At the dawn of the New Year President Bashar al-Assad and his regime remain committed to pursuing a corrosively destructive sectarian survival strategy, one enjoying a critical assist from an increasingly radicalized and politically directionless armed opposition. Left to their own devices—as both the West and Russia seemed inclined to leave them—the regime and its armed opponents seem poised to devote 2013 to putting Syria on an irreversible course to state failure and perpetual sectarian conflict.
When the president’s father, Hafiz al-Assad, assumed power in 1970 he understood, with total clarity, the greatest potential internal threat to his rule: the rise of political alternatives within Syria’s Alawite community. Without dismissing the seriousness of broadly based dissension among Sunni Arabs (accounting for two-thirds of Syria’s population), Assad the Elder knew that he had to be the undisputed political master of all Syrian Alawites (which make up 12 percent of the population) to survive. Alawite domination of the military was rooted in the practices of the French mandate and nurtured during the independence era by the social mobility needs of Syria’s poorest sectarian community. Alawite political fragmentation had imperiled Syria’s security between 1967 and 1970, spurring Assad’s coup d’etat. And the unity of the militarily adept Alawite community under the Assad family would amount to a political poison pill that could make the price of a hostile takeover prohibitive: the utter destruction of Syrian unity and downfall of the Syrian state.
Alone among Syria’s sectarian and ethnic communities, the Alawites have been denied the opportunity to produce multiple spokespeople. Christians, for example, have their bishops. Kurds have more than a dozen political parties. Yet although the corruption, incompetence, and brutality of the regime are surely known to Alawites, they have nothing but the Assad-Makhluf clan speaking and acting for them politically. And that clan has taken full advantage of the sectarian poison pill, a design of Hafiz al-Assad more than 40 years ago.
By raising and unleashing shabiha auxiliaries (largely poor Alawite youth supplemented by active duty military personnel), the regime of Bashar al-Assad injected the poison pill into the national bloodstream. By sending these gangs into Sunni Arab villages to murder, loot, and rape, the regime consciously sought three results: to terrorize its opponents into submission; to make the conflict explicitly sectarian in nature; and to implicate the very community into which its leaders were born (but from which they had long since seceded socially and economically) in the commission of grotesque, politically motivated criminal acts.
It appears that the regime is succeeding in two of the three outcomes sought by the induced ingestion of poison. Its various applications of terror—shabiha savagery, mass arrests, torture, and the indiscriminate bombardment of populated areas by aerial and artillery fire—have killed tens of thousands and forced hundreds of thousands more to abandon their homes. Those killed, maimed, and displaced by the regime have overwhelmingly been noncombatant civilians, people presumably under the constitutionally mandated protection of the president of the Republic. And yet terror has not (at least until now) worked tactically. Although no doubt there are millions of people in places like Aleppo and Homs who would be content to see the regime and the Free Syrian Army disappear simultaneously, leaving them in peace, the fact is that the armed opposition is not cowed and is increasingly capable.
If the terror component of the regime’s poison pill has failed its enthusiasts by not producing submission, the sectarian elements surely have not. The ascending profile of the Nusra Front, the persistent presence of bearded, slogan-chanting opposition “commanders” on cable TV stations widely viewed by Syrians, and the appointment of a moderate, tolerant, non-Muslim Brotherhood imam as the head of the new Syrian Opposition Council have played directly into the hands of the regime.
Assad and his cohort are, after all, eager to tell minorities (especially Alawites and Christians) that the current regime alone stands between them and a Sunni Arab successor that might choose among options ranging from explicit sectarian rule to the application of Islamic law to expulsion and slaughter. The eagerness with which highly visible elements of the opposition have taken the regime’s sectarian bait suggests two possibilities: either that the 65-year evolution toward Syrian citizenship and national unity has been entirely illusory or Syria’s revolutionary leaders have given no thought to immunizing themselves and their followers against the inevitable implementation of a crudely provocative sectarian strategy by the regime. Put differently, did the poison pill surprise the opposition? Was it welcomed? Or was it simply seen as the way things are in a region where sect supposedly reigns supreme?
Some regime opponents insist that the pill has had little effect, and that the opposition (armed and not) remains overwhelmingly committed to a Syria of citizenship, one permitting no civil distinction among Sunni, Alawite, Christian, Kurd, Ismaili, Turkman, Druze, and so forth. One hopes they are accurate and truthful, and not merely trying to appeal to the sensibilities of Americans who perhaps do not understand how the world really works (at least in Syria). And yet how many members of Syrian minorities—fully one-third of the country’s population—accept these proffered reassurances? Probably no more than a handful do. And why should they? What would weigh heavier on the brain of a non-Sunni Arab (or a Sunni Arab committed to secular governance): the occasional word about the primacy of citizenship, or the televised chanting of hirsute warriors and the exaltation by the Nusra Front in reaction to the fully justified (if ill-timed) US designation of the group as terrorist?
In sum, the Assad regime has hijacked the Alawite community and large components of other minorities, holding them hostage to the survival of rule by clan and clique. This hijacking and hostage-taking has occurred in the context of a regime survival plan whose origins date back more than 40 years. The success of the plan—the effects of the poison pill—depends largely on the manner in which opponents of the regime react.
If in the end Syria is nothing but a surviving fragment of its Ottoman predecessor—a collection of confessions that have coexisted only under the iron hand of a sultan—then the poison pill will likely be fatally irresistible. If in the end Syria is really akin to Lebanon in terms of the supremacy of sectarian identification, it is finished.
Yet if 66 years of independence have produced anything resembling secular, civic citizenship overriding all other categorical distinctions, there is hope that the state-killing enterprise of a family regime can be defeated and a Syria of 23 million citizens saved. For this to happen, however, those who oppose the regime must apply antidotes to the poison pill with intelligence, discipline, and credibility. Meanwhile, perhaps those occupying key positions within the regime will have second thoughts about a strategy whose targeting of innocents will surely wreck the country and for which they will be held personally accountable.
Frederic C. Hof is a senior fellow of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council and the former Special Advisor for Transition in Syria at the US Department of State.