The Syrian Conflict Is Not About Democracy

October 22, 2012

Mark Tomass, Harvard Extension instructor and former research fellow at the Harvard Center for Middle Eastern Studies, provides insight into the Syrian civil war and a suggested path ahead for US policy. Tomass was born and raised in the Assyrian Quarter of Aleppo, Syria. He lived through the Muslim Brother’s rebellion of 1979–82 and the Lebanese Civil War of 1975–90.

Mark Tomass writes about the Syrian conflictMany foreign policy advocates are dismayed by the lack of US leadership in establishing no-fly, no-drive zones along the Syrian borders with Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon. Along these lines army defectors and rebels could stage military operations to bring about the downfall of the Assad regime.

The truth about US support of Syrian rebels

The Obama administration has thus far provided political support to the Syrian rebels. But it has limited military aid to intelligence, training, and logistics.

The administration is betting this kind of qualified support will help overturn the regime. And the United States will appear to be on the side of victors.

Its real motive is to weaken Iran’s regional influence by a proxy war that would destroy its ally.

The Syrian rebellion is more antigovernment than prodemocracy

US support for the rebels and those who call for an interventionist US policy are under the illusion that the antigovernment rebellion is a prodemocracy one. But the rebels have no conception of freedom and democracy in the Western tradition. 

The spontaneous rebellion that aimed to topple the Syrian regime soon mutated into a sectarian civil war between two sects: Sunnis and Alawis. 

The Sunnis are represented by local fighters, international jihadists, and regional Sunni states, such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar.

The Alawis control the army and have grassroots support from secularists, heterodox Muslim sects, Christians, leftists, nationalists, and feminists.

Classified intelligence briefings have made Congress aware of this. Yet the administration, the republican presidential candidate, and the mainstream media still present a misleading picture to the US public.   

The conflict in Syria is not simply between a tyrant and his people. If that were the case, Assad would have been overthrown in a few weeks, like Ben Ali of Tunis and Mubarak of Egypt.

The sectarian character of the conflict

The advocates for military intervention underplay the sectarian character of the conflict. They claim that the Assad family fomented sectarian strife to convince members of their sect, the Alawis, that the fall of the regime would be catastrophic for Alawis.

But the Alawis needed no convincing. Their nonliteral reading of Islamic scriptures makes them susceptible to secular ideology. They are apostates in the eyes of the dominant Sunni orthodoxy. And apostasy in Islam is a capital offense.

Throughout history, the Alawis were subjected to campaigns of mass murder. The first religious judgment was issued against them in 1305 by a Damascus based Sunni religious scholar. The Sunni Ottoman state issued similar decrees in 1516 and 1820 to kill Alawi men, enslave their women and children, and loot their property.

When the Alawis were not being pursued, they were boycotted and ostracized. They lived for centuries in appalling conditions, often forced to give up their children into servitude to escape starvation.

After Syria’s independence from France, Alawis filled the ranks of the army and the emerging secular Baath party, whose ethos suited them as much as it did the rest of the persecuted heterodox Muslims and Christians who sought equality.

Democracy would mean majority rule, not constitutional democracy

The Alawis, rich and poor alike, understand that democracy in the Middle East implies majority rule rather than a constitutional democracy. They understand that under the pretense of democracy, Syria would gradually become like Saudi Arabia.

For them, giving up power implies the tyranny of the Sunni majority. Sunni religious authorities have shown for the past millennium that there is no place for freedom of thought and religious heterodoxy within Islam.

Indeed, the religious orthodoxy that emerged by the end of the Crusades was only sidelined after the 1966 Alawi officers’ coup that endorsed the more enlightened Sufi clerics among Sunni religious scholars. The latter focused on the universal values of Islam. They sought reconciliation with other sects and religions. 

The Alawis have two options

For those of us who grew up in the Middle East, the sectarian divide is a reality. Those who claim that Assad stirred up sectarianism either are ill-informed outsiders, who formed their image of Syria by reading politically correct discourse, or are in denial. 

