Destroying a Nation
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Destroying a Nation

The Civil War in Syria

Nikolaos Van Dam

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eBook - ePub

Destroying a Nation

The Civil War in Syria

Nikolaos Van Dam

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About This Book

Following the Arab Spring, Syria descended into civil and sectarian conflict. It has since become a fractured warzone which operates as a breeding ground for new terrorist movements including ISIS as well as the root cause of the greatest refugee crisis in modern history. In this important book, former Special Envoy of the Netherlands to Syria, Nikolaos van Dam, explains the recent history of Syria, covering the growing disenchantment with the Asad regime, the chaos of civil war and the fractures which led to an immense amount of destruction in the refined social fabric of what used to be the Syrian nation. Through an in-depth examination, van Dam traces political developments within the Asad regime and the various opposition groups from the Arab Spring to the present day, and provides a deeper insight into the conflict and the possibilities and obstacles for reaching a political solution.

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1
A SYNOPSIS OF BA’THIST HISTORY BEFORE THE SYRIAN REVOLUTION (2011)
INTRODUCTION
This chapter is intended to help explain how it was possible for Syria to end up in the bloody sectarian-tinted Syrian War that started in 2011 after almost half a century of Ba’thist dictatorship. As will be seen, there are many similarities between the Syrian War that started in 2011, and earlier periods in which the Ba’th regime heavily repressed any opposition, particularly the Sunni Muslim opposition movements, such as the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, and the Islamist Mujahidin that split off from the Muslim Brotherhood. The scale of violence before and after the Syrian Revolution was very different, however. Whereas before the Syrian Revolution opposition movements and insurgencies were bloodily suppressed locally in cities like Hama, Homs, Aleppo and Damascus, after the revolution a greater part of the country was involved in the confrontation with the regime. Moreover, different from the pre-revolution period, after March 2011 the opposition movements started to receive political, financial and military aid from abroad, from countries that started to interfere in Syria’s internal affairs, giving the intra-Syrian war also the dimension of a violent war by proxy.
As far as the origins of the Syrian Revolution are concerned, much can be traced back to the power structure and composition of the regime, its dictatorship, its strong domination by people from the Alawi minority and their corruption, all combined with its incapability to introduce any substantial reforms. In order to better understand the Syrian Revolution, and the Syrian regime’s reaction to it, it is important to be aware of the history and background of the Syrian Ba’thist regime since its takeover of power in 1963.
THE BA’THIST REVOLUTION OF 8 MARCH 1963
On 8 March 1963, the Ba’thist military, under the leadership of the secret Military Committee, succeeded in taking over power by a military coup, along with the military of other groups, including Nasserists and Independent Unionists. Together they deposed the so-called ‘separatist regime’ that had ended the Syrian–Egyptian union on 28 September 1961, and had been dominated by a group of Sunni Damascene officers, who were now purged from the army.
It was an essential moment in Syrian Ba’thist history, decisive for the further power structure of the Ba’th regime for decades to come. After the coup, the number of minority officers greatly increased in strength at the expense of Sunnis.
A principal reason was that the Ba’thist military leaders involved in the coup had called up numerous officers and non-commissioned officers with whom they were related through family, tribal, extended family or regional ties, to swiftly consolidate their newly achieved power positions.1
Most of the military called up in this way had a minoritarian background, which is not surprising since most members of the secret Military Committee, who supervised the activities of the Ba’thist military organisation themselves, had a minority background, as has been noted above. This form of recruitment was later explained in a confidential internal document of the Ba’th Party’s Syrian Regional Command as follows:
