though that rarely factors into political analysis. The party of Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan is religious in nature, Sunni to be specific. Its popularity and indicator of resurgent religiosity in Turkey overshadow the diversity that actually does exist in Turkey. Alevis’ religion also has origins in the various Sufi sects that once had much more influence in Turkey during the period of the Ottoman Empire. It made telling the difference between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims, in general, a difficult task. The groups has been influenced by Sufi spirituality, making their religious culture much richer in arts, dances and meditation. Because of the former influence of Sufis, Sunni Turks also felt their impact. That translates today in political terms.

Alevis have a tremendous but nuanced influence on the country. Because they are such a large group, their votes can make a difference. The fact the head of the Turkish opposition is an Alevi could spell future electoral trouble for Turkey’s leaders. Alevis also appreciate the secular traditions of modern Turkey much more than the current ruling party. Disenfranchised secular voters, combined with agitated minorities, could swing an election. In fact, it’s their religious beliefs that are actually a political issue in Turkey. Much of the ambiguity scholars reflect about Alevi and Turkish Sunni commonalities is because the Turkish government has maintained a policy that doesn’t recognize the minority as a separate religion. Recognition is important for many reasons, of late to avoid the mandatory Sunni-oriented Islamic classes in public schools. Because of that, the sect’s only institutions and places of worship don’t get the sort of government support that Sunni places do. Though the assumption they are Sunnis should enable money to flow to their centers, unofficial discrimination still exists.

On Syria, the confusion about Alevis’ connection to the Alawites isn’t the only thing that matters. Alevis might feel that an aggressive government policy toward Syria would actually be a Sunni push against a minority-ruled regime. If that were to happen, it could initiate the political backlash mentioned above.

April 15, 2012

The Syrian Civil War and Israel’s Strategy

by Gedalyah Reback

Israel has to watch what is happening inside Syria extremely closely. Despite whatever announcements the government there or the rebels make, neither have proven trustworthy or able to verify any claims they make in the media. Who wins this power struggle, which will probably go on for at least a few more months, will have control over Syria’s foreign policy with both Iran & Israel. Neither side is likely to make a quick peace with the Jewish state. Frankly speaking, the two sides’ fighting will be what preserves Israeli security on the northern border.

Syria & Hezbollah’s Abilities Impaired

With Syria’s ability to make war completely incapacitated by the civil war inside the country, its resources are limited. It cannot expect to simultaneously support Hezbollah financially or logistically while it has priorities at home. And if Syria were to make war with Israel to try to deflect attention from the civil strife at home, perhaps in some naive attempt to unite the population against a common enemy, Israel’s military superiority and a probable strong support for the Jewish state’s retaliatory war effort would end the regime in Damascus. Even going through a proxy like Hezbollah is not so much of an option for this sort of distraction tactic, simply because of the reasons mentioned above that Hezbollah wouldn’t have the ability to sustain a war effort against Israel without dependable supplies coming from Syria.

Whom to Support?

The only certainty from Israel’s perspective is continued civil war. That also goes for what helps Israel’s security. The possibility is real that the two sides could fight for years, especially without intervention. If that happens, the two factions might try to solicit support from neighboring states. The rebels already have support from the West & Turkey. Even if the government offered Israel a favorable peace deal, Jerusalem probably wouldn’t risk its reputation to support such an unpopular and criminal regime – especially if it weren’t guaranteed they’d come out on top.

Then comes what options there are with the rebels. The rebels are mainly Sunni Muslims, the majority in the country and arguably the historically most hostile religious domination to Israel’s existence. This is a generalization, but it’s true Israel has always considered alliances with angry minorities and marginalized groups. That approach was active in Iraq with the Kurds and Lebanon with the Maronites (Catholics). In this case, the government is run by Syria’s minorities (Alawites, Druze, Ismailis & Christians). There is no automatic strategy for Israel to take.

Worldwide the argument has trended toward arming Syria’s rebels. Certain Arab countries already claim to be doing so, and the idea is popping up in Europe. Even the United States’ hawkish senators Joe Lieberman & John McCain are backing the idea, even though Syrian rebels have made statements accusing Israel of working with the Syrian regime and have even peddled anti-Semitic ideas like the matzah blood libel.

