x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 12 December 2017

Colonial threads combine to strangle a sectarian Syria

Four decades of dictatorship have perverted the unified nationalism that Syrians once displayed.

Twenty-five years ago, I travelled by land through what geographers called Greater Syria to write a book. I began in Alexandretta, the seaside northern province that France ceded to Turkey in 1939, on my way south through modern Syria to Lebanon. From there, my intended route went through Israel and Jordan. My destination was Aqaba, the first Turkish citadel of Greater Syria to surrender to the Arab revolt and Lawrence of Arabia in 1917. For various reasons, my journey was curtailed in Beirut in June 1987. (I returned to complete the trip and a second book in 2002.)

The ramble on foot and by bus and taxi gave me time to savour Syria in a way I couldn't as a journalist confronting daily deadlines. People loved to talk, linger over coffee and tea, play cards, and complain. One of the more interesting critics of President Hafez Al Assad's then 17-year-old Baathist regime was Hafiz Jemalli. Dr Jemalli, a distinguished statesman and diplomat then in his 80s, had been a founder of the Baath Party. By 1987, he belonged to Syria's silent opposition.

"Everyone is afraid," he told me then. "I accepted to be a minister. Why? Because, if not, they put me in prison. Nobody has the courage to tell our president there is something wrong. Our president believes he is an inspired person, with some special relationship with God. If he is inspired, nothing is wrong. If there is some crisis, it is a plot, of Israel or America, but nothing to do with him, because he is inspired."

Many of the civilian members of the Baath Party, whose founders claimed to believe in secularism and democracy, deserted its ranks when the party took power in 1963. They rejected the militarisation of the party, which kept power, not through elections - but by force of the arms of its members within the army. Among them was the father of Rulla Rouqbi, whom I met a few weeks ago at the hotel she manages in Damascus. Faissal Rouqbi had died a month earlier, which explained why the attractive 54-year-old was dressed in black. A vigorous supporter of the revolution that began in Syria last year, she believes hers is the same struggle her father waged against one-party military rule.

"I was questioned twice by the security forces," she told me in the hotel's coffee shop, which looks onto a busy downtown street. "They did it just to show me they know what I am doing and they are here." She said that, because young dissidents gathered in her coffee shop with their computers, the police cut the hotel's Wi-Fi connection. Nonetheless, several young people were there discussing the rebellion, much as their forefathers did in the old cafes of the souqs that the French destroyed to put down their revolts, over strong Turkish coffee or, now, newly fashionable espresso.

Ms Rouqbi detected a generational split in the conflict: "A lot of people here, nationalists of the old generation, are with the regime because they think it's against imperialism and the Zionist project." There was also an economic divide: "In Damascus, only the poor class is taking part. In Homs, all classes, all sects. It's really a revolution."

Her hotel had taken in 30 families who fled the fighting in Homs, which has become the main focus of the rebellion and of its suppression. From conversations with Homsi refugees, it became clear that another source of division was sectarian. Sunnis from Homs tended to flee from fear of army artillery and arrests, while Christians and Alawites sought shelter from Sunni fundamentalists who treat them as enemies and inferiors.

Back in 1987, Dr Jemalli told me, "When we resisted the French, we had to act as a unified people. Now we are divided. We are Muslim. We are Alawi. We are Druze. We are Christian. How did it happen? Syria in the 1940s was liberated from sectarianism, but now we are divided into sects. The army is now composed of Alawi officers. A majority of our army is a minority of our people. It comes only by chance?"

When France seized Syria in 1920 and divided it into four mini-states, most Sunnis and Christians were Arab nationalists opposed to French rule. They refused to serve in the Troupes Speciales du Levant that became the Syrian Army, so the French recruited impoverished Alawite peasants. The Alawite foothold in the armed forces was one legacy of that brutal 25 years of colonial rule. The Alawites, whose daughters were mistreated as household servants in Damascus until recently, helped the French to crush nationalist rebellions in the 1920s.

When the CIA sponsored the army coup that destroyed Syria's parliamentary democracy in 1949, the way was open for Alawite officers (whose survival over centuries of religious intolerance had required them to be master conspirators) to come to the fore in 1966.

The rebellion against tyranny is turning into a sectarian and class war that could destroy Syria for a generation and drive out those with the talent, education or money to thrive elsewhere. Neither side speaks of conciliation. The end game for both requires the destruction of the other. Foreign backers appear to encourage confrontation, when they should seek agreement to save Syria from the fate of its neighbours Lebanon and Iraq.

A glimmer of hope came from the former World Bank economist Nabil Sukkar. "The opposition is not going to retreat," he told me in Damascus. "The stalemate could last to 2014." Bashar Al Assad's term of office ends that year, when Dr Sukkar believes he could stand down without losing face or having his Alawite community punished.

He continued, "For [Kofi] Annan to succeed, there has to be compromise from both sides. The regime must stop killing, and the opposition must stop smuggling [arms]. And foreigners must stop sending arms. Then there can be a ceasefire and a transition government." However unlikely that seems today, it could work if Russia and Iran compel the regime and the US, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar push the opposition to achieve it. Otherwise, Syrian will fight Syrian - just as the Lebanese did - in what the respected Lebanese journalist Ghassan Tueini called "a war for the others".


Charles Glass is the author of several books on the Middle East, and a publisher under the London imprint Charles Glass Books. A new edition of his book Tribes with Flags: A Journey Curtailed is being published this year by Harper Collins