Speaking at the UN last week US Secretary of State Clinton declared, “It is time for the international community to . . . send a clear message of support to the people of Syria.” And after the failed Security Council vote vetoed by Russia and China, she reiterated that the world must “support the Syrian people’s right to have a better future.”
Mrs. Clinton speaks of the “Syrian people” as if it was a homogeneous national group. Her ignorance was further demonstrated when speaking to reporters on Sunday. “The international community has a duty to halt continuing bloodshed,” she said, “and promote a political transition that would see Mr. Assad step down.” Can she really believe Bashar al-Assad will simply agree to resign?
If one is to develop a coherent and attainable goal-oriented Syrian policy, one must first understand the various groupings and allegiances at play.
The “Syrian people” is a composite of religious and ethnic groups who have been historically opposed to one another. Sunni Muslims comprise two thirds of the population; 12% are Alawites; 9% are Kurds; 10% are various Christian sects; and the remaining groups include Druze, Turkmens and Circassians.
The Sunni majority includes the Muslim Brotherhood. The Sunni elite lost power to the Alawite dominated secular nationalist Syrian Ba’ath Party in a 1963 coup. This led to violent unrest which the Muslim Brotherhood later developed into open revolt.
In 1980, after a failed assassination attempt against President Hafez al-Assad, he came down on them hard. In 1982, the city of Hama, a Muslim Brotherhood stronghold, was destroyed by regular Syrian army forces, including tanks and artillery, killing an estimated 20,000 people. The revolt was quelled and the Alawite al-Assad family continued to rule.
But the dispute is far older. The Sunni majority view the Alawite minority as heretics. The Alawites, or Alawi as they called themselves because of their adherence to Ali (Mohammad’s cousin and son-in-law), were originally called by the Sunnis the “Nusayri” after the Shi’ite Ibn Nusayr in the 9th century, indicating their break with Islam. After 1920 and the onset of French rule in Syria, the persecuted Alawites ingratiated themselves to the new rulers.
The French encouraged the Alawites to join the French-commanded Syrian army and dominate the officer corps as a counterweight to the hostile Sunni majority. This set the stage for the Alawite dominance of the Ba’ath Party and the 1963 takeover of the Syrian government.
The Kurds comprise the majority of the Jazira province, and are affiliated with major Kurdish populations in neighboring Iran, Iraq, and Turkey. Historically, the Kurds once ruled their own land, known as Kurdistan, which included eastern Turkey, northern Iraq, northwestern Iran and northern Syria. Today, the Kurds are persecuted by the current ruling regimes in their respective countries.
It would behoove Mrs. Clinton and other world leaders to acknowledge the mosaic that is the “Syrian people”, so that the tumult that the country is facing now can be avoided in the future