After the bloody killings on “Great Friday “ , the Syrian government has decided to violently nip these protests in the bud. In a heavy handed response reminiscent of Hafez Al-Assad’s brutal crackdown of the Hama uprising in 1982, government forces have entered the city of Dar’a.

Map picture

Though there are no definitive accounts, there are reports of at least 25  deaths. The government forces are reported to be using heavy artillery, light mortars and resorting to indiscriminate firing. The twitter is abuzz with reports of many innocent deaths.

An innocent girl killed in Daraa by the bullet of a government sniper

This is one of the defining moments of this Arab Spring. The revolution which started as a genuine outburst of public resentment against corrupt leaders has started to founder on the ground realities of Middle East realpolitik.

A regime which should have long perished by the weight of its own inefficiencies, is managing to ruthlessly repress popular aspirations and hold onto power by cleverly exploiting tribal dissensions and insecurities. On the other hand, a widely inclusive message which was supposed to be secular and democratic in nature has been hijacked by the fundamentalists painting this as a fight between the heretic and the believer.

In my opinion . Dar’a is fast turning into a battle ground between hardliners of Muslim Brotherhood and the Alawite security establishment. These religious tones of the revolution have crystallized the support of the Army and the otherwise anti-Assad and pro-democracy Alawites towards the Assad regime.

Although the Assad regime has not succeeded in markedly improving the lot of the average Alawi . it is widely perceived as a  safeguard against religious persecution by Sunni Muslims who consider the Alawis as heretics and have historically engaged in vigorous persecution.

The recent outbreak of protests in Dar’a and other towns of the Sunni heartland are widely considered in Syria to be a Muslim Brotherhood conspiracy to enforce a Sunni fundamentalist rule in Syria. In view of these events, the army whose officer cadre is largely Alawi has decided to support the regime in what it largely considers as an existential battle for survival.

This heavy handed response by the Alawite army brass has generated even more resentment among the  Sunni populace. There are unconfirmed reports about the refusal of the largely Sunni rank and file to obey orders to fire on coreligionists. Syria, it seems, is moving rapidly down a fast descending spiral of violence and religious acrimony.

This video purportedly shows Syrian soldiers executed for refusing to obey orders

This is deplorable. The Assad regime has done little good for the common Syrian, Alawi or Sunni . It should have gone long ago. But in in the middle east , the regressive politics of tribe, religion , and ethnicity have long propped up the most brutal tyrants even when they have bled their nations dry.

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Syria: Ethnic Questions

April 24, 2011

Syria has entered into a tailspin of political chaos. The Assad regime has brutally cracked down on the protests of “ Great Friday “ causing much bloodshed and a lot of resentment among the populace.

This brutal repression has been widely condemned by the world community. But what is missing in the misty eyed analysis of the Syrian revolution is a proper understanding of the sectarian nature of the revolt.

Syrian population is composed of various ethnicities and religions . The Sunni Arabs dominate the population but there are sizeable numbers of Alawites, Druze , Christians and Kurds.

This is a mainly Sunni revolt against the minority Alawites. The revolt has thus far been restricted to mainly Sunni towns and has found little or no resonance in the Alawite , Kurd or Druze areas of the country .

The below map is a map of the old French protectorate of Greater Syria. During those times the boundaries of the various governorates corresponded with ethnicities. The State of Damascus and the State of Aleppo were predominantly Sunni Arab whereas the Druze and the Alawite had their own separate provinces , the State of Jabal ad-Druze and the state of Alawites respectively.

And this is a map showing the location of the protests currently happening of Syria.

map_of_revolustion 15.04.2011

As is plainly visible , that most the blood is spilled in the area of the old provinces of State of Damascus,  the Sunni heartland of the country. This essentially Sunni nature of the revolt is bad tiding for a country like Syria. If the regime falls, there could be widespread jockeying for power between the various ethnic groups which might very quickly descend into strife or worse, civil war.

It would be wrong to see the various uprisings in the Arab world as identical uprisings of the disgruntled youth against corrupt leaders. These revolts had very different meanings in different places. In Syria , it is about a natural correction in a distorted power structure. A correction which is propelled by the vested interests of people who have very different aims than the idealistic youths of the Arab street.

 

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Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad is in trouble. Widespread  protests have engulfed the country and are spreading from city to city. The opposition has called for even bigger protest on Friday . These protesters who are fighting against the draconian regime , swear by their democratic credentials. But reality could be murkier , and  for India and the world , even dangerous.

The current Syrian regime has been reprehensibly tyrannical and guilty of severe human rights violations. But this regime has brought stability and peace to land which has been traditionally wrecked by violent conflict within the various sects and sub sects that inhabit these lands. In fact, present day Syria is a wholly artificial construct created out of colonial necessity .

The current regime ideologically inherits from the Baath party’s Arab socialist political movement and still professes the Baathist ideals of secularism and socialism . Although it exclusively has its power base among the minority Alawites, it also initially had a wide degree of support from the middle class progressive Arabs of Syria who wanted a progressive alternative to Islamic fundamentalism.

Much of that support base has been eroded , largely due to the Assad’s regimes clannish power structure , widespread corruption and most importantly due to its inability to provide the burgeoning young population with a political platform to voice its concerns. However, substantial as this erosion in public approval of Assad regime was ,it could not possibly explain the sudden eruption of such widespread protests . 

And I cannot possibly buy the arguments that these protests are largely spontaneous. That happens only in a democratic utopia. In real world, these protests have to be financed, organized and directed , even if loosely. And in societies like Syria, where there was never a vibrant political sphere , there is no expertise or initiative available with the common citizens to direct such protests.

So what or who could be behind these protests? Certainly not the Iranians who have a deep interest in ensuring the survival of the regime . Certainly not Hezbollah , who is a large recipient of tacit and material aid from the current regime and a staunch supporter of the regime.

And contrary to what the current Syrian government claims , it could not be the Israelis or the US . Israel would prefer to have a deal with a firmly in control Syrian despot than a fractious diplomatic government, And the United States also does not want to further murky the situation in Middle East.

It could be possibly the Lebanese 14th of March movement, but they don’t have the resources . nor the reach to create something of this magnitude.

Than it leaves only one another actor, the Muslim Brotherhood. They have the motive as well as the means to do so. Brutally suppressed by Bashar’s father Hafez-Al Assad, they hate the current regime not only for denying the Brotherhood of its legitimate role in Syrian politics. but also for being hated apostates.

The situation reminds me of the Iranian revolution of 1979. The revolution , started by students and communists, was soon hijacked by the religious right . Brutal suppression by the Shah has paradoxically helped in strengthening the organizational structure of the right wing fundamentalists by enforcing the espirit de corps . Not only that , the elimination of the first and second level leadership by the dreaded SAVAK, indirectly helped in splintering of the movement into tiny autonomous cells. These when activated were very hard to suppress because of their very distributed nature.

Could it be the case in Syria too ? If yes, then it is a frightening scenario. Frightening for me, frightening for India, and indeed frightening for the world.