You are on page 1of 4

Islamic Fundamentalism versus Autocratic Secularism: On Syria

It took nearly nine years for the Iraq war to leave a hundred thousand dead and millions as refugees. In Syria it has barely taken two. With widespread massacres and war crimes being perpetrated by both sides decades old sectarian wounds have been opened and ethnoreligious grievances are being paid for in blood. What is clear to any informed observer is that the presence of cyclical retribution exacerbated and catalyzed by Syrias inherent socioeconomic and sectarian divides is leading to increased radicalization of both the regime supporters and the rebels, a process that has led both sides to view the conflict as a do-or-die, winner takes all fight for total victory or complete annihilation. Bashar Al-Assad inherited Syria and with it the structural problems that were just beginning to become apparent at the end of his fathers administration. Looking back at his reform efforts in January 2011 Al-Assad appeared confident. "Syria is stable. Why? Because you have to be very closely linked to the beliefs of the people. This is the core issue. When there is divergenceyou will have this vacuum that creates disturbances." He was right. Regression of a populations identity from nationalism to ethnocentrism and sectarianistic religion is a recipe which has borne bitter fruit many times throughout history. In hindsight we can see that Assads attempts at reform created conditions which allowed this transformation of identity to occur and enabled the civil war that has followed. As with most nations in the Middle East Syria was a Western imposition, creating a new state where one had never been before with little regard to centuries old tribal and ethnoreligious divisions. When the Baath Party took power in 1963 they united the multitude of disparate groups under the banner of pan-arabism, nationalism, socialism and, most crucially, secularism. The Alawite sect and the Al-Assad family in particular rose to rule with absolute power. Panarabism and an Alawite dominated military demanded massive defense spending while the consent of the populus to autocratic Baath rule was purchased with populist measures such as impressive employment progmams, social spending on initiatives like as school building and electrification, and large subsidies. But in attending so carefully to the working class Hafiz AlAssad erred in his neglect of the merchant class. Coupled with his suppression of religion in favor of Baathist secularism a wave of unrest broke out led by the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood. A harbinger of things to come, the religious uprising of 1979-82 was quelled through the liberal application of overwhelming force by Al-Assads Alawite dominated military. At the end of the twentieth century projections an economic slump led to a drive for economic modernization and liberalization, and defense and social spending fell accordingly. Bashar-Al Assad took power in 2000 amidst these first tentative steps towards neo-liberalism and with waves of renewed support. He portrayed himself as a reformer, as a moderate advocate of a

mixed social market economy, and as a leader who acted according to the will of the constituents. Nothing could be further from the truth. Economic reform in the young Assads mind referred to consolidation of autocratic power and a pivot of the economy from maintenance of consent through socialistic populism to free trade and capitalism. Assads military complex and social support networks were in decline, signalling his abandonment of his fathers Baathist ideology. But Bashar had nothing to replace it with save for vague and weak supplications for his people to retain their nationalism, even as neoliberal reforms and the destruction of native industries by influxes of cheap foreign goods showed that he had turned instead to globalistic capitalism. He replaced his constituency of the masses with a system of clientelism and patronage, refocusing his support network from the common man to the businessman. In 2005 Bashars pivot reached a climax, as he purged the old guard from the Baath Party Congress and replaced them with reform minded and pliable supporters. Neo-liberalism was advertised to the masses as a substitute for secular nationalism, but Syrias middle and lower classes refused to subscribe to the ideology that was wantonly cutting social spending and subsidies in the name of free enterprise. Instead, they found solace in returning to their ancient ethnoreligious affiliations. Bashars lack of attentiveness to the damage his actions caused led Burhan Ghalioun, a leading Syrian dissenter in exile, to write in 2004 that "Lack of reform is driving the renaissance of religion in an era of secularism." Assad continued his reforms by gutting the party from the ground up. He attacked unions that argued against his economic ideology through oppressive new legislation and by stripping them of funding. In 2010 he conducted another purge of Baath leadership, this time targeting middle management. The removal of agricultural subsidies and mismanaged planning policy led to a 2007-2010 drought and general agricultural downturn. Up to 500,000 Syrians were internally displaced due to the drought, and unemployment increased sharply to nearly 25%. More worrisome, youth unemployment soared to 75% The Syrian people were disenchanted with the leader who had promised beneficial reform and instead supplied an economic pivot that proved detrimental to all but Assads newly favored crony capitalists. Their nationalistic, pan -arabic, socialist ideology had been thrown out by the new administration, with ethnocentric sectarianism resurging to fill the vacuum of identity amongst the Syrian lower class. Alawite Shabiha gangs clashed with Ismaili as Kurdish Peshmerga skirmished with Sunni militias in the north. The Syrian civil war was not a tinderbox sparked by the Arab Spring, rather it was a flame which grew into an inferno as sectarian groups were emboldened by the success of their peers in countries such as Yemen and Libya. The foundation of the rebellion was to be found in the social groups that were previously appeased and marginalized by the Baath party systems of control: The working class and

