Eyal Offenbach gave another excellent lecture at AACI Netanya, this time on Assad’s Syria. In order to understand the current civil war and total destruction of Syria it is worthwhile knowing the historical context.
There was no such entity called Syria in Arab history, until it was invented by the French when they received the Mandate for Syria after WWI from the League of Nations, the precursor to the UN. They sought to protect the Christians and other minorities living along the coastal strip in the mountains, where they had retreated for protection from the Sunni Muslim majority. Thus, the French established Lebanon, which contains mainly Christians, Shia Muslims and Druse. But, not many are aware that the Alawite minority in Syria (12%) that have controlled Syria since 1970, once had their own small country or enclave in what is now the northwestern region of Syria around Latakia and in the adjoining mountains. It existed from 1929 – 1936, but it was abolished by Pres. Leon Blum of France and they were united with the rest of Syria.
At that time, the leaders of the Alawites wrote a letter to Blum pleading with him not to rejoin them with the Sunni Muslims, because they feared that they would be persecuted, as they had been throughout their history. In this letter they specifically stated that they feared being treated as the Jews were in Palestine. One of the signatories of this letter was Hafez Assad’s grandfather.
It is important to note that the Alawites are considered to be heretics to Islam, in that they consider Ali ibn Abu Talib, the son-in-law of the prophet Mohammed, to have been a God, something no actual Muslim could accept, not even the Shia. Their religion also contains elements of Christianity and they remain the lowest of the low for Sunni Muslims, because they originate from Islam but became infidels.
But, ironically their rejoining with Syria became the Alawites best move. They were excluded from almost every important sphere of life, since Syria was controlled from Damascus and Aleppo by the wealthy Sunni clans, they had few choices. What was open to them was to join the army, that they did in increasing numbers. So by the time Syria became independent of France in 1946 after WWII, Syria’s Armed forces contained 25% Alawites.
But, Syria was both unstable and backward. It went through 4 coups within the next years until 1963, when the Ba’ath (Renaissance) Party took over in a revolution. By this time the ideas of Arab national renaissance and socialism had taken hold in Syria as elsewhere and the most ardent supporters were as usual the minorities (just as the Jews gravitated towards socialism and communism in Europe). The Ba’ath Party was founded by a Christian (Michel Aflak in Lebanon) and was supported by the Alawites. After an internal power struggle, Hafez Assad, Commander of the Air Force, took over as President of Syria in 1970. He was the most ruthless of the bunch and by eliminating all his adversaries he assured stability to Syria for 30 years, although the country stagnated and there was little if any economic or technological development. But, he ensured that he had a very large army (700,000) and the most loyal troops were kept around Damascus to ensure the survival of the regime.
In 1982 there was an attempted uprising by the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood in Hama and in typical fashion Hafez Assad massacred about 20,000 of them. There were no more attempts. His succession was uncertain, because his brother Rifa’at turned out to be disloyal and was ousted, his oldest child was a daughter, his second child was a son who was retarded, so his third child Bashar was chosen by process of elimination. He never seemed appropriate for the job, he was a trained doctor specializing in ophthalmology, and spent a year practising in London.
But, being an Alawite, he knew what he had to do when he was selected as President of Syria in 2000 and became as ruthless as his father. When the crowds began to demonstrate in Syria as part of the so-called Arab Spring, later than elsewhere in the Arab world, Bashar Assad crushed them ruthlessly. This only led to even larger and more violent demonstrations, and so everything spun out of control, and all the barrel bombs in the world could not save the regime. He now controls only about 20% of Syria, and most of it is destroyed. But he hangs in there, supported by his allies the Russians and the Iranians and their proxy Hizbollah, the Shia militia from Lebanon.
Meanwhile Sunni armies have captured much of Syria, the Al Nusrah Front, that is pro-al-Qaeda, and Ahrar al-Sham and a large army named Jaish al-Fatah (Army of Conquest) has been supported by the Saudis and the Turks, as a Sunni backlash to the Assads. The Islamic State controlled a large swath of Syria, although its area is being reduced by the Kurdish Pesh Merga and the insurgents of the Democratic Opposition supported by the American and allied air forces. The war goes on, over half a million people have been killed, one third of the population is displaced, the situation is fluid and there is no end in sight.