Robin Yassin-Kassab

Regime Versus Alawis

with 9 comments

Amid debate with Joshua Landis in the comments section of the previous post, I wrote this:

Another point about sectarianism. Remember the fight bewtween Alawis and Ismailis some years ago in Masyaf (was it Masyaf?). There was a good piece about it on Syria Comment. Somebody at the time (perhaps Joshua) pointed out that the fight wouldn’t have reached the proportions it did if there had been respected civil society figures who could have knocked the young men’s heads together. But there weren’t any such figures, because any natural authority figure was perceived as a threat by the regime and had been removed. Masyaf is a microcosm of Syria.

Then a visitor called AK posted the following comment, which is very worth reading.

Syrians lived together even before the arrival of Al Assad family to power. Mind you, majority of Alawii are poorer now than forty years ago. You just need to visit any Alawii village (including Kurdaha) to establish that yourself..

To follow on from your comment Robin: in the eighties, the Muslim Brothers were threatening the peace of Latakia. One day, Alawii groups were walking toward Sunni streets aiming for revenge. They faced a group of Alawii Sheikhs that were protecting the Sunnis. This stopped the potential civil unrest in Latakia in its infancy; nothing happened afterward. This is a well known fact, you can ask about it..

What did the regime do for these Alawii Sheikhs in the years that followed? Well, Jamil Al Assad, brother of Hazez forced himself to be the head of the Alawii sheikhs and the Al Jaafari Association. He threatened and stopped anybody that refused. He even burned Alawii Mazarat to establish himself as the sole leader.

Robin, Al Assad family are not able to understand that anybody else except them could represent Alawii. The original deal was that Hafez is the political leader, Rafaat was the Army leader and Jamil was the spiritual leader. There was no economical leader. For this position they appointed Al Makhlouf family.

I feel sick of writing and talking about this, It is obvious to me so much that I don’t know where to start from and why educated people such as Joshua are struggling to understand. I advise anybody that struggles to understand how Syria is ruled to watch “The God Father”. Syria is not sectarian. It has been made sectarian so some people keep their chairs.

Al Shabi7a are originally the group of drug and money smugglers that worked with Al Assad family in Latakia. Mouhammed Al Assad (Sheik Al jabal) is one of their leaders, Fawaz Al Assad is another one. To be an Alawii is not a must to become a Shabeh, you just need to be loyal to the cause (smuggling) and the master. Iyad and Ihab Makhoulf used many Sunnis, Alawiis and Christians Shabi7a in the nineties to smuggle Damascene business men money to Lebanon and to steal Lebanese cars. Their network was discovered only when they stole Al Hrawai son’s car. Nowadays some of these Shabi7a thugs are coming from Al Skentouri and Al Slaybeh in Latakia. These are Sunni pockets. However, I believe that al Shabeha are the natural development of 40 years of the same ruling regime, the same as Salafis. Both of these groups are two faces of the same coin. They both came because of the regime!

The regime protects the minorities as long as they protect and defend it. The regime will use minorities to destabilize Syria long before they give up power.

I feel that our duty as intellectuals is to keep talking about national unity, to keep talking about the Syrian population as a whole. We must avoid talking about sectarianism even if we see it happening in front of our eyes. The regime is not an Alwaii regime, nobody can convince me of that. Bashar is married to Al Akhras family, this family was prohibited from entering Syria before the marriage. This family agreed to be part of the ruling group, and so many other people did. Bashar didn’t marry an Alawii because he wanted to give a message to the Sunni population, not because he was in love with Asmaa Al Akhras!

Loss aversion is very prominent these days. People are worried and afraid of change. For this change to happen, I think that the opposition leaders should assure minorities, they should make their agenda and themselves clear and publicly known. So many Alawiis hate the regime but they are worried that the majority will take revenge. Assure Alawiis and other minorities and you will see the difference.