The initial circumstances following the Revolution and its attendant difficulties urged the calling-up of a large number of reserve military (officers and non-commissioned officers), party members and supporters, to fill the gaps resulting from purges of the opponents and to consolidate and defend the Party’s position. This urgency made it impossible at the time to apply objective standards in the calling-up operation. Rather, friendship, family relationship and sometimes mere personal acquaintance were the basis [of admission], which led to the infiltration of a certain number of elements who were alien to the Party’s logic and points of departure. Once the difficult phase had been overcome, this issue was exploited as a weapon for slandering the intentions of some comrades and for casting doubts on them.2
The latter part of this quotation obviously referred to the accusations that some members of the Ba’thist Military Committee had, on sectarian grounds, packed the army with members of their own communities. According to the Syrian author Mahmud Sadiq (pseudonym) the representation of Alawis among the newly appointed officers was as high as 90 per cent. How extremely important the purges of 1963 turned out to be in the longer term can be concluded from the fact that the origins of a significant number of officers holding senior positions in the Syrian armed forces in the 1990s could still be traced to this batch.3
It is hardly surprising that Alawi officers played such an important role thereafter, because the highest positions in the Ba’thist Military Committee were occupied by Alawis, notably Muhammad ‘Umran, Salah Jadid and Hafiz al-Asad. Salah Jadid first became head of personnel in the army. From this position, he could build up a network of loyalists within the army. Afterwards, he was chief-of-staff of the Syrian army between August 1963 and September 1965, also a central position in this respect. Hafiz al-Asad became commander of the Syrian airforce. Muhammad ‘Umran, the eldest of the three, commanded the 70th Armoured Brigade, stationed south of Damascus, which was to be the backbone of the Ba’thist military organisation for some years to come.
The three Alawi leaders of the Military Committee played a paramount role in the Ba’thist transformation of the Syrian armed forces. They swiftly consolidated their newly achieved positions of power, thanks to their efficient organisation and planning and to all the military supporters who had been mobilised. Within a few months they succeeded in purging their most important Nasserist and Independent Unionist military opponents, who, once again, happened to be mainly Sunnis, whether coincidentally or not.
The climax of the Ba’thist power monopolisation came on 18 July 1963, when a group of predominantly Sunni Nasserist officers, led by Colonel Jasim ‘Alwan, staged an abortive coup. Most of the officers who bloodily suppressed this coup were of minoritarian backgrounds, and among them Alawis played the most prominent role. This had nothing to do with sectarianism, but was later exploited as such by Sunni political opponents of the Ba’th regime, who resented that there were so many minority members among the new rulers and therefore tried to give the impression that the purges of Sunni officers were primarily based on sectarian motives. In this way, they also tried to discredit and undermine the position of the Ba’th regime in the eyes of the Sunni majority of the population.
This was a pattern that was to repeat itself every time Sunni or non-Alawi officers were deposed and purged from the army by Alawi officers. Time and again, non-Alawi officers resented the prominent position of Alawi officers in the Syrian armed forces. They suspected and accused them of sectarianism, which it was not really at first, but was nevertheless perceived as such. The Ba’thist Alawi military leaders were fervent secularists, and therefore should not be expected to be sectarian motivated. But in order to achieve power, they had allowed many loyalists to enter the army ‘who were alien to the Party’s logic and points of departure’. These ‘loyalist’ people may, from their side, have been sectarian motivated, but to get rid of them was easier said than done, because the regime depended on them. Purges of Alawi officers came only later.
And, if the Ba’thist Alawi leaders might have been sectarian motivated, it was not in the sense of religion, but rather in the sense of ‘belonging to the Alawi community’.
