Islamist fighters carry their flag during the funeral of their fellow fighter Tareq Naser, who died during clashes on Sunday, near the village of Fafeen in Aleppo

At the dawn of the New Year President Bashar al-Assad and his regime remain committed to pursuing a corrosively destructive sectarian survival strategy, one enjoying a critical assist from an increasingly radicalized and politically directionless armed opposition.  Left to their own devices – as both the West and Russia seemed inclined to leave them – the regime and its armed opponents seem poised to devote 2013 to putting Syria on an irreversible course to state failure and perpetual sectarian conflict.

When the president’s father, Hafez al-Assad, assumed power in 1970 he understood, with total clarity, the greatest potential internal threat to his rule: the rise of political alternatives within Syria’s Alawite community.  Without dismissing the seriousness of broadly based dissension among Sunni Arabs (accounting for two-thirds of Syria’s population), Assad the Elder knew that he had to be the undisputed political master of all Syrian Alawites (which make up 12 percent of the population) to survive. Alawite domination of the military was rooted in the practices of the French mandate and nurtured during the independence era by the social mobility needs of Syria’s poorest sectarian community. Alawite political fragmentation had imperiled Syria’s security between 1967 and 1970, spurring Assad’s coup d’etat. And the unity of the militarily adept Alawite community under the Assad family would amount to a political poison pill that could make the price of a hostile takeover prohibitive: the utter destruction of Syrian unity and downfall of the Syrian state.

insight hariri1 INSIGHT: Syria 2013   Will the Poison Pill of Sectarianism Work?Alone among Syria’s sectarian and ethnic communities, the Alawites have been denied the opportunity to produce multiple spokespeople. Christians, for example, have their bishops. Kurds have more than a dozen political parties. Yet although the corruption, incompetence, and brutality of the regime are surely known to Alawites, they have nothing but the Assad-Makhluf clan speaking and acting for them politically. And that clan has taken full advantage of the sectarian poison pill, a design of Hafez al-Assad more than 40 years ago.

By raising and unleashing shabiha auxiliaries (largely poor Alawite youth supplemented by active duty military personnel), the regime of Bashar al-Assad injected the poison pill into the national bloodstream.  By sending these gangs into Sunni Arab villages to murder, loot, and rape, the regime consciously sought three results: to terrorize its opponents into submission; to make the conflict explicitly sectarian in nature; and to implicate the very community into which its leaders were born (but from which they had long since seceded socially and economically) in the commission of grotesque, politically motivated criminal acts.

“[T]he Assad regime has hijacked the Alawite community and large components of other minorities, holding them hostage to the survival of rule by clan and clique.” – Frederic C. Hof, Atlantic Council Hariri Center

It appears that the regime is succeeding in two of the three outcomes sought by the induced ingestion of poison. Its various applications of terror – shabiha savagery, mass arrests, torture, and the indiscriminate bombardment of populated areas by aerial and artillery fire – have killed tens of thousands and forced hundreds of thousands more to abandon their homes. Those killed, maimed, and displaced by the regime have overwhelmingly been noncombatant civilians, people presumably under the constitutionally mandated protection of the president of the Republic. And yet terror has not (at least until now) worked tactically. Although no doubt there are millions of people in places like Aleppo and Homs who would be content to see the regime and the Free Syrian Army disappear simultaneously, leaving them in peace, the fact is that the armed opposition is not cowed and is increasingly capable.

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A member of the Free Syrian Army holds up a poster of former Syrian president, Hafez al-Assad, the father of current President Bashar al-Assad, whose defaced picture is seen hanging on a garbage bin in Aleppo, October 17, 2012. (Reuters)

If the terror component of the regime’s poison pill has failed its enthusiasts by not producing submission, the sectarian elements surely have not. The ascending profile of the Nusra Front, the persistent presence of bearded, slogan-chanting opposition “commanders” on cable TV stations widely viewed by Syrians, and the appointment of a moderate, tolerant, non-Muslim Brotherhood imam as the head of the new Syrian Opposition Council have played directly into the hands of the regime.