What happened to our parents and relatives in the eighties doesn’t need to happen again. The regime is willing to do everything to have the support and the endorsement of the silent majority. Only when the majority of demonstrations continue to be unarmed, the silent majority will start supporting them.

There is one big difference between now and the eighties. The fear barrier is broken and no amount of killing will build it up again….

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

May 22, 2011 at 10:45 pm

Posted in Sectarianism, Syria

9 Responses

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  1. Did Iraqis not also live together in peace before occupation? When you talk about Syria historically, you need to include Lebanon too. Is it in the nature of the Lebanese and Iraqis to be sectarian and fight among each other? Of course not. Fact is all it takes is a few people to make things bad for everyone. Just look at Egypt’s recent events. You have to understand that just like in Lebanon, many countries have a vested interest in making Syria into a sectarian zone where they kill each other to weaken themselves. Today, there is proof that direct Saudi and UAE funding was used to sponsor Wahhabi operations targeting civilians in Pakistan. I don’t think I have to explain to you that they have been funding similar groups in Iraq and Lebanon as well. They will do the same in Syria. Syrians aren’t sectarian by nature, but when attacks become targeted against certain groups it is bound to create sectarian emotions and feelings, just like the terrorist Muslim Brotherhood did in the late 70s and 80s. If these terrorist groups today are left to their own ways, the Syrian people won’t be immune. All it takes is a few thousand people and that’s very easy to do, not to mention foreigners coming in, which is what we are already seeing today.


    May 23, 2011 at 7:27 am

  2. Murad – see the comments after the previous post, where I wrote: “Comparisons with Lebanon and Iraq are valid but should not be overemphasised. Shia were systematically discriminated against in Saddam’s Iraq in a way that Sunnis weren’t in Syria. Saddam was able to characterise the 91 uprising as Shia because the uprising – unlike Syria’s – was geograaphically limited. The people in the south saw Iraqi soldiers returning from Kuwait barefoot and semi-naked. People further north didn’t. Then the American dismantlement of the state opened the way for gangs and militias. This could happen in Syria if the regime decides that the entire state machinery must fall with it. Next, the final catalyst for civil war in Iraq was the contradictory responses of Sunni and Shia to foreign occupation. There isn’t going to be a foreign occupation in Syria.

    Lebanon’s war was always sectarian. At first it was a left/right thing, but the Muslims tended to be left and the Maronites tended to be right. Lebanon inherited a sectarian electoral system from the French, which poisoned everything.”

    I am worried about sectarian war, however. I wrote this to someone on facebook: “i am an enemy of sectarianism. i recognise the sectarian danger. it is clear to me that the regime’s policy of arming alawis, using the shabeeha to try to start sectarian fights, and falsely accusing the uprsing of being salafi is pulling the country inexorably towards civil war. if the regime had agreed to real reforms and genuine elections a month ago, the risk of sectarian war would have been close to zero. now it gets higher every day, with every bullet fired. i don’t know how many weeks or months we have left before the most desperate and angry people start taking revenge for the regime murders and torture. if you care about the future of armenians, christians, alawis, sunnis, agnostics and atheists you should be putting all the pressure you can on the regime and its supporters to stop this insanity.”

    Robin Yassin-Kassab

    May 23, 2011 at 10:48 am

  3. Elie Elhadj sends in this interesting essay on relations between Syria’s Christians, the regime and the Sunni majority.

    Why Syria’s Christians Should Not Support the Asad Regime

    By: Elie Elhadj

    At the Dormition of Our Lady Greek Catholic cathedral in Old Damascus, Father Elias Debii raises his hands to heaven and prays for divine protection for embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.[i] Bishop Philoxenos Mattias, a spokesman for the Syriac Orthodox Church said: “We are with the government and against these movements that oppose it”.[ii]

    Those among Syria’s Christian clerics and civic leaders who publicly support the Asad regime are short sighted. They are courting long-term disaster for themselves and their congregations. Why? Because, the Asad regime will not remain in power forever; it is immoral to support non-representative unjust rule; the Asad clan’s exploitation of Sunni Islam has emboldened Islamism and thwarted the development of secularism in Syria; and because scaremongering for blackmail legitimacy will not work forever. The following explains each reason.