From the Nasserist coup in July 1963 onwards, anti-Ba’thist publications started to appear, stressing the so-called sectarian character of the regime. Muta’ Safadi’s book Hizb al-Ba’th: Ma’sat al-Mawlid Ma’sat al-Nihayah (‘The Ba’th Party: The Tragedy of its Beginning and the Tragedy of its End’), published in 1965, was one of the first examples in this respect.4 As it turned out, the title was premature, because more than half a century later, the Ba’th regime was still in power. Nevertheless, Safadi’s book includes many interesting observations from the point of view of Sunnis who felt discriminated against by Alawis and other minority people, who apparently had brought the centuries-old dominance of Sunni Arabs to an end. Safadi saw this as a kind of ‘plot and conspiracy’. In a polemic way Safadi argued that the Ba’th Party was actually a ‘sectarian movement which had designs on supplanting the traditional order in which Sunnis were dominant’. About the religious minorities, with the Alawis placed first, followed by Druzes, Isma’ilis and Christians, Safadi wrote that they ‘were most ambitious to overthrow the order of traditional society in which Sunni–urban Muslims dominated’.5 This was indeed what later took shape. The Ba’th was not a sectarian movement, however, as alleged by Safadi (who had earlier also been a Ba’thist), but rather the opposite with its secular ideology; and the takeover of the Ba’th in 1963 was not a ‘sectarian plot’. More important, however, is that some Sunni observers nevertheless perceived it as such, thereby making it an inseparable part of political dynamics, whether justified or not.
Safadi, who himself was imprisoned after the abortive Nasserist coup of July 1963, wrote about his experiences in the al-Mazzah prison in Damascus in a way that reminds us of the situation more than half a century later, as it exists today:
All those who have been interrogated and submitted to torture, will remember the names of their Zabaniyah (‘angels who thrust the damned into hell’). They will also remember that the most violent torturers among them belonged to specific religious communities, and more than that: they carried out their torture and their shouting matches with sectarian methods. The hundreds of prisoners who were brought to the al-Mazzah prison after the 18th of July 1963, and I was one of them, are not able to forget the director of the prison; neither can they forget the tortures and interrogations to which they were subjected … and the cursing against their [Sunni] articles of faith with the most degrading words.
The prisoners who were aware of it understood the complotting measures [of creating discord between Sunnis and members of minorities]. They tried to withhold themselves from hating all Alawis, just because the director of the prison, or the leader of the torture department, or all his assistants were Alawis, who showed their being Alawis by insulting the beliefs of the punished [Sunni] prisoners.
Likewise, the prisoners tried to prevent themselves from hating Christians, because the most ferocious ‘executor of the law’ who was known in the al-Mazzah prison belonged to the Christian community. Likewise, two or three supervisors who tortured day and night were from the Druze community.6
Safadi’s description reflects a phenomenon that might be interpreted as a kind of revanchism of sectarian minorities against Sunnis, some of whom in the past had so often had a denigrating attitude towards those minorities. In the past, many minority members had often been in a subservient position vis-a-vis Sunnis who generally had had a superior position, although some individual people from minorities, like Christians, or people of Kurdish origin, had had a prominent political role in Syria as well; but before the Ba’th came to power they were not that many.
Although Safadi’s description dates from more than half a century ago, it still appears to be very similar to that of Syria’s prisons of today, albeit that the situation has drastically deteriorated during the period of the Syrian Revolution that started in 2011. The number of Alawi torturers must now be even higher, whereas the importance of other sectarian minorities has declined.
Leaving polemics aside, many of Safadi’s observations have turned out to be correct.7
MULUK AL-TAWA’IF (‘PETTY KINGS’)
After the Ba’thist military had purged the army of their most important non-Ba’thist rivals, they were left among one another and started an intra-Ba’thist struggle for power. Most of the leading Ba’thist rulers had formed their own groups of loyalist supporters, who to a great extent originated from their own sectarian communities and home regions. The army and intelligence (Mukhabarat) officers gradually started to form a new kind of class, enjoying all kinds of privileges, some even controlling parts of provinces or cities, or governmental institutions, in which nothing could be undertaken, except with their approval. In the words of Munif al-Razzaz, former Secretary General of the National Command of the Ba’th Party, it appeared as if the new regime adopted characteristics similar to those of the Andalusian ‘petty kings’ (muluk al-tawa’if ), with each ‘king possessing a piece of the state apparatus which he arbitrarily handled as he liked’.8