What Israel will do is likely, though not guaranteed, to be one of two options: 1. stay out of it or 2. arm both sides. This second tactic has been used before. During the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), the United States simultaneously armed Saddam Hussein and the Iranians. It wasn’t just because America’s allies were divided on which country to support, rather there was value in keeping these two otherwise hostile countries from turning their attention to closer American allies like Israel or Saudi Arabia. Even the Israelis were involved in the Iran-Contra scandal that funneled weapons to the Iranians.

A Quick Scenario

Other countries certainly have a stake in the outcome in the Syrian Civil War. This article only focuses on Israel’s approach, and in a very general way. This post is lacking not mentioning how Turkey fits into the mix. Future posts will cover that. But these are fair and important points to make regarding Israeli policy toward the Syrian Civil War. This being said, I would think the Israeli military might actually be leaning toward supporting the regime in Damascus. This isn’t because Israel would want Assad to win.

The side map shows roughly where Syria’s minorities live, mostly along the coast and adjacent to the Golan Heights. Some people have suggested before that if a war like this were to have ever broken out, the regime might cut its losses and consolidate its supporters and the minority populations into a de facto separate state from the majority Sunnis. If that were to happen, there would almost certainly be continued war because that minority country would have full control of the coastline and crush the economy of the desert interior. That is just one scenario where the Syrian Civil War could actually create two separate countries who would have a much harder time threatening Israel’s security with such little resources divided between the two “new” countries.

If it were to come close to the end, forcing the two sides to continue fighting would keep them from quickly rebuilding a decimated Syrian military that would be hostile to Israel. This deserves much more though. I leave it at here for now.

April 11, 2012

Syria’s Alawites: An Intro

by Gedalyah Reback

If you are trying to follow what’s happening in Syria, you’ve inevitably heard of the Alawites / the Alawis.  Bashar al-Assad is one of them, as is the rest of his family.  They are a religious group virtually unique to Syria, isolated to a few tribes along the Syrian coastline, living in the mountains.  They might number 2 million, but that’s only a fragment of Syria’s 22 million people.  It’s not quite the equivalent of a Jew becoming President of the United States in terms of numbers, but the chances of that happening you’d might have thought would have been a thousand times better after you hear their background.

There’s a lot of baggage that comes from their experience under the Ottoman Empire, but as of the 1920s they were living under French occupation.  They’d always had a tense time with their Muslim neighbors, but that didn’t make them automatic allies with the French.  They might have been the most anti-French of all the groups in the country, and the reasons are sort of complicated.  But as as the 20s and 30s rolled on, the community’s experience became interwoven with the rise of Arab nationalism.  The ideology promised equality among Arabs no matter their religious and no matter their tribe.  It had a massive appeal to Alawites, Druze and Shiite Muslims in Syria and Iraq, drawing a lot of minorities toward politics.

Politics

In Syria, the ideology was vibrant, and helped military recruitment.  Throughout the 40s and 50s, Alawites, Druze and Ismailis all disproportionately represented their groups in the army.  By the 1960s, these minorities were disproportionately powerful in the officers’ corps.  This was important politically, because Syria was going through a stream of military takeovers.  As governments fell, newer and newer leaders took control.  By 1970, Air Force Colonel Hafez al-Assad had enough support to make the effort himself.  He succeeded and named himself president of the country, eliminating rivals (even among his own Alawi kin) very quickly.  Until 2000, he ruled the country with an iron fist, leaving the country to his son Bashar when he died.  Things had been much less ruthless up until 2011, but that’s merely in body count.  Syrian human rights violations have been extremely prevalent.  Politically, he has also eliminated competition and allocated money and resources to Hezbollah and Hamas.

The Army

Today, the Syrian military is overepresented by the Alawite minority, but also has other minorities heavily involved.  Some estimates dare to guess as much as 70% of the military is Alawite, remarkable in a country where they are 12% of the population.  Their being the military elite is tremendously significant.