    The Asad regime will not remain in power forever

    Since the March 8, 1963 military coup d’état against the democratically elected parliament and government of President Nazim al-Qudsi, an unelected minority of the Alawite Asad clan has been ruling Syria with an iron fist; notwithstanding, those seven uncontested referendums for the two Asad presidents.

    In addition to impoverishing Syria; despite billion of dollars in oil revenues[iii], the regime has committed horrific atrocities—extra-judicial killings of hundreds of Muslim Brothers detainees in the Palmyra prison in 1980, mass murder in 1982 of between 3,000 citizens, according to the regime’s apologists, and 38,000 [iv] in the city of Hama, let alone the torture of residents at the slightest suspicion and the disappearance of opponents. The killing of more than 1,000 demonstrators during the seven weeks since the March 26, 2011 popular uprising adds to the regime’s grim catalogue of human rights violations.[v]

    Such a system of governance is unsustainable. It cannot last forever. When the day of reckoning will come, the support that certain priests and civic leaders had given to the regime will place all Christians in danger.

    It cannot be predicted when the Asad regime might fall. However, should the demonstrations become larger and spread to downtown Damascus and Aleppo, the demonstrators could overwhelm the security forces; rendering a Hama or a Palmyra type atrocity impossible. If the demonstrations get bigger, more Sunni clerics would join the uprising. Ultimately, even the Sunni palace ulama could turn against their benefactor president.

    There is no love lost between Sunnis and Alawites on a religious level. Accommodation between the Asad regime and Sunni palace ulama is a matter of convenience. Orthodox Sunnis regard Alawites as heretics. Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328), condemned the Alawites as being more dangerous than the Christians, and encouraged Muslims to conduct jihad against them.[vi] Likewise, Alawites despise Sunnis. To Alawites, the howls of jackals that can be heard at night are the souls of Sunni Muslims calling their misguided co-religionists to prayer. [vii]

    If parts of the army, which is a conscripted institution, would refuse killing demonstrators or if the army would stand up to the republican guards and the intelligence brigades, then the regime might very well collapse.

    It is immoral to support non-representative unjust rule

    That leading priests of certain Syrian churches publicly support the Asad dictatorship does not reflect well on the sense of justice, morality, or benevolence of the priests. It is not very Christian for priests to abandon their duty to stand up to oppression, corruption, and injustice.

    There might be an argument in favour of tolerating an illegitimate dictatorship if the dictator were benevolent. But, Mr. Asad’s dictatorship is neither legitimate nor benevolent.
    For some priests and civic leaders to publicly embrace short-term convenience and abandon long-term security and defense of justice and human rights can be very expensive for the Christian community as a whole. Syria’s Sunni majority will forever remember Christians’ support of Mr. Asad’s misrule. A thousand years later, the memories of Christian and Alawite support of the Crusades are still vivid in the collective consciousness of Sunnis.

    The Asad clan’s exploitation of Sunni Islam emboldened Islamism and impeded the development of secularism in Syria

    Islamism has been gaining strength over the recent decades, thanks to the Asad clan’s strategy of exploiting Sunni Islam to prolong their hold on power.

    That the regime and its apologists and propagandists describe Mr. Asad’s rule as ”secular” is an exaggeration, if not false. The Asad regime is neither secular nor sincere in its promotion of the Sunni creed. Since their seizure of absolute power more than four decades ago, the Asad government did not secularize Syria in the slightest. Syria of 2011 is no less Islamic than Syria of 1963.

    Exploiting Sunni Islam, together with the excesses of the ruling elite, corruption, abuse of human rights, poverty, and unemployment have been driving increasing numbers of young men and women to extremism. The longer this situation continues, the more fertile the ground will become for Islamism to grow.

