The regime in Syria seems to have nine lives. It has lasted more than 40 years, surviving rebellions, loss of legitimacy and the world’s disdain, yet it is still standing. What is the secret of its staying power? Clues can be found in Syria’s demographics and recent history.
In the past the minority religious communities, Christian, Druze, Alawi (which has roots in Shia Islam), and others joined forces and were able to escape persecution by the Sunni majority, a process facilitated by a series of coups and power struggles between 1963 and 1970 which resulted in the takeover of the country by a group of Alawi military officers. One of these officers, Hafez al-Assad came to power and ruled Syria for 30 years. After his death in 2000 he was succeeded by his son Bashar.
Their sect now numbered 10-12 per cent of the population. The Sunnis were 74 per cent of the population. To avoid catastrophe they placed trusted members of their own sect in powerful positions in government, the army and business. Whenever resentment and anger caused the lid to blow off it was slammed back on again with ruthless force. When the democracy movement began in 2011 and civilians fired upon it the old pattern emerged: the more the leaders of the regime attacked the opposition, the greater the force applied against pro-democracy demonstrations, which led to more protests and so on round the circle.
The regime felt and still feels that force is the only option. It has reached the point where peaceful protests are no longer working as they are always met with violence. As a result the opposition are being driven to meet force with force. The spiralling process produces an escalation of violence. The head of the UN monitoring team in Syria, General Robert Mood says that violence has reached ‘an unprecedented level.’
The regime is less afraid of this than of peaceful opposition which could have united the country against them. So great was the appeal of democracy and a new dawn for Syria that the opposition began to attract members of religious minorities who, like the majority, didn’t want to live under a dictatorship.
Much of the government’s support depends on fear: the minorities feared the majority and so stuck together. Conditions of peaceful protest were ideal for recruiting minority members to the cause of democracy. If minorities could cooperate with the majority in fighting for and bringing about democracy there would be less reason for communities to fear each other and a common cause would consolidate trust. Sectarianism thrives under conditions of violence and fear of violence. Knowing this, the regime tried to make sure that peaceful conditions did not prevail. By attacking civilians, especially Sunnis, sectarian conflict was reignited. Hatred and desire for revenge soon reinforced divisions. A desire for unity now has to compete with increased levels of divisiveness.
This kind of conflict results in soldiers and army officers committing crimes they might not otherwise have contemplated. It may seem counterproductive to create a desire for revenge in one’s enemies, but the regime still has a near-monopoly on the means of coercion. It is strange but true that a regime which has lost legitimacy and is unwilling or unable to change with the times has survived longer than most of the regimes in the Middle East. Violence is the new religion which they hope will translate into enough support from their own side to get them through the current crisis.
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