The ethnic tension between Alawites and Sunni Muslims (the majority), is absurdly high.  Most of the defections from the military have not been Alawite, but Sunni and maybe a few Shiites.  The opposition, specifically the “Free Syrian Army,” claims there are Alawite defections, but the evidence has been little and the speculation more prevalent.

The Minorities

Protesters, fugitives and the organized rebels have been fighting a PR war with the government in Damascus.  While Assad has made an effort to keep the wedge between his community and Sunnis alive, others have been trying to minimize it.  In the words of one protester, “It is a Syrian uprising against a dictator’s regime, and for that reason there are protesters from Alawite, Christian, Druze, Ismaili and other sects.”  So far, minority groups have not invested highly in the rebellion, so the most powerful men of Syria are still all in with the government.  As general a statement as that is, it is a fair intro or summary of the situation.

Just how many Alawites – or other minority Syrians for that matter – are defecting from the Syrian army?  There are ways of analyzing it, but for now I’ll leave you with that.

March 27, 2011

Syria’s Protests: Civil War? Peace with Israel?

by Gedalyah Reback

Syria
Captial: Damascus
Population: ~22,000,000; 70% Sunni Arab, large minorities of Kurds, Christians, Druze and Alawite Muslims
President: Bashar al-Assad
Former President: Hafez al-Assad

__________

The revolutions that started in North Africa are creeping into Israel’s domain. The Levant – the eastern coastline of the Mediterranean Ocean that is home to Israel, the Palestinian territories, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan – is reacting differently to the wave of uprisings than have countries like Egypt and Tunisia.

What separates this area from those two countries is something subtle – diversity. Jordan’s politics are plagued by the division between ethnic bedouin tribes and descendants of Palestinian refugees and immigrants. Lebanon’s divisions are accentuated by the domination of Shiite Hezbollah, plus Christian and Druze communities. Israel wonders what directions things could go with its own Druze, Bedouin and Palestinian sectors. Palestinians are divided politically and have struggled to find a reason to protest – the involvement of the Israeli army, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas has complicated Palestinians’ thinking regarding against they should direct their protests.

But the protests in the West Bank, Gaza and Jordan are mildly jarring. The uprising in Syria is most serious. This will have serious implications for Israel – even more than the revolution in Egypt.

1982

The last time anything approaching these type of protests was in 1982, in Hama. The current Syrian president’s father massacred 10,000 people by shelling the town. Since then, the country has not had any significant opposition.

But 1982 was very different. The struggle between the state and the Islamists was sectarian. This year’s protests are about social freedoms and opposition to authoritarian government – the general theme of the Arab uprisings. Authoritarianism was the central theme then as well, but it carried with it sectarian implications.

The Syrian regime is dominated by one ethno-religious group in particular, the Alawites. This offshoot of Shiite Islam has classically been considered beyond the pale by most Sunni and Shiite Muslims, and outright heresy among today’s many fundamentalist groups.

Alawites had long been oppressed by the Sunni majority in Syria. When in 1970, a young air force officer named Hafez al-Assad toppled the Syrian government, he saturated his regime with Alawite officials, essentially guaranteeing a loyal support system of fellow Alawites eager to avoid letting militant Sunnis oppress their community. In 1973 Assad tried to impose a new constitution on the country with one essential change – the president would no longer have to be Muslim. This and other aspects of the constitution caused major protests.

The Muslim Brotherhood launched a campaign of terrorism against the government in 1976. Its tactics against the regime included assassinating major Alawite politicians and Alawite recruits to the Syrian army. This added to the urgency for the Syrian government.

The Alawites and Shiites

The constitution protests motivated Assad to reach out to the most popular figure in Shiite Islam at the time: Musa al-Sadr. Originally Iranian, he is related to Muqtada al-Sadr of Iraq (the anti-American cleric behind much of the sectarian violence since the American invasion). Musa al-Sadr had moved to Lebanon and founded the Shiite party Amal, whose militia preceded the rise of Hezbollah. He recognized the group as members of his sect. The regime in Iran, including Ayatollah Khomeini, have continued to support that understanding. Despite the clash between Sunnis and Shiites in today’s antagonistic Muslim world, this status is enough to keep political opponents at bay. When Syria reached out to the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979, it both broke its isolation in the Arab world and reinforced its attachment to Shiite Islam.