As the military Ba’thist organisation was still full of members who had been recruited on an opportunist basis, as described above, their military leaders were obliged to rely on these same people to a large extent, in order to maintain a strong position vis-a-vis Ba’thist rivals. It turned out that selective criteria had been used when dismissing a great number of Sunni officers after the coup of 1963, and that Sunnis were being discriminated against when applying for the Military Academy and other military training centres. Members of sectarian minorities were advantaged at various levels.
Some military units started to be composed of mainly one sectarian group, like the 70th Armoured Brigade, that almost exclusively consisted of Alawi military and was led by Alawi General Muhammad ‘Umran.
This phenomenon exists until the present day, and has even become stronger than it was half a century ago, due to continuous practices of co-optation and favouritism, also in the military academies.
There were also Sunni commanders, but they could do very little independently when they had to rely on crews that were mainly Alawi. The authority of these Sunni commanders over their Alawi crews could easily be brought to naught if Alawi officers serving in other armed units instructed their co-religionists not to carry out the orders of their Sunni superiors. Some Alawi officers exercised active control in this way over a far larger part of the Syrian armed forces than they were formally entitled to under the official military command structure.
Already as early as 1955 the chief of Syria’s Intelligence Bureau, Colonel ‘Abd al-Hamid Sarraj, ‘discovered to his surprise that no fewer than 55 per cent or so of the non-commissioned officers belonged to the “Alawi sect”’.9
THE POWER STRUGGLE AMONG THE ORIGINAL MEMBERS OF THE MILITARY COMMITTEE
The leading officers of the Ba’thist Military Committee started a struggle for power in which one after the other was expelled or eliminated, until only one leader was left, notably Alawi General Hafiz al-Asad, who after his coup of 16 November 1970 was to become Syria’s leader for the next 30 years.10
The Purge of Sunni Officers
The first member of the Military Committee to be expelled in 1965–6 was Alawi General Muhammad ‘Umran, who had been the eldest founding member. It had little to do with principles or ideology, but rather with power. ‘Umran was accused by the other members of the Military Committee of spreading the phenomenon of sectarianism in the armed forces. Not only Sunni officers accused him of this, but also his Alawi colleagues, Salah Jadid and Hafiz al-Asad. They, just like ‘Umran, depended largely on personal Alawi military supporters in order to be able to maintain their positions of power and they profited from sectarian, regional and tribal loyalties to strengthen their positions equally as well, but they were wise enough not to speak about this openly.
‘Umran, however, had openly declared that ‘the Fatimiyah should play their role’ (Inn al-Fatimiyah yajib an ta’kudh Dawraha), meaning that the Alawis, Druzes and Isma’ilis (being the so-called Fatimiyah) should play a key role against his most prominent rival at that time, the Sunni president and commander-in-chief of the armed forces, General Amin al-Hafiz and his Sunni supporters. ‘Umran’s open use of sectarianism as a weapon was to utterly fail, however, as a tactic.
Most Ba’thist officers did not want to tolerate the use of such overt sectarian-tinged declarations since, according to the secular Arab nationalist Ba’th ideology, Ba’thists should strive to banish sectarian, regional and tribal group feelings. In later periods of the power struggle among Ba’thist officers it was repeatedly proven that, in the final analysis, those who spoke openly in favour of strengthening the position of officers from their own religious community, as a result weakened their own positions rather than those of their opponents, who also reinforced their positions on a sectarian basis but did not openly speak about it. It was a clear case of ‘the pot calling the kettle black’.
It was taboo to speak about sectarianism, even though the Ba’thist military were fully aware that it was extensively exploited for practical reasons. Strong fiction was upheld side by side with a reality that was completely different, and officially denied.
Personal ambitions were among the most important reasons for the power struggle between ‘Umran and the other members of the Military Committee, headed now by Sunni President Amin al-Hafiz. ‘Umran’s overt exploitation of sectarian ties was not the main cause for his banishment by the other members, but was gratefully seized upon as an argument that could be used against him.
Munif al-Razzaz noted in this respect:
Having consolidated his bases within the army, [Alawi] Major-General Salah [Jadid] was wise enough not to bring up the weapon of sectarianism. He preferred to profit when his [Sunni] opponents brought it up, thus proving that from the point of view of the Party and of the nationalists, he was more sincere than t...

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