organized Islam. The regime previously maintained the former through populism and the latter through secular nationalistic ideology and careful administration. The Assad family managed the appointment of Ulema and utilized a Ministry of Waqfs to keep a short leash on the faiths lands and funds. But the resurgence of religious fundamentalism over secularism led to Islam becoming the bedrock that the rebellion was to be founded upon. The prototypical protests against the regime took place in March of 2011 and were planned by members of the Omari Mosque in Dera. Heavy handed government responses led to bloodshed and open conflict, as the young Muslims of Syria took up arms against a government who had spent twenty years conducting unilateral reforms that left the Sunni working class marginalized and destitute and lent credence to concerns that the Assads had shifted Syria into a Dar al-Harb. As the protests and low level skirmishes escalated Assad realized that this uprising was much more than the small demonstrations led by the intellectual elite in 2001. That Damascus Spring was easily squelched with a series of arrests and a widespread intimidation campaign. This time, emboldened by the Arab Spring, his people had the opportunity to make the choice of joining with the Sunni Islamist led rebellion which offered only vague promises of liberty or doubling down and staying loyal to the devil they knew. Every minority group in Syria has either remained loyal to Bashar Al-Assad or claimed neutrality, denying their assistance to the rebels and effectively declaring support for the administration. But why? Syria is composed of a diverse and disparate number of ethno-religious minority sects, the largest of which is the Shia offshoot, the Alawites. They are pampered by Assads Alawite dominated administration and fear reprisals from their historic Sunni enemies were the Assad regime to fall. They have been relentlessly targeted by the radical rebel sects, with the infamous cannibalism incident in March of this year being commited by a Sunni member of the ostensibly secular Free Syrian Army against the corpse of an Alawi loyalist soldier. The next largest is the Christian minority, made up of Syriacs, Armenians, and ethnic Syrian members of the Orthodox Church. Both Human Rights Watch and Agenzia Fides have denounced the rebels treatment of Christians as ethnic cleansing. Biblical Christian landmarks and ancient religious relics are regularly destroyed or defaced by the rebels, and members of the clergy are regularly kidnapped or summarily executed. Estimates put over half of all Syrian Christians as internally displaced. The fierce Kurds who dot the north of Syria suffered persecution d uring the Baath years. But Al-Assad granted political concessions and has removed his military forces from Kurdish territory, granting them de-facto autonomy which has kept them from joining the rebels. To the contrary, Kurdish Peshmerga regularly skirmish with any rebel forces who enter their territory and have made advances, taking control of several towns previously held by rebels. The smallest groups of Druze, Turkmen, Palestinians and others are divided, with religious fundamentalists being welcomed into the Al-Qaeda sponsored ISIS rebel force and

secular regime supporters joining the Syrian Army or organizing into Shahiba militias to combat the rebels assymetrically. The ethnoreligious minority sects which make up nearly 45% of the Syrian populus largely support the regime out of a feeling of necessity. The 1979 Islamist uprising is not forgotten, and many see the current struggle as just another attempt by Sunni fundamentalists to establish a repressive theocracy in which other forms of religious expression would not be tolerated. Even after the jettisoning of Baathist pan-arabism and secularism the Assad regime kept the Sunni segments of the population on a leash through careful administration. Now that resurgent Sunnism is serving as a rallying cry of a large and foreign funded rebel movement it is apparent that the general consensus among the minorities is loyalty to Assads regime out of fear of the alternative. They are right to be fearful, as even the secular Free Syrian Army has committed heinous religiously inspired war crimes such as forcing captured Alawites to be used as suicide bombers, executing prisoners, and the mutilation of Christians and Kurds. The Al-Qaeda funded groups, principally the Al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, regularly force those of other faiths in rebel controlled areas to convert or face summary execution. The Assad familys reforms created the conditions necessary for the rise of a radical sectarian Islamist insurgency with the support of nearly half the nation. Syrias other half is a diverse assortment of ethnoreligious sects who fear ethnic cleansing and the imposition of a fundamentalist Sunni Theocracy which would have little tolerance for other faiths and an eye to make the minorities pay for enjoying decades of favor from the Alawite regime. Are they right to be fearful? Every day that the minority groups continue to support the regime, every day that they stay neutral in the conflict is another slight in the minds of the fundamentalist Sunni rebels who feel that their intifada is righteous and that their enemies are apostates. We have seen similar rebel groups before. And we have seen them victorious before. The sectarian radicals of the Taliban assumed control of Afghanistan for five years, driving the ethnoreligious minority groups of that nation to unify into the Northern Alliance in a desperate gamble to avoid being eliminated completely. As distasteful as the absolute rule of the Assad and Alawite clan may be its autocratic secularism is as of this moment the only viable alternative to the most likely result of an insurgent victory; a radical, fundamentalist Sunni Theocracy.