    Here is how the Asad dynasty has been impeding the development of secularism in Syria and exploiting Sunni Islam.

    Article 3.1 of the Syria constitution makes Islam the necessary religion of the president. Christians are barred from the country’s highest political office. Article 3.2 makes Islam as “a main source” of legislation.

    Seventh century Shari’a laws and courts are in force in personal status, family, and inheritance affairs (Christians follow their own archaic religious courts). Shari’a law is the antithesis of the liberal laws of the modern age. It denies women legal rights compared with Muslim men. It impinges on women’s human rights. Shari’a law reduces the status of women to that of chattel—a Muslim man can marry four wives, divorce any one of them without giving reason (with limited child custody rights, housing, or alimony), a Muslim woman is prohibited from marrying a non-Muslim man while the Muslim man is allowed to marry non-Muslim women, a woman cannot pass her nationality on to her foreign husband and children while the man can, “honour killing” of a woman by a male relative results in a light sentence for murder, and two women equal one man in legal testimony, witness, and inheritance. Such maltreatment of one half of Syria’s society is in spite of the regime’s energetic attempts to project an image of secularism, modernity, and equality between the genders.

    The Islamic curriculum in Syria’s elementary, middle, and high schools teaches Muslim Sunni Islam regardless of the Islamic sect to which they belong. The textbooks are discriminatory, divisive, and intolerant of non-Muslims.[viii]

    More mosques, bigger congregations, and more veiled women than ever before have become the order of the day in Syrian cities. To flaunt his Islamic credentials, President Bashar Asad even ordered a special rain prayer throughout Syria’s mosques performed on December 10, 2010 in order for God to send rain.

    Following the March 2011 violent demonstrations, Mr. Asad acted to gain support from the Sunni palace ulama and mollify the Sunni street. The popular Sunni cleric Muhammad Saiid al-Bouti praised Mr. Asad’s response to many of the requests submitted by a number of Sunni clerics. In his weekly religious program on April 5, 2011 on Syrian government television, Sheikh al-Bouti applauded Mr. Asad’s permission to allow niqab-wearing (black face cover) female teachers; transferred in July 2010 to desk duties[ix], to return to classrooms. Sheikh al-Bouti had attributed the drought in December 2010 to the transfer from classrooms of the niqab-wearing female teachers. Sheikh al-Bouti also praised Mr. Asad for the formation of the Sham Institute for Advanced Shari’a Studies and Research, and for the establishment of an Islamic satellite television station dedicated to proclaiming the message of true Islam.[x] Also, the first and only casino, which had enraged orthodox clerics when it opened on New Year’s Eve, was closed as well.[xi]

    Why exploit Islam and fight secularism?

    To rule Sunni dominated Syria, it would be helpful to the Asad clan to uphold the influence of Sunni Islam instead of wading in the muddy waters of Shari’a reform and secularization, even if that meant throwing the Baath Party’s constitution away.

    Islam is helpful to Muslim rulers. Not only in Syria, other Arab regimes (except Lebanon and Tunisia) exploit Islam to stay in power.[xii] Islam demands obedience of Muslims to the Muslim ruler.

    The Quran, the Prophetic Sunna, and opinions of famous jurists enjoin Muslims to obey the Muslim ruler blindly. In 4:59, the Quran orders: “Obey God and obey God’s messenger and obey those of authority among you.” Answering how a Muslim should react to a ruler who does not follow the true guidance, the Prophet reportedly said, according to Sahih Muslim: “He who obeys me obeys God; he who disobeys me, disobeys God. He who obeys the ruler, obeys me; he who disobeys the ruler, disobeys me.”[xiii] Abi Da’ud (d. 888) and Ibn Maja (d. 886) quote the Prophet as imploring Muslims to hear and obey the ruler, even if he were an Ethiopian slave.[xiv] Al-Bukhari (d. 870) quotes similar traditions.[xv] The palace ulama invoke one thousand year old opinions of famous jurists such as Al-Ghazali (1058-1111), Ibn Jama’a (1241-1333), and Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328). These men taught that the Muslim ruler must be obeyed blindly because even an unjust ruler is better than societal unrest.

