Things are never what they seem to be in the ME. Look at Syria – a struggle of a democracy oriented civil society against an autocratic tyrant, some will say. But when you look closer at any picture, and you take your time, you will usually notice the small – or not so small – details.
For example, you will see that the issue is not democracy against something else, and not only the uprising of a starving nation against its indifferent dictator. In Syria the ruling Alawite sect is fighting for its status, dominance and even survival. Fighting with every means. As usual in the ME, when you finally face the details, it’s one tribe against the other, “us” against “them”.
The Alawite people appeared a thousand years ago in the mountains of the Syrian shore. Arabs and Shia Muslims before, they followed a new philosophy, soon to become a new religion, soon to create a new nation. Ali, the profit’s cousin and son-in-law, became in this new teaching not only a central figure, but the very incarnation of Allah, God himself. This Alawite faith combined Christian, Muslim and even pagan traditions – influenced not only by the Shia, but also by the Byzantine Christianity and maybe, a bit later, by the passing crusaders.
The Alawite, like the Druze or the Jewish people, became a nation, but not in the European mid 19th century way – more like the Navaho or the Zulu. Being Alawite means not only being born into an Alawite family, but also accepting the nation’s traditions and mythology. And in its millennia of existence, the Alawite nation knew a lot of suffering – life is not easy for an ex-Muslim people in a Muslim world.
And then, after a short period of semi-independence in the early 20th century, the Alawite people found themselves in the new Syrian state, a creation of the French policy in the ME. Being the largest minority in Syria (today there are 3.5 million Alawite out of 21 million Syrians), remembering past suffering and facing an opportunity, Alawite young people began gaining power. Many of them were members of the armed forces. Many were in the socialist Baat’ party. And in 1971, after a thousand years of oppression, an Alawi, Hafez el-Assad became president.
For the majority of Syrians, who are Sunni Muslims, the Alawite were always “them”. The worse kind of “them”, actually, one that used to be “us”. And now they took control. Yes, in that time it was under the banners of the Baat’ party, but again – look closer and you will see an Alawi in every center of power. Bashar Assad took his father’s place. And now he is killing his own – Sunni – subjects, in order to keep his tribe at the top of the pyramid.
But let’s zoom in a bit. When you look at some of the photos of Bashar, you see a man standing next or just behind him. He looks a bit like the president, and even more as the late president. His name is Maher, and he is the younger brother of the Syrian Sulta… Sorry – president.
Bashar was the quiet, even shy, brother. Maher was the aggressive, violent one. When their older brother, Basil, the heir of the Syrian throne, died in a car crash, many people thought that Hafez will choose Maher as his successor. He didn’t. Probably because he knew that Maher is too dangerous, even comparative to an average Middle Eastern ruler. And yet, Maher became one of the strongest men of the kingdom – sorry again, republic. He is the commander of the Syrian Republican Guard and something that is called “the 4th Armored Division”, both manned with Alawite troops.
We all can imagine what the Republican Guard is. Let’s speak a bit about the armored division. When you hear the name, you think about tanks, dusty soldiers, regular boys in uniform. The 4th is just the opposite. Known also as the “Defense Companies” it is an organization with a single role in the universe – to protect the Sultan and his regime. And how do you deal with the Sultan’s enemies? Precisely. And this force was in the very center of every major internal conflict in Syria of the Assad dynasty, bringing havoc and death. It still does.
We hear about the “Syrian army” or the “Syrian security forces” shooting protesters, killing thousands. Well, usually it is not the army. It’s the 4th armored division, the Guard or other Alawite units. After all, who will protect the Sultan if not his own tribe? Usually, in a dusty tent, a crowded room, a black HOV or just standing on a roof top, it is Maher el-Assad, the young prince, who fights his tribe’s war. Fights against unarmed protesters, leaving bloody streets after him. Sometimes he even does that in person – an Youtube clip shows a man in a leather jacket, probably Maher, shooting demonstrators recently, just for the fun of it.
In this reality, one can not speak seriously about reforms, about democracy in Syria. Democracy means the ending of the current regime, giving up power, transferring it to someone else. No Middle Eastern ruler will agree to that. In Syria, just like in Libya, the Sultan will fight to the end, with his loyal brother, the black prince of Damascus, by his side.