American Strategy: Break the Alliance

Over the past several years, American strategists have talked openly of pulling the Syrian government away from its alliance with Iran. The idea has been to make a peace deal with Israel conditional on Syria severing diplomatic relations with the Iranians, whereby they would receive the Golan Heights and the United States would end sanctions against Damascus.

This approach is incredibly naive. The Syrian government is too well-entrenched with the Iranian government to ever sever that alliance. Just as much as Iran has seen Syria as a gateway to the Arab world whenever it is isolated, Syria has used its relationship with Iran as leverage to keep that bridge open – ending its own isolation in the Arab world.

The religion issue makes that alliance all the more important. Breaking ties with Tehran would endanger the regime. Iran would openly denounce any attempt to associate Alawites with Shiite Islam, ending the protection provided by al-Sadr in 1974. Just as severe, Damascus would lose its alliance with Hezbollah in Lebanon, reducing Syrian influence there. Breaking the Syrian-Iranian alliance means breaking the Alawite-Shiite alliance, and that’s a major endeavor for the Assads who fear what would happen to their community.

Latakia and the regime Splitting

Alawites historically have centered along the Syrian coast near the city and within the province of Latakia. I have heard the idea in the past from professors that if the regime lost its grip on power, it could relocate to this city and consolidate its power there. That could effectively split Syria, into at least two pieces, and instigate a civil war between the much better armed, Alawite-led Syrian army and whatever rebels were fighting it.

This scenario seems more feasible considering it is what just happened in Libya, but there is of yet no indication there would be mass splits in the Syrian army and mass defections of units or government ministers.

All of this is background to however events in Syria develop.

In Relation to Israel

It seems this will undermine the confidence of any American advisor or politician who wants Israel and Syria to sign a treaty. If the regime is not popular and especially if it is weaker, there will be less pressure on Israel to trade back the Golan Heights. That is, at least for now.

But I would suggest another point: If the regime in Syria falls, a peace treaty could become more likely if there is a strategic calculation on the part of Israel it could make peace with a new government in Syria that is enjoying popularity and would otherwise be more aggressive toward Israel. That is not guaranteed, but a possibility.

That contrasts with the impossibility that Israel would sign a treaty with a weakened Syrian government under Bashar al-Assad. If he remains in power, he will either have crushed a rebellion in a way similar to his father and become more isolated (allowing Israel to avoid American pressure to reenter negotiations), or he will have a weaker grip on power and Israel’s entire political establishment will feel uncomfortable making an agreement with a weak government.

March 27, 2011

Middle East Realignment: Syria and the Potential for Civil War

by Gedalyah Reback

Syria
Captial: Damascus
Population: ~22,000,000; 70% Sunni Arab, large minorities of Kurds, Christians, Druze and Alawite Muslims
__________

The revolutions that started in North Africa are creeping into Israel’s domain. The Levant – the eastern coastline of the Mediterranean Ocean that is home to Israel, the Palestinian territories, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan – is reacting differently to the wave of uprisings than have countries like Egypt and Tunisia.

What separates this area from those two countries is something subtle – diversity. Jordan’s politics are plagued by the division between ethnic bedouin tribes and descendants of Palestinian refugees and immigrants. Lebanon’s divisions are accentuated by the domination of Shiite Hezbollah, plus Christian and Druze communities. Israel wonders what directions things could go with its own Druze, Bedouin and Palestinian sectors. Palestinians are divided politically and have struggled to find a reason to protest – the involvement of the Israeli army, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas has complicated Palestinians’ thinking regarding against they should direct their protests.

But the protests in the West Bank, Gaza and Jordan are mildly jarring. The uprising in Syria is most serious. The last time anything approaching these type of protests was in 1982, in Hama. The current Syrian president’s father massacred 10,000 people by shelling the town. Since then, the country has not had any significant opposition.