    Syria’s palace ulama threaten the Muslim faithful with eternal damnation if they fail to obey Mr. Asad (waliy al-amr). In the hands of the Asad clan, Islam has become a psychological weapon supplementing a brutal security machine.

    Scaremongering for Blackmail legitimacy will not work forever

    That certain priests and civic leaders subscribe to unsubstantiated scaremongering regarding future Islamist/salafi persecution of Christians is unwise. Those in the Christian community who warn of the slaughter awaiting Christians if the Asad regime collapses fall for the regime’s Machiavellian practice of blackmail legitimacy. Neither historical precedence nor credible evidence today supports such scare tactics. Blackmail legitimacy, like the crying-wolf syndrome, does not work forever.

    Islamists/salafis who might harbor violent intentions against Christians are a tiny minority of Syria’s 23-million population. There are no accurate statistics or opinion polls to suggest otherwise. Syria’s Islamists/salafis are not representative of Syria’s Sunnis. The great majority of Syria’s Sunnis, around 75% of the population, are moderate Muslims who have lived rather harmoniously with their fellow Christians for centuries.

    During the first 15 years of independence and until the advent of the Asad clan, Syria’s Christians enjoyed peace and shared whatever prosperity was available at that time with the Sunni majority. The suggestion that Syria’s Sunnis would kill Syria’s Christians is malicious misinformation to divide and rule. The regime’s media, apologists, and propagandists who circulate such stories are wicked. Those who believe such tales are naive. Syria’s Christian minority’s best interest could not be separate from the interest of the Sunni majority.

    That the options to Syrians today are reduced to either accepting the current poor state of affairs or contend with an Islamist/salafi rule; even civil war, is blackmail used by the regime to perpetuate its monopoly on power and avoid genuine reform. That genuine reform is not an option does not bode well for the country. That President Asad insisted in his address to the parliament on March 30, 2011 that Syria’s protesters had been “duped” into damaging the nation on behalf of its enemies[xvi], and his infamous billionaire cousin, Rami Makhlouf, stated in an interview with The New York Times that, “Syria will fight protests till ‘the end’” spell danger to all Syrians.[xvii] Like a pressure cooker, the longer a dictatorship stays in power the more violent the end will be.

    Sunnis, like Christians, are threatened by Islamist/salafi ideology, violence, and seventh century way of life. While systematic long-term persecution of Christians by Sunnis will not happen in Syria, acts of revenge by extremist groups might occur during the chaotic days of a popular revolt against; not only Alawites and Christians, but also against non-Christian supporters of the Asad clan altogether.

    To spare Syria a potential catastrophe, Mr. Asad should institute a comprehensive and genuine political reforms, in particular; multi-party parliament and contested presidential elections. Scaremongering priests can help. They must desist from misinformation and hypocrisy. They ought to become honest to the teaching of their churches. They should defend legitimacy, justice, and the rule of law.

    Wise men and women; Alawites, Christians, and Sunnis must council the president and his immediate family that genuine reform; not cosmetic retouches, not the use of the tank, is the only way forward.

    Hafiz Asad and his son, Bashar, have saddled the Alawite community plus the regime’s supporting groups with a terrible burden, a potential disaster. The Asad family must understand that four decades of misrule are kifaya.

    Bashar Asad has a rare opportunity today to become the hero who saved Syria from a frightening future. Would he? Or, indeed, can he?

    [i] Middle East Online, Syria’s Christian against fall of Assad regime, May 4, 2011,


    [ii] The Telegraph, Syria: President Bashar al-Assad has a staunch friend in the Church, April 21, 2011
    [iii] Elie Elhadj, A Question of Oil Accounting, October 2010,


    [iv] Thomas Friedman, From Beirut to Jerusalem, (Harpers Collins Publishers, 1998, London) Chapter 4: “Hama Rules”.

