Syria Basics

Syrian society and culture under the Ba’ath…Some historical context to the current crisis.     

Bashar al-Assad and his father, Hafiz (Photo: Manfred Schweda; used with permission)Bashar al-Assad and his father, Hafiz (Photo: Manfred Schweda; used with permission)

Syria is about 70% Sunni Muslim and 20% comprised of religious minorities. The minorities include: Christians (10-12%), Alawites (12-15%), Druz, Shia, tiny Jewish communities, and others. Syria’s various ethnicities (often identifiable along linguistic lines) include: Arabs, Kurds, Assyrians, Armenians.

Syria has, for the past four decades, been ruled by the authoritarian Ba’ath party. The Ba’ath came to power after a series of destabilizing coups in the post-French mandate period.

“Ba’ath” is an Arabic word meaning “re-birth” or “renaissance” – implying the political party’s emphasis on a nationalistic Arab revival, which focus not on religion (Islam), but on the unifying culture of Arab identity: language, customs, outlook, Arab nationalism and aspirations.

Syria as a Ba’ath ruled country represents the last secular state in the Middle East. The Syrian government promotes and enforces secularism in society. The government, represented in the authoritarian rule of Bashar Al-Assad (and his father Hafez before him), sees itself as the solution to the problem of Syria’s multi-religious and multi-ethnic make-up: it provides stability and order in a country that might otherwise go the way of post-Saddam Iraq.

Religious minorities such as the Christians and Alawites tend to be the biggest supporters of the Syrian government. The government keeps radical Islam at bay, and has historically actively persecuted it. The political “alternative” for Syria has always been represented in the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. The Ba’athists and Muslim Brotherhood have fought each other since the 1970’s, and the current civil war that has overtaken Syria can be seen as the endgame to a decades-long struggle for the identity of Syria. The Muslim Brotherhood and associated groups desire an Islamic government under the authority of Sharia Law (Law of God or rule by the Koran).

The Muslim Brotherhood tried to assassinate Hafez Al-Assad in 1982, and staged an armed uprising in the central city of Hama. The Assad government put down the Hama revolt – it ended in the deaths of an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 people. While the Brotherhood attacked first (entering the homes and offices of Hama Ba’ath officers and officials and assassinating them and their families), the government pursued a scorched earth policy – leveling the entire city.

The current Syria crisis can be seen as the struggle for the future identity of Syria, a struggle that did not begin with the recent uprising – one should possess a firm understanding this before trying to assign “good guy” and “bad guy” among the two sides (as our media does).

The Ba’athist regime represents the old days of 20th century Arab nationalism and socialism. It is allied with Iran not because of Shia religious identity (the Alawite religion, sect of the ruling family, is a cultic offshoot of Shi’ism), but in resistance to Israel, the political Zionism of the West, and the pro-Saudi policies of the West. Thus, Syria sees itself as part of the “axis of resistance” –which includes Iran, the emerging new Shia militias of Iraq (like the Mahdi  Army), and Hezbollah (dominates Southern Lebanon and has seats in Lebanese Parliament).

The Syrian conflict is now a full on proxy war (and perhaps was from the beginning?) where Sunni-Saudi hegemony is trying to assert itself against the so-called axis of resistance. To illustrate just how bizarre this conflict has become, Israel and Saudi Arabia find themselves on the same side of the Syria conflict! Last May (2013), Israel conducted a massive missile strike on Syria defense technology facilities outside of Damascus, to the benefit of the Saudi-Qatari backed rebels.