But 1982 was very different – a climax to a six-year-long insurgency by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. Additionally, the struggle between the state and the Islamists was sectarian. The Syrian regime is dominated by one ethnoreligious group in particular, the Alawites. This offshoot of Shiite Islam has classically been considered beyond the pale by most Sunni and Shiite Muslims, and outright heresy among today’s many fundamentalist groups.

Alawites had long been oppressed by the Sunni majority in Syria, which made the rise of Hafez al-Assad a dramatic turn of fortunes. He saturated his regime with Alawite officials, essentially guaranteeing a loyal support system of fellow Alawites eager to avoid letting militant Sunnis take control of the government. The Muslim Brotherhood’s tactics against the regime included assassinating major Alawite politicians and Alawite recruits to the Syrian army. This added to the urgency for the Syrian government: deciding to devastate Hama despite heavy civilian casualties was much easier when considering the danger the Alawite community could face if the Muslim Brotherhood took over the country.

The Alawites and Shiites

The Alawite identity of the Syrian elite still plays significantly in the way it makes decisions.

Hafez al-Assad’s rise to power in 1970 clashed openly with the Syrian constitution that required the president to be a Muslim. But a 1974 declaration by the late Shiite authority living in Lebanon, Musa al-Sadr, recognized the group as members of his sect. The regime in Iran, including Ayatollah Khomeini, have continued to support that understanding. Despite the clash between Sunnis and Shiites in today’s antagonistic Muslim world, this status is enough to keep political opponents at bay.

When Syria reached out to the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979, it both broke its isolation in the Arab world and reinforced its attachment to Shiite Islam.

American Strategy: Break the Alliance

Over the past several years, American strategists have talked openly of pulling the Syrian government away from its alliance with Iran. The idea has been to make a peace deal with Israel conditional on Syria severing diplomatic relations with the Iranians, whereby they would receive the Golan Heights and the United States would end sanctions against Damascus.

This approach is incredibly naive. The Syrian government is too well-entrenched with the Iranian government to ever sever that alliance. Just as much as Iran has seen Syria as a gateway to the Arab world whenever it is isolated, Syria has used its relationship with Iran as leverage to keep that bridge open – ending its own isolation in the Arab world.

The religion issue makes that alliance all the more important. Breaking ties with Tehran would endanger the regime. Iran would openly denounce any attempt to associate Alawites with Shiite Islam, ending the protection provided by al-Sadr in 1974. Just as severe, Damascus would lose its alliance with Hezbollah in Lebanon, reducing Syrian influence there.

Latakia and the regime Splitting

Alawites historically have centered along the Syrian coast near the city and within the province of Latakia. I have heard the idea in the past from professors that if the regime lost its grip on power, it could relocate to this city and consolidate its power there. That could effectively split Syria, into at least two pieces, and instigate a civil war between the much better armed, Alawite-led Syrian army and whatever rebels were fighting it.

This scenario seems more feasible considering it is what just happened in Libya, but there is of yet no indication there would be mass splits in the Syrian army and mass defections of units or government ministers.

All of this is background to however events in Syria develop.

In Relation to Israel

It seems this will undermine the confidence of any American advisor or politician who wants Israel and Syria to sign a treaty. If the regime is not popular and especially if it is weaker, there will be less pressure on Israel to trade back the Golan Heights. That is, at least for now.

But I would suggest another point: If the regime in Syria falls, a peace treaty could become more likely if there is a strategic calculation on the part of Israel it could make peace with a new government in Syria that is enjoying popularity and would otherwise be more aggressive toward Israel. That is not guaranteed, but a possibility.

That contrasts with the impossibility that Israel would sign a treaty with a weakened Syrian government under Bashar al-Assad. If he remains in power, he will either have crushed a rebellion in a way similar to his father and become more isolated (allowing Israel to avoid American pressure to reenter negotiations), or he will have a weaker grip on power and Israel’s entire political establishment will feel uncomfortable making an agreement with a weak government.

February 8, 2011

Realingment in the Middle East

by Gedalyah Reback

Speaking from a perspective just before Shabbat here, with a week’s worth of headlines rattling around my brain, my instincts tell me this country, Israel, will simply need to continue punching above its own weight in the Middle East.


Along the Israeli-Egyptian Border.

