“What do Sunnis intend for Alawis
following Regime change?” by Khudr
Wednesday, August 30th, 2006
I received this article by an old friend who has posted on Syria
Comment before: Asad’s Alawi Dilemma. His present article is
remarkable for its honest and direct approach to Syria’s
essential sectarian problem. He wrote:
I wrote the attached article in poor English full of grammatical
mistakes but I hope you can publish it on your website under a
pseudonym, such as “Syrian in the far east,” or “Khudr”, or whatever
Many people read your blog and comment about it in their blogs or
sites, which makes the chance that this will find a proper readership
high. Many Syrian expatriate intellectuals will also discuss it on other
sites, at least the English language forums. The subject is too
sensitive in Arabic, alas.
The subject is: What do Sunnis intend for Alawis following regime
change? I ask this question in light of the general discussion now
being carried out about the prospects for change in Syria.
In a time when everybody is emphasizing national unity, many would
think that talking about issues between religious communities in Syria
should be put aside or that they come from a backward Alawi fanatic.
I am not a zealot, the only thing I am fanatical about is my hope, one I
know will never come true, of the creation of a pure Syrian
nationalism as strong and independent as Japanese or Korean
As an engineer, I find it absurd that Syrians believe they can solve a
problem without first analyzing it and dealing with it head on.
What do Sunnis intend for Alawis following regime change?
August 30, 2006
I came across an article in a blog in which the writer, a Syrian
dissident, calls for a coup-d’etat by a Musharraf-like Syrian
Army General. This is a reformulation of an earlier article by,
Volker Perthes, director of the German Institute for
International and Security Affairs, which was written when the
West was casting about for a new leader for Syria during the
Fall of 2005. The assumption is that this will move the
stagnating economic, social, and political situation in Syria
forward in the proper direction. Although the author is
deliberately provocative, he raises an extremely important
question in a country where almost all the rulers in its modern
history, except two presidents, have risen to power through a
The article is also, unintentionally, asking a more fundamental
question regarding the position of the Alawi sect on the issue of
regime change. The Army General who is to take power should
be an Alawi. This is because non-Alawi officers (mainly Sunni
and Druze) have no leverage to lead mostly Alawi soldiers,
sergeants and officers against the Alawi regime in power.
Although, rarely explicitly said, few people would argue that
radical change from within can be achieved without the help of
the Alawis themselves, excluding a full-fledged mass uprising or
a foreign invasion. At the very least, this change has to be
approved by Alawi Syrians if they have to stand aside watching
the Alawi rule terminated.
The original question of the article (why a Syrian Army General
would not do a coup d’etat?) can then be re-written as: Why
the Alawi Syrians do not terminate Assad’s rule?
First, I think it is not an exaggeration if we say that many Alawis
are not happy, to say the least, with the present regime. The
reasons that are usually circulated are:
- Poverty (slum living Alawis around Damascus, poor villages and
deteriorated unemployment rate in the costal area, etc, as
- Political imprisonment if they dare to challenge (Salah Jdeed
and Communist Work Party in the past, and Aaref Dalilah in the
present given as examples).
There are also other fundamental reasons that are rarely
spoken of. I refer by “we” herein to a generation of Alawis
borne after the beginning of the sixties, when the Baath took
power and the Alawis assumed for the first time a dominant
position in ruling Syria:
1. Most of us have not lived the unjust circumstances that our
fathers and grand-fathers were subjected to by the Sunnis. As
such, we do not have the same appreciation as our fathers of
the Alawi rule that the late president Hafez Assad brought.
2. Hafez made huge improvement to our rural areas after they
had been completely and utterly neglected by successive Syrian
governments, whether Ottoman or Syrian. (A negligence that
the Assad regime has sadly repeated in the Jazeera, the east-
northern parts of Syria). However, these improvements have
long been frozen, and for more than one generation, things
have been heading backwards and not forwards.
In our fathers’ youth, coastal cities at the foot of the Costal
Mountains, such as Tartous, Banias, Jabla, Lataqia, were
transformed from purely Sunni communities to organized multi-
sectarian modern cities (of course relatively speaking). But, our
generation lived during times when those nice cities became
slum-like dirty places due to corruption, bad-planning and
patronage. We watched them become a playground for the
cowboys of the new generation, the Assad clan in Kurdaha,
sometimes called the Shabbiha.