Bear in mind that this secular authoritarian and arguably brutal Alawi regime granted religious freedom to all sects. It appointed the first woman vice president in the entire Muslim world. 

Convinced that the present rebellion is not a prodemocracy one, the Alawis have two options. They can continue to rule Syria to guarantee their security and thereby continue their repression of the rebellious Sunnis. Or they can rule their own territories in the Alawi Mountains and the Syrian coast, thereby provoking painful sectarian cleansing.

The second option would leave the rest of Syria in chaos, fighting to host the armed groups the West dreads (much like the Syrian regions currently under rebel control).  

A recommended US policy

A wise US policy toward the Syrian crisis would persuade its Turkish, Saudi, and Qatari allies to stop arming and recruiting international jihadists to fight a war that would further destabilize a volatile region.

Moreover, the United States should encourage the domestic opposition to negotiate a settlement with the regime that ensures a reasonable transition to a pluralistic and secular political system and saves what is left from pre-Abrahamic civilizations from imminent destruction.

Most importantly, it should cease emboldening the rebels by continuing to predict the demise of the regime, thereby causing more unnecessary bloodshed.   

Mark Tomass will teach The Economics of Financial Markets in January 2014. You might also be interested in the faculty insight videos Modern Islam and the West and Islamic Law.

John replied:

I suggest you visit Syria more often, or at the very least read about it every now and then. When you do you might discover that the Syrian dictator doesn't actually have that much support (not to the degree you're implying anyways) and more importantly that Bouthaina Shaaban is NOT vice president!

Mark Tomass replied:

1. While many are not fond of the Syrian president, the majority of Syrians including Sunni Muslims did not want the ongoing civil war to topple the regime. That is why Aleppo and Damascus did not participate in the demonstrations. The rebels marched into those cities from the countryside. While, the support for the regime from the parties I mentioned in my article is existential and a vote for the lesser evil. 2. It is Dr. Najah al-Attar who a vice president (shared with Farouq al-Shara), not Buthaina Shaban. Dr. Attar who assumed office in March 2006 is also the sister of a former head of the Muslim Brothers (1961-1980), Issam al-Attar. I suggest that you familiarize yourself with the Syrian leadership. You may want to read her biography in the following reference: 3. I visited my home city regularly to see my family until the rebels managed to close its airport and placed Aleppo under siege.

Rob replied:

Unfounded and biased and ignores the recent Syrian history prior to 1970. The so-called "Sunni" majority was ruling the country and no one has seen massacres against Alawis. This is not to say this was a perfect democracy but Syria had institutions and rule of law. The article also ignores the first six months of the revolution and the its predominantly pacific nature during that period. Slogans like "The Syrian are one people" and Friday named after Cheikh Saleh Al-Ali who is an Alawite who fought the French are just a few examples.

Mark Tomass replied:

1. Which part is unfounded? I have listed references in the commentary below on Nov 1. 2. Which part is biased? Powerful majorities often forget the fate of the minority. For instance, is the commentator aware that contemporary Turks are taught to deny that systematic mass murders were perpetrated by the Ottomans in the late 19th century and later by the Young Turks in the early twentieth century against its Christian subjects (otherwise known by their ethnic appellations as Armenians and Assyrians)? "Who speaks today of the extermination of the Armenians?" Hitler asked, just before his 1939 invasion of Poland and campaign of mass murders against the Slavic and Jewish people. See If the commentator were Syrian, he would know the extent to which the Alawis were despised even before officers from their rank had committed any violence against others. It is common knowledge that Alawi women served in slave-like conditions in feudal Sunni families. See the Alawis relations with the Sunnis in 3. We have to distinguish between civil disobedience and armed rebellion. Indeed, some of the initial anti-government protests were peaceful and non-sectarian, where individuals pro civil society participated, including Alawis, Druze, and Christians. However, that movement was quickly coopted by prevailing anti-Alawi religious sentiments and turned it into an armed inter-Muslim struggle between Sunni “faithful” and the Alawi “apostates.” I would not hesitate for a moment to condemn the violence used against peaceful demonstrators, assuming that they were perpetrated only by pro-regime thugs. I suspect that some of the appalling shooting of civilians were committed by the takfiri groups who had decided to violently topple the regime long before the Arab Spring shed its darkness over Syria. The aim was to inflame the public and provide easy recruits into their ranks, but I admit that I cannot prove this last claim now. I made my view on this point clear about almost a year ago.

