Research Paper: How a Religious Minority Came to Rule Syria and What That Means for Its People

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¶ … al-Assad family has ruled Syria with an iron fist for the past 40 years, and the fallout from the recent uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa have also affected the Syrian people. The purpose of this research is to explore how the al-Assad family, members of a religious minority, came to power in Syria, and what that has meant for the Syrian people. To this end, this study examines how the Alawi sect came to power in Syria from a historiographic and religious studies perspective, and what the implications of the recent revolutions in neighboring countries might be for the ruling elite in Syria. A summary of the research and important findings are presented in the study's conclusion.

How a Religious Minority Came to Rule Syria and the Implications for Its People

Introduction

In the wake of the recent waves of unrest that have swept the Middle East and North Africa, even the most well-entrenched autocratic rulers are sitting up and taking notice, with the Saud family of Saudi Arabia and President Assad of Syria being among the most notable examples. Some observers are questioning whether these regimens can withstand the inexorable forces that are being arrayed against them, while others are questioning whether the loss of these strong leaders would have a devastating effect on the region. The purpose of this research was to explore how the Assad family, members of a religious minority, came to power in Syria, and what that has meant for the Syrian people. A historiographic account of important confrontations and conflicts that led to the Assad family's rise to power is followed by an examination concerning how their ongoing rule has impacted Syria's foreign and domestic policy according to the classical realism theory of state behavior. A discussion concerning the identity of Assad's backers and what motivates them to support his rule is followed by an exploration of the basis of fear of having a Sunni president. Through a religious studies framework, this study presents a review of the religious mix of Syria with an emphasis on the Alawites. Next, an examination of the political geography of Syria and how it correlates to the different religions is followed by an examination of the social implications, focusing on human rights and religion and the political implications of having an Alawite president, and how that has led to an ongoing brutal civil war in Syria. Finally, a summary of the research and important findings are presented in the study's conclusion.

Review and Analysis

Background and Overview

The history of Syria has been characterized by the same types of arbitrary geopolitical lines drawn in the sand by Western powers that have created so many problems for its neighbors and which have contributed much to the present situation. After the end of First World War, the former Ottoman Empire was dissolved and France assumed control over its former province, a mandate it continued until the country was granted independence in 1946.

The first few years of the new country's existence, though, were wracked by one military coup after another until February 1958 when Syria merged with Egypt to create the United Arab Republic.

In 1961, just three years later, Egypt and Syria went their separate ways once again, dissolving the United Arab Republic and the Syrian Arab Republic existed once again (Syria, 2012). The country's fortunes changed yet again in 1967 when Syria lost the Golan Heights to Israel during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and again 2 years later, Hafiz al-Assad, a member of the Socialist Ba'th Party and the minority Alawi sect, assumed control of Syria in a nonviolent coup that finally brought some political stability to the country in November 1970.

Despite a growing amount of scholarship regarding the Alawi sect and its rise to power in Syria, there remains some uncertainty concerning how the Syrian Ba'th regime can be conceptualized, due in large part to its complexity.

According to Hinnebusch, "The Ba'th came to power by a military coup and the army is a central pillar of the regime, but it is an 'army-party symbiosis,' not mere military rule. The Alawi minority sect has dominated it, but it is not simply a minority regime and incorporates a cross-sectarian coalition."

Just a few years ago, though, the most pressing issue facing Bashar al-Assad was navigating his way through the political and religious issues that helped his family assume power in the first place. In this regard, Ghadbian (2001) suggests that, "Bashar faces a classic dilemma: he must reform the political system in order for him to survive; yet a serious perestroika is likely to undermine the very forces that engineered his rise to power. Bashar's survival depends on how he resolves this predicament."

(p. 624).

Likewise, during his tenure, the elder al-Assad was clearly in control, but there were also other forces at work that not only helped him assume power, they helped him stay in power as well in a similar fashion to his son. In this regard, Hinnebusch adds that, "At its center was the personal dictatorship of Hafiz al-Assad, but his power rested on complex institutions. It has been described as a regime of the state bourgeoisie, but it also rose out of and incorporates a significant village base. Thus, no single one of the typical explanations of the regime-army, sect, class-adequately captures its complex multi-sided nature."

The multi-sided nature of the environment in which the Assad family came to power and managed to hold on to it for so long suggests that there are a few powerful insiders that help protect the regime, and it also indicates that there is a powerful security infrastructure in place that administer this protection. This assertion is borne out by the fact that the Assad regime at least brought some stability to the country following coup after coup and three decades would pass before Syria experienced any further substantive political changes after the elder al-Assad assumed power. In July 2000, President al-Assad died and his son, Bashar al-Assad, assumed power following his approval as president by popular referendum.

The fallout from this transition was just part of the turmoil that was taking place during this period in Syria's history. For instance, Stacher (2011) reports that, "Hafiz al-Assad died on June 10, 2000 after nearly 30 years at the helm of one of the Middle East's most volatile regimes. Syria witnessed 15 successful coup d'etats between 1949-1970, external wars with Israel (1948, 1967, and 1973), vicious Pan-Arab competition with regional states, and a near civil war between 1976-1984. Al-Assad slowed the raucous domestic political upheavals by stitching together a 'hard' state compared to its regional counterparts" (emphasis added).

There were some signs of moderation on the part of Assad during this period, though, that had some observers believing that a sea change in political attitude might be in the offing. In this regard, by mid-2005, all of the Syrian peacekeeping forces that had been stationed in Lebanon since 1976 were withdrawn.

Likewise, Guiora (2011) cites the example of the truce negotiated by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger between Syria and Israel following the 1973 Yore Kippur War. According to Guiora (2011), "The truce has held ground [and] reliable reports note that not one violation has been reported by either side."

Other signs of change in Syria's political outlook occurred in mid-2006 when Israel and Hezbollah battled it out over age-old disputes, and although Syria put its armed forces on alert, the country did not directly intervene in support of its allies in Hezbollah with military forces.

More recently, in mid-2007, President Bashar al-Assad was reelected to another term as Syrian president.

By March 2011, though, events in the Middle East began to swirl out of control for some autocratic rulers and the fallout from the uprisings that were taking place reached into Syria as well. For instance, in August 2012, Schaeffer-Duffy reported that, "Syria's 18-month revolution has already claimed the lives of 20,000 people. What began as a rebellion for reform is fast becoming a full-scale civil war of regional, perhaps global significance."

The intensification of the military clashes taking place between Syrian government military forces and insurgents in the Syrian cities of Damascus and Aleppo in early August 2012, together with an announcement by former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan that he would resign as special envoy to Syria after his term expired, lent further support to this gloomy perspective.

On a similar note, U.S. government analysts also report that, "Influenced by major uprisings that began elsewhere in the region, antigovernment protests broke out in the southern province of Dar'a in March 2011 with protesters calling for the repeal of the restrictive Emergency Law allowing arrests without charge, the legalization of political parties, and the removal of corrupt local officials."

These events have been repeated time and again across the country where ordinary Syrian citizens have been forced to take to the streets to make their demands known, while Assad remained cloistered… [END OF PREVIEW]

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