3. Our fathers’ support for Hafez was driven largely by their
resentment for the wealthy bourgeois that Hafez and his Baath
claimed to oppose and which imbued their movement with
much of its legitimacy. The followers of Rifa`at al-Assad used to
recount to us in the seventies how they admired him because
he would pick up a dirty used tuna can from the floor and drink
tea from it. I wonder what those people think about him now
that he uses golden utensils in his multi-million dollar villas in
France and Spain? In the past, older Alawis honestly admired
many Alawi figures in power. I still have not met a single person
who has the slightest admiration for Rami or Asaf, for example.
Unfortunately, we are watching how the Alawi rulers and many
of their children, are becoming the very same thing they taught
us to despise.
4. It is a fact that Alawis still control the important positions in
the security systems in Syria. However, it is also a fact that this
control serves only a small circle at the top of the pyramid and
is becoming less and less beneficial or responsive to the poor
members at the base.
5. Seeing that most of the Assad regime on top has made full-
fledged alliances with Sunni families through marriage (like the
president himself, Nassif’s daughters etc..), or through
monopoly enterprises (like Maher, Bahjat Suleiman, Asaf, etc..),
the regime has lost any claim to representing the Alawi sect or
to defending its rights. The claims that Hafez and his generation
used to convince our fathers to support him with have largely
6. The direction Syria is now heading does not look good. The
last thing Alawis want is to have a group of people (composed of
many sects, not only Alawis) leading Syria to a catastrophe,
while everyone else in Syria accuses the Alawi sect of being
responsible for it.
So why then don’t Alawis are do anything about the situation?
Why are we silent? Why doesn’t an Alawi Army General carry
out a coup?
A. Reasons general to all Syrian citizens:
1. The culture of fear has been deeply planted in every Syrian
person regardless of their sect or race.
2. We have been deeply conditioned to mistrust and be
suspicious of everyone, making it extremely hard for any two
Syrians to work together, not to mention organize in a group.
To see how deep this problem has become, look at how much
the Syrians in the Diaspora are fragmented even when they are
away from the regime and its influence. No two Syrian
expatriates are able to organize a cultural gathering, not to
mention a political party. No sooner does a new party emerge
than its members, who are from the same sect and race and
background, start to split apart into uncountable factions.
3. The external animosity of the United States paralyzes
internal movements, organized to act against the regime, no
matter how well intentioned they are. No one wants to risk a
serious move against the regime while there is an enemy at the
door. The United States has not shown any sings that is
interested in improving Syria’s internal situation or helping
Syria. What the U.S. is asking for clearly and loudly are changes
in external policies, period. Most of those policies are not
attractive to the Syrian opposition. The regime is popular on
most of these issues, such as the occupation of Palestine, the
Golan, or Iraq.
A coup-d’etat at this moment risks being labeled American-
made even if it does not have the slightest connection to
The present sentiment in the Syrian street is anti-American.
This means that any opposition that seeks support from the
Syrian street will be anti-American and will be spurned by the
West, as happened with Hamas. Any opposition that seeks
external support will lose the street, as is the case with
Khaddam. We are in a tricky situation; the regime understands
this well and has exploited it well.
4. The organization of the Army and security forces was
masterminded very cleverly by the late president Hafez Assad
to prevent coups similar to those that rocked Syria during the
three decades after Syrian independence. The Syrian forces
capable of carry out a coup-d’etat (Army, Special Forces, Police
Force, and Security Apparatuses) are all bulky and centralized
with an extremely complicated command structure,
purposefully designed to frustrate plotters. Lateral
communication is absolutely forbidden between units; all
communications between units must travel through a
cumbersome vee, first ascending up the command structure to
the top level of one unit before descending down again through
the ranks of the other unit. Most importantly, the many units
and departments have an interlocking command structure so
that no entity is autonomous. They cannot act without several
other departments knowing about it. For example, any air force
unit is under the influence of aerial-security (Mukhabarat
Jawiyyah), army-security (Mukhabarat Askariyyah), the morale-
guidance headquarters (Idarat el Tawjih al-manawi), military
police, air force headquarters, army general headquarters, the
Republican Guards, and the Palace. Officers with loyalties to
theses various branches of security are sprinkled liberally
throughout the security forces. This command structure makes
the military practically useless against foreign enemies because
of its stultifying array of conflicting loyalties, but extremely
effective at guaranteeing internal stability. Any attempt to
rebel is quickly thwarted and can be dealt with on the spot.
5. Most Syrians, as unhappy as they are with the present
regime, see no point in changing the regime without a solid
alternative. The opposition has yet to present a clear vision for
the future that would inspire people to risk the few joys of
Syrian life that they have, security being at the top of the list.
Vague and generalized talk about democracy and a better life
are the only promises made by present regime-change
advocates. They aren’t reassuring.