Anonymous replied:

Please provide your reference that the Sunni Ottoman state issued decrees in 1516 and 1820 to kill Alawi men, enslave their women and children, and loot their property. What was the historical event of that times? When they issued this type of decree in Damascus, was it a a systematic issue on the state level or it was an individual action of one religious scholar ? regards,

Mark Tomass replied:

In response to another comentator below, I had listed two important references that answer your questions. Here they are again. For a list of other religious judgments against the Alawis, see “The Fatwas and the Nusayri/Alawis of Syria,” by Yvette Talhamy in Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 46, No. 2, 175–194, March 2010. For a list of massacres against the Alawis, see Tarikh al-Alawiyin by Muḥammad Amīn Ghalib al-Tawil. Al-Ladhiqīyah: Maṭbaat al-Taraqi, 1924. My conclusion is that the fatwas were solicited by the Ottoman state to justify actions against the Alawis and the Shias.

Howard Crane replied:

Excellent post. This is precisely on the on the mark. The Americans should realize that those who sow the winds will reap the whirlwinds. Whatever the shortcomings of the Baath (and without question there were and are many), they pale in comparison to what will follow if the Saudi sponsored "rebels" win. The Western media unfortunately paint a very black and white picture. In truth, there are many shades of gray here.

Anonymous replied:

History doesn't lie and even though one or two scholars advocated that the Alawi are none Muslims there was never one documented massacre against them in any part of Syria. However the Assad regime had committed multiple massacres over the years not mentioning what had been done in the last 18 months. GIVE me facts and forget about hypothesis because what I am watching every day and I what I witnessed is real and not a grandmother fairy tale . The Author is merely giving an excuse for all the killing that is happening on the ground now. A lame excuses might I say

Mark Tomass replied:

I wish the commentator were correct that only “one or two scholars advocated that the Alawis are non-Muslims” and that was the end of it. The persecution of the Alawis for apostasy started during the reign of the Mamluk Sultan al-Zahir Baybars (1260-77), who attempted to convert them to Sunni Islam. Then the religious judgment of Ibn Taymiyya followed in 1305 to rule that the Alawis’ “heresy is more severe than the Jews and Christians and even the Brahmans who worship idols. … There is no doubt that fighting these people and attacking them … is one of the greatest obligations. The rightful Umar and the rest of the companions began the holy war against the apostates before the war against the heretics of the People of the Book [Jews & Christians] because fighting them means defending Muslim land …” For a list of other religious judgments against the Alawis, see “The Fatwas and the Nusayri/Alawis of Syria,” by Yvette Talhamy in Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 46, No. 2, 175–194, March 2010. For the full English text of Ibn Taymiyya’s judgment, see The Nusayri-Alawis: An Introduction to the Religion, History and Identity of the Leading Minority in Syria by Yaron Friedman, Brill 2009. For a list of massacres against the Alawis, see Tarikh al-Alawiyin by Muḥammad Amīn Ghalib al-Tawil. Al-Ladhiqīyah: Maṭbaat al-Taraqi, 1924. That said, my essay is not to absolve crimes against humanity committed in Hama in 1982 or those that were committed by government forces during the on-going armed rebellion. My intention is to point out that people are not born evil; they are conditioned by their circumstances and education. The same explanation applies to the jihadis who blew themselves up in the midst of civilians and civilian infrastructure in Aleppo and elsewhere among Shiite pilgrims in Iraq, and the twin towers of New York.