Assad and his cohort are, after all, eager to tell minorities (especially Alawites and Christians) that the current regime alone stands between them and a Sunni Arab successor that might choose among options ranging from explicit sectarian rule to the application of Islamic law to expulsion and slaughter.  The eagerness with which highly visible elements of the opposition have taken the regime’s sectarian bait suggests two possibilities: either that the 65-year evolution toward Syrian citizenship and national unity has been entirely illusory or Syria’s revolutionary leaders have given no thought to immunizing themselves and their followers against the inevitable implementation of a crudely provocative sectarian strategy by the regime. Put differently, did the poison pill surprise the opposition? Was it welcomed? Or was it simply seen as the way things are in a region where sect supposedly reigns supreme?

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Free Syrian Army fighters rest over tea in Aleppo December 29, 2012. (Reuters)

Some regime opponents insist that the pill has had little effect, and that the opposition (armed and not) remains overwhelmingly committed to a Syria of citizenship, one permitting no civil distinction among Sunni, Alawite, Christian, Kurd, Ismaili, Turkman, Druze, and so forth.  One hopes they are accurate and truthful, and not merely trying to appeal to the sensibilities of Americans who perhaps do not understand how the world really works (at least in Syria).  And yet how many members of Syrian minorities – fully one-third of the country’s population – accept these proffered reassurances?  Probably no more than a handful do. And why should they? What would weigh heavier on the brain of a non-Sunni Arab (or a Sunni Arab committed to secular governance): the occasional word about the primacy of citizenship, or the televised chanting of hirsute warriors and the exaltation by the Nusra Front in reaction to the fully justified (if ill-timed) U.S. designation of the group as terrorist?

In sum, the Assad regime has hijacked the Alawite community and large components of other minorities, holding them hostage to the survival of rule by clan and clique. This hijacking and hostage-taking has occurred in the context of a regime survival plan whose origins date back more than 40 years. The success of the plan – the effects of the poison pill – depends largely on the manner in which opponents of the regime react.

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A detained Syrian government soldier is seen at a military base north of Aleppo controlled by the Free Syrian Army, December 23, 2012. (Reuters)

If in the end Syria is nothing but a surviving fragment of its Ottoman predecessor – a collection of confessions that have coexisted only under the iron hand of a sultan – then the poison pill will likely be fatally irresistible.  If in the end Syria is really akin to Lebanon in terms of the supremacy of sectarian identification, it is finished.

Yet if 66 years of independence have produced anything resembling secular, civic citizenship overriding all other categorical distinctions, there is hope that the state-killing enterprise of a family regime can be defeated and a Syria of 23 million citizens saved. For this to happen, however, those who oppose the regime must apply antidotes to the poison pill with intelligence, discipline, and credibility.  Meanwhile, perhaps those occupying key positions within the regime will have second thoughts about a strategy whose targeting of innocents will surely wreck the country and for which they will be held personally accountable.

This post was originally published by the Atlantic Council’s Hariri Center for the Middle East.

The views expressed in this Insight are the author’s own and are not endorsed by Middle East Voices or Voice of America. If you’d like to share your opinion on this post, you may use our democratic commenting system below. If you are a Middle East expert or analyst associated with an established academic institution, think tank or non-governmental organization, we invite you to contribute your perspectives on events and issues about or relevant to the region. Please email us through our Contact page with a short proposal for an Insight post or send us a link to an existing post already published on your institutional blog.
 INSIGHT: Syria 2013   Will the Poison Pill of Sectarianism Work?

Frederic C. Hof

Frederic C. Hof is a senior fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council and the former Special Advisor for Transition in Syria at the US Department of State.

  • JKF2

    Mr. Hof, I think you are dreaming, as to the outcome of multi-ethnic states that fall apart via a bloody/genocidal civil war, it usually is just more bloodshed between supporters and opposition groups, especially when different ethnic groups are polarized. The civil war in Syria is one of the worse, we have seen in the the area, probably only Iraq is worse, and that one is far from over. You can see all over the world the likely outcome in Syria. Look at Africa, Europe, Asia for examples of what the end state will look like/be. Generally speaking, the bloodier the civil conflict, the bloodier the post conflict results are. Ex-Yugoslavia, is a good study case, there is a complete range of outcomes, based on the blood spilt, from Slovenia to FRY-Macedonia; similar cases are observed in the ex-USSRs. In Iraq, the post conflict ethnic wars continue. Many cases in Africa, same sit. etc. take your pick. The only hope to reduce the very negative outcome, in Syra, is/was? for a negotiated settlement and enforced, by Peace keeping forces from Muslim and Eastern European states?, stabilizing long transition like in Cyprus. Unfortunately, the negotiated settlement is becoming more and more a wishfull illusion with every passing day.