At Large

Syria Backstory

If Assad is to be replaced, who will replace the Alawites?

By 12.14.12

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A definitive statement was made last week by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that any settlement of the conflict in Syria could not involve Bashar al-Assad. Nonetheless, it has to be acknowledged that the Assad family and its fellow Alawite clan members have been key for over forty years in holding together the always fractious Syrian community. Removing the extended Assad family and its heavily armed and militarized sect relatives would require the creation of an entirely new unifying structure.

There is in some quarters the mistaken belief that the Syria's Alawite minority has held a traditional power role in that country. The reality is this grouping contains only 10-12% of the population and owes its national political and military position primarily to the Baath Party connections and success of the most recent family patriarch, the late Hafez al-Assad, Bashar's father. Hafez rose from Syrian Air Force Intelligence to a key role in the military wing of the secular Baath Party.

The Alawite sect before the rise of Hafez al-Assad was disadvantaged not only politically, but also economically. Generally they were a poor people scraping a living from their mountainous region in northern Syria or working for rich Sunni landowners on the coast. A high number of Alawites became officers as a result of advancing in the ranks of the Syrian armed forces, which in the late sixties had grown in relationship to a Baath Party now strongly influenced, if not controlled, by the military. The high number of Alawites in the officer ranks gave them a new political advantage.

With an eye to strengthening the internal national structure, a particular effort was made initially, in spite of the minority Alawite dominance, to appoint Sunnis to leading positions. Alawite leadership originally was quite conscious of the dangers implicit in any political imbalance. The natural clannishness of the Alawites and the parallel suspicions of the Sunnis, however, tended to encourage conspiratorial notions on both sides. As a result, antagonism between both elements grew and persisted. The Sunni Islamist uprising in Hama in February 1982 was seen by the Assad government as an organized plot by the Syrian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood. The result was an all-out assault on the city by government forces, killing reportedly over 20,000 Sunni and establishing precedent for today's conflict.

The Alawites' religious differences with their Sunni countrymen are not as stark as some would suggest. The Alawites have pursued a moderate and non-aggressive interpretation of the Twelver Shia belief, though recently they have played the fellow-Shia card with the Iranians to whatever benefit they could gain. Of course the same manipulation has worked similarly in reverse. While these demographic factors remain predominant in discussion, the fact is that the kinship of Syria's Kurdish minority with their ethnic fraternity in Iraq and Turkey presents a cross-border allegiance and nationalist drive that without a strong central government in Damascus could alter the face of all three countries.

The Maronite Christian grouping of the powerful Franjieh clan of northern Lebanon has worked closely with its Alawite neighbors on the Syrian side of the border. A particular friendship exists with the extended Assad family. Thus it can be seen that future Syrian governance will have to take into consideration many subtle political and economic ties. The problem that exists now, however, is that the Alawite community is convinced it is faced with a possible return to its 1950s pre-Baathist life of exploitation by the Sunni majority.

Foreigners are generally unacquainted with the complex familial, clan and tribal relationships that so greatly influence Middle Eastern village life. The Assad family has been important in tribal life in the northern mountains of Syria since Bashar al-Assad's great-grandfather established his and his kinsmen as “protectors” of their village region. In modern times a split occurred between Hafez and his younger brother, Rifaat, the head of security affairs, that ended up with the latter fleeing to France, then England. This division could be an important factor in Syria's future should Rifaat's wing of the family wish to contest for Syria's leadership if and when President Bashar al-Assad departs.

This type of conflict within the Assad family ranks exists to a certain degree within the Alawite sect as a whole. But such complication pales in comparison to the divisions within the much larger and complex Sunni community. Hafez al-Assad was very attentive to rewarding key Sunni politicians and military officers. As a result there is a large cadre of former pro-Assad Sunni personalities capable of influencing any post-Assad period that outsiders might envision. In fact, most of the major Sunni leaders of today once held important roles in earlier Assad governments.

According to Jordanian official sources, the proliferation of weapons within the Syrian rebel groups present great danger for a peaceful evolution in any form of cessation of the civil war. Specifically it is expected that it will be especially difficult to disarm and demobilize the various local militias that have been formed. An additional question involves the future of Syria's existing armed forces – particularly the special security force of the Presidential Guard and the elite 4th Armored Division commanded by Bashar's brother, Maher al-Assad.

Iran will do its best to ensure its continued connection through Syria with Syria's Lebanese acolytes, Hezbollah. At the same time Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which have been stalwart in their assistance to the Sunni refugees and fighting groups, certainly will wish to have a major impact on a future democratically-responsive Syrian government. Once again the need for a strong central leadership will reward the best organized and strongest political cohort in the country. And who that is has just as much to do with the quality and character of its foreign allies as it has with the internal group's own composition. 

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.