    [v] Reuters reported Turkish Prime Minister Tayyep Erdogan stating that “more than 1,000 civilians had died in Syria’s upheaval”, Reuters, Syrian tanks shell towns with at least 19 killed, May 11, 2011,

    [vi] Patrick Seale, Asad, the Struggle for the Middle East (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1995), 10.

    [vii] The New York Review of Books, Storm Over Syria, by Malisa Ruthven, June 9, 2011,

    [viii] Elie Elhadj, Syria’s Islamic Textbooks: Politics, Intolerance, and Dogma, May 2011,

    [ix] Syria Today, No Place for the Niqab, August 2010,

    [x] Syria Steps, The Leadership responded positively to the demands of the men of religion, April 6, 2011,

    [xi] The New York Times, Syria Tries to Placate Sunnis and Kurds, April 6, 2011,
    [xii] Elhadj, To Prolong their Dictatorships, Arab Rulers Resort to the Islamic Creed, February 2010,


    [xiii] The Six Books Sahih Muslim, traditions 4746 to 4763, pp. 1007-1008 and traditions 4782 to 4793, pp. 1009-1010.

    [xiv] Ibid., Sunan Abi Da’ud, tradition 4607, p. 1561; and Sunan Ibn Maja, tradition 42, p. 2479.

    [xv] Ibid., Sahih al-Bukhari, traditions 7137 and 7142, p. 595.

    [xvi] The New York Times, Syria Offers Changes Before Renewed Protests, March 31, 2011,

    [xvii] The New York Times, Ally of Assad Says Syria Will Fight Protests Till ‘the End’, May 10, 2011

    Elie Elhadj

    May 23, 2011 at 1:27 pm Edit

    Robin Yassin-Kassab

    May 24, 2011 at 8:46 pm

  4. Very graceful of you to publish Elie’s carefully researched academic essay in support of Joshua’s and Camille’s argument!


    May 24, 2011 at 11:48 pm

    • I have no idea what you mean, Naji. Elie’s essay has a couple of generalisations I don’t agree with, but it certainly doesn’t support Joshua’s argument. (Camille doesn’t make an argument; he merely slanders the protestors). Elie shows that Syria’s sunnis are not necessarily sectarian extremists, that the Asad regime is guilty of exploiting sectarianism, that dictatorship breeds extremism, and that it is inadvisable to support the regime.

      Robin Yassin-Kassab

      May 25, 2011 at 2:16 pm

  5. Good luck with the Antalya Conference next week.

    I do hope that the participants will be able to recognise and keep focus on the main and overriding issue: Democracy in Syria.
    Democracy in its truest and deepest meaning: Freedom, Equality, Justice and Dignity to all Syrians regardless of their ethnicities, religions and political affiliations. If such consensus can be achieved and maintained then disagreement and differences on technicalities can be viewed as enriching.

    May the Road to Democracy in Syria be the Road to Damascus and may it be via Antalya and via anywhere else – let’s just get there!

    Marcus Barondi

    May 27, 2011 at 9:45 am

  6. Robin, did you read this?????


    talk about “embedded” journalists and academics-

    Sara Ajlyakin

    May 31, 2011 at 6:43 am

  7. Thanks for all the interesting info
    And for shedding some light on the biased strange vibes coming from Syria Comment completely slandering protesters and giving a regime-tv like image of Syria, I really don’t think we need an American who can’t see anything else than sects in Syria to tell us what is going on today in nation wide demonstrations of pro-democracy movement among other such movements all over arab countries. The real danger of sectarianism gets bigger every day this regime stays in power, as soon as possible, our best chance is a democratic change, which this regime will never initiate by them selves. that is up to the people.

    Najwa Keylani

    June 1, 2011 at 11:15 pm

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