No matter who takes over Egypt, things promise to get more difficult. But that can be limited. Everything gets better before it gets worse, but it does not have to stay that way. The truth is, Egyptians under a democratic regime would loathe the idea of going to war and would oppose an Islamic Brotherhood attempt to send the country into a collision course with Israel. Additionally, the party has to recover credibility it lost to years of being co-opted by the Mubarak regime.

Even so, Israel will have to prepare for the worst case scenario – the Muslim Brotherhood wielding absolute power, repealing the treaty between the two countries and arming Hamas. But the Muslim Brotherhood is not the only player in Cairo, and will have to deal with an emergent movement of opposition parties over the next few months. Iran’s proclamations Egypt is heading down the path of Islamic revolution is more rhetorical than actual. Besides, whatever gains made by the Muslim Brotherhood would be more than offset by new protests in Tehran itself, which seem to be inevitable.

Over the next few months, the Israeli government is going to have to redesign its foreign policy approach. Firstly, it should praise the revolution in Egypt, even if this causes fallout with Mubarak. In the same way Mubarak knows Israel cannot do a thing about anti-Semitic propaganda in state media, Mubarak has no choice for his own sake but to continue a strong embargo on Hamas and block arms shipments.

Over the next few years, the democratization of the Middle East, be it slow or quick, should be the cornerstone of an ideological foreign policy. It has to be. Without such support, Israel will not be able to shake an additional association with authoritarian regimes throughout the region. Simultaneously, democracy enables Israel to more easily lobby different constituencies in various countries seeking support for, at the least, treaties, and at the most, alliances. Minority groups in North Africa like the Berbers or Coptic Christians, the Kurds, Maronites and Druze of the Fertile Crescent, provide stark and realistic possible allies.

Most importantly, Israel will have to engage Egypt intimately and assertively. Congratulating Egyptians publicly for whatever achievements they obtain is a priority. Offers to protect a moderate and democratic government from the Saudis or Iranians should be made. Offers to mediate between Egypt and lower African countries (with whom Israel is growing closer to) give plenty of reason to maintain a balanced relationship.

A free media in Egypt may be the most important development. Even under Mubarak, as mentioned above, anti-Israel and anti-Semitic propaganda have been common. It was not so much out of undercutting the Israelis that such things were printed in Egyptian papers, but to feebly distract Egyptians from the slew of domestic issues they faced and displace any resentment they had toward the Mubarak regime.

Such simplistic thinking did not do justice to Egyptian wits, nor does this meager paragraph do justice to this topic. But Israel and Egypt are far from getting a definitive divorce. There is plenty of reason to think the relationship can actually be improved as so long as the Israeli government makes a persistent effort.


Tahrir Square on Friday, February 4, 2011 – “Day of Departure”

Any vocal support from Jerusalem now can go a long way in tripping up any Iranian designs to take advantage of the situation, poor more fuel on the fire and push the protest movement across the Iranian border.

March 30, 2010

Syria Will Never Break Away from Iran

by Gedalyah Reback

The opening American policy toward Syria is encouraging Syria to rebuff American requests to dissolve its regional alliances without worry of consequences from the United States. Warming relations with Syria is based on the idea that Damascus would break away from the Iranians and Hezbollah in return for American ties and a Golan-conceding peace agreement. The idea is naive and could force Israel to take unpopular action against Hezbollah or Syria sooner rather than later.

Deep Syrian-Iranian Ties

Syria is too well-entrenched with Iran to disengage. For years, Syria has depended heavily on Iranian security cooperation and diplomatic strength. Syria has long fallen out with other Arab powers, always on the outs with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq (that Syrian-Iraqi hostility has not ceased with the new government).

During the Iran-Iraq War, Syria supported the Iranian position in the Arab world, and even supported Tehran logistically. Occasionally, Syrian airspace was used to conduct bombing runs on bases in Western Iraq, a total affront to the massive Arab financial and logistical support given to Iraq during the war. Unfortunately, too many Middle Eastern experts view the alliance as a “marriage of convenience” to put it in the words of Scott Lasensky of the United States Institute of Peace. That view reflects an immediate reality of 1979, when an isolated Syria was itching to find new allies in the region and rushed to support Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution. But most importantly, this alliance is not simply diplomatic or strategic.