6. We have to admit that corruption has insinuated its deep into
the souls of almost every Syrian. It is highly questionable that
any form of regime change is going to achieve real economic or
social change, without being preceded by a long process of
grass roots reform and cultural revival.
We do have a corrupt leadership, but even an honest leadership
would find it impossible to overcome the pervasive culture of
bribery, disrespect for hard work, and indifference to public
interest that is shared by state, and indeed, private sector
employees. Most Syrians’ sense of virtue has become so crooked
that fooling a customer is defined as cleverness.
Can change really be enforced from the top down? The regime
changers avoid this thorny question, but it must be aired and
debated. Are we willing to act, think, and work differently
when the regime is changed?
B. Reasons specific to Alawi Syrian citizens:
The main reason that prevents Alawis from being active in
supporting any regime change plans is their fear of the “other.”
Those who propose regime change without explaining to us
what the end of Alawi rule will mean for thousands of ordinary
Alawis will get no where.
There are two sorts of “others” in Syria:
a. First are the Sunni religious and Kurdish opposition leaders
who say bluntly and clearly: “We want to end the Alawi rule”.
b. Second is everyone else, who says shyly and elliptically: “The
monopoly over top army and security posts by one sect should
Not a single Syrian intellectual, political leader, or plain good-
will writer, has ever dealt with the following fundamental
What exactly are your plans for the Alawis after we give up
Why do answers to this question have to be vague and general?
What are your plans for the tens of thousands of Alawis who
work in the army and other security apparatuses? What are
your plans for the republican guard and the special forces that
are staffed primarily by Alawis? Are you going to pay them
pensions if you decide to disband their forces? Or will they be
fired and dumped on the streets, humiliated and ostracized as
the Americans did in Iraq? Do you have any idea of the impact
on security such dismissals would engender? Will you be
satisfied with a scenario by which these forces remain in their
positions in exchange for their giving up political power?
What are your plans for the tens of thousands of Alawis who
work as government employees in many non-functional
establishments? Are you going to close these establishments? Do
you have any idea of the socialimpact of such closures? Are you
going to stop improvement projects in the costal area as all past
Sunni governments have done since independence? Are you
going to reverse confiscation laws to return land taken from
Sunni landlords and distributed among tens of thousands of
Are you going to demand that security officials stand trial for
their actions during the last 35 years? What is the highest rank
that you are going to hold responsible? Are you going to ask for
trials for past deeds? How about the present leading elite? Who
exactly are the people you want to hold responsible? And If you
do bring them to trial, are you going to hold the Sunni elite to
the same standard? Will Sunni families who have benefited from
the regime through monopolies and sweet-heart deals, such as
the Nahhas family in Damascus and the Jood family in Latakia,
be treated as Alawis are?
These questions should be answered not only by opposition
intellectuals, but also by every non-Alawi Syrian. What do you
want to do with us if we give you back political power? Are you
really willing to live side by side with us, to cherish Syria’s
diversity, and consider the past 40 years merely another failed
episode in our long history of failed revolutions.
A change for the better must include all sectors of Syrian
society, including Alawi Syrians. Because Alawis control all the
main security forces of the state, regime change will not
happen without assuring them that they too will have a place in
Syria’s new future. Without such assurances, there will be no
Alawi Musharif, nor will any other army General carry out a
coup d’etat that will bring anything other than chaos to Syria.
Syrians refuse to speak openly and honestly about our most
important challenges; so much is kept in the dark. But this is no
time for “shatara” or dissembling. We must confront and
discuss religious and communal issues directly and honestly. If
Sunnis really want regime change, then they have to address
the Alawi issue head on. Unless the answers to these questions
are cleared up by all concerned forces and individuals, Alawis,
no matter how dissatisfied and disappointed with the present
leadership, will not entertain the idea of regime change; they
will not relinquish the ramparts of power.
كاتبها أير عن تعبر ةرالمنشو الرؤية
،عصــرية برؤيــة ـوحـالمفت الجــرح ـبـقل دخلــت أنــك ـرـهيز لألســتاذ ًارـكـش
ـ فقأهـا يجـب التـي المحتقنـة بالدملـة هتهّشـب الـذي األمـر فهـذا ،وطنيـة
ـهـتفخيخ يريـد ـدـوالعدي ،حسـاس هـو ـ عبالموضـو مقـال ـنـم أكثـر كتبـت
حـين فـي ،أحـد منـه يقتـرب ال كـي الموقوتـة والقنابـل األلغـام مـن بمزيـد