Robin replied:

For a layman like myself, this article helped simplify the complexities of what is going on in Syria today. It is scary to think about the United States misplaced reliance on their belief that the genesis of the uprising is a desire for democracy.

Mark Tomass replied:

Robin, let me give you a current example of how news about the Syrian conflict are reported in the media. Two days ago, in the early morning of October 25, my niece’s family who resides in the predominantly Christian, New Assyrian Quarter of Aleppo informed me through a telephone conversation that armed men wearing al-Qaida’s insignia entered the quarter and fired indiscriminately on the buildings, killing three individuals. This attack occurred in the same place, where four days earlier, a suicide bomber detonated a vehicle next to the infrastructure of the Syrian Orthodox Church, which includes a hospital and a home for the elderly. Many terrified residents fled their homes. The assailants let the residents flee and occupied their buildings, which they used as sniper posts. The Syrian Army arrived six hours later and clashed with the group for three hours. Some of the latter were killed; others fled to the neighboring, predominantly Kurdish, al-Ashrafya Quarter. The New Assyrian Quarter is now quiet and residents were asked to return. Meanwhile, reputable Western news agencies, such as the BBC reported, “Syrian rebels advanced in a Christian and a Kurdish quarter of the city after the Syrian Army withdrew from them.” None of the news reports mentioned that the rebel group was an al-Qaida affiliated one, which is so closely operating with the “Free Syrian Army” to the extent that no one can tell which one belongs to whom. Do people really believe that such militant groups can bring democracy to Syria? Does the West want to repeat the same mistakes committed in Afghanistan in the 1980s?

DSMost replied:

Americans have been given the image of Alawites as the "evil minority" that controls Syria with Assad as its leader. Your more nuanced understanding of the whole situation has an uphill course to explain the complex reality that is Syria today. 

Mark Tomass replied:

You are right. Though my intention is not to whitewash Syria’s authoritarian system or its governing elite, the facts on the ground are more complex than the simple, dramatic, and grossly misleading story presented to the American public. Secular Syrians and women at large have a great deal to lose if the current regime collapses. Moreover, America will not find friends among the rebels, even if it decides to provide more aid to them than it currently does.

Dr. Charles Webel replied:

Of course I believe, in general, in negotiated settlements--wherever possible. But what, if any, indication is there that either Assad or the "resistance" would do so? Also, I'm not sure that a UN-Arab League-enforced "no-fly zone" is a bad idea, in lieu of other options. Are you?

Mark Tomass replied:

Dr. Webel, 1. As long as the rebels are supported and funded by the Saudis, Qataris, and Turks, they would not be willing to negotiate. At present, various groups have established their own “Islamic Emirates” in the countryside. For their leaders, that means fame, power, and employment. Why would they give those privileges up? 2. For a no-fly zone to be established, war would have to be declared on Syria to allow for aerial bombardment of its missile defense systems, airports, and to fly over the territories where the no-fly zone would be established. Would Turkey and Jordan take the risk of retaliation, and possibly with Chemical weapons, as the spokesman for the Syrian government warned? Moreover, should the US and NATO pilots sacrifice their lives to bring in an Islamist government to power, similar to that of Egypt and Tunis? Egypt's president has already vowed in a public speech to seek the establishment of al-sharia. Is that what US liberals want?

Anonymous replied:

This was a great article. I wonder if you might consider writing another one addressing in more detail how the rebels have shown that they are not interested in democracy, and their connection or lack thereof with the broad anti-Assad political coalition?

Mark Tomass replied:

An article focusing on the relationship between the rebels and the two political coalitions sponsored by the West is indeed due, especially since the leaders of the coalition sponsored by Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and France have openly defended the rebels main fighting force, the al-Qaida affiliated al-Nusra Front. Paradoxically, while France is fighting al-Qaida in Mali, it is hosting al-Qaida sympathizers in France.