The Syrian regime is dominated by one ethnoreligious group in particular, Alawites. This offshoot of Islam has classically been considered beyond the pale by most Sunni and Shiite Muslims, and outright heresy among today’s many fundamentalist groups. Hafez al-Assad’s rise to power in 1970 clashed openly with the Syrian constitution that required the president to be a Muslim. But a 1974 declaration by the late Shiite authority living in Lebanon, Musa al-Sadr, recognized the group as members of his sect. The regime in Iran, including Ayatollah Khomeini, have continued to support that understanding. Despite the clash between Sunnis and Shiites in today’s antagonistic Muslim world, this status is enough to keep political opponents at bay.

But a political break with the regime in Tehran would also expose the Syrian regime’s social clout. The Muslim Brotherhood, emboldened by a break in the Iranian relationship and sudden reciprocal hostility from Hezbollah and Tehran, would be able to pressure the regime in Damascus.

A break would also deprive Syria of its arm inside Lebanon – Hezbollah. By abandoning Iran, Damascus would have abandoned the Islamic Revolution, a staple movement in the official ideology of Hezbollah. Hezbollah would begin to counter Syrian influence in Lebanon.

Syrian Control of Lebanon

In addition to this facet of Lebanon, Syria has managed to consolidate its hold on the country’s leadership since the implementation of the Obama Administration’s warming policies. Saad Hariri, who publicly accused Bashar al-Assad of orchestrating his father’s infamous assassination in 2005, has felt compelled to actually visit the Syrian president in Damascus. The same awkward, patronizing trip will soon be made by long-time Druze leader Walid Jumblatt. That visit is being propagated by Hezbollah.


Current Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri Meeting Syria’s Bashar al-Assad in Syria

After several high profile assassinations, including that of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s mentioned above, Hezbollah occupied large swathes of Beirut and forced the government to invite militia to have ministers in the cabinet. Jumblatt’s visit is likely to include a stark warning from Assad about his political position and physical safety. As Jumblatt alleged that Assad had threatened to “break Lebanon” in his and the elder Hariri’s presence in August 2004, the Syrian dictator is not averse at all to threats.

These developments from furiously anti-Syrian politicians deviates from Hilary Clinton’s pledge last year the US “will never make any deal with Syria that sells out Lebanon and the Lebanese people.” US policies are implicitly making that declaration heartless.

What the Obama Administration is doing is compelling an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and the Golan while simultaneously strengthening Syria’s stranglehold on Lebanon, in return for a hardly timid alliance with Tehran.

The best course of action is to continue tightening the screws on Damascus. The Syrian regime is hardly a buoy of importance to the “Arab street” or “Muslim world” for whom he is so desperately seeking to enhance his credibility. The administration’s policies have emboldened Syria to strengthen its ties with Iran and Hezbollah, in spite of the announcement of a new ambassador and continued public urging by Hilary Clinton to cut off arms shipments to Hezbollah and roll back ties with Iran.

Hindsight and Foresight

After Syrian withdrew from Lebanon, the country was euphoric and Hezbollah’s political position substantially weakened. In the wake of the emboldened new government’s pressure on the militia to give up its weapons, Hezbollah capitalized on Operation Summer Rains to coax Israel into a war on its northern front. It gave Hezbollah fodder to use politically and a pretext to assert itself against the government in Beirut. With the US alleviating pressure on Syria, the country has slipped from the Western orbit.

Continued threats against Lebanese politicians, arrest of Kurdish and human rights activists, and shipping of weapons to Hezbollah do not warrant a new ambassador for Damascus and will not persuade Syria in anyway to end its military alliance with Iran and Hezbollah. The administration would be better off isolating Iran’s economy and pressure Syria in the way the Bush Administration did in the early 2000s, lest an emboldened Syria wreak havoc on Lebanon’s political echelon an instigate a new war between Israel and Hezbollah.

Joshua Reback has a BA in Middle Eastern Studies from Rutgers University

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