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Speaking at the UN Security Council last week Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared, “It is time for the international community to put aside our own differences and send a clear message of support to the people of Syria.” And the day after the Security Council vote with Russia and China vetoing the resolution to adopt the Arab League plan, a frustrated Mrs. Clinton repeated her call to “support the Syrian people’s right to have a better future.”
The problem of Mrs. Clinton and others who express such concern for the ongoing internecine violence in Syria is that they constantly issue pronouncements about the “Syrian people” as if it was a homogeneous national grouping. Her ignorance was further demonstrated when speaking to reporters during a visit Sunday in Bulgaria. She said: “the international community had a duty to halt continuing bloodshed and promote a political transition that would see Mr. Assad step down.” Can she honestly believe Basher al-Assad will simply agree to resign?
If one is to ever develop a coherent and attainable goal-oriented Syrian policy, one first has to understand the various groupings and allegiances at play.
The “Syrian people” is a composite of religious and ethnic groups who historically oppose each other. The dominant group, approximately two thirds of the population are Sunni Muslims; 12 percent are Alawites; 9 percent are Kurds; 10 percent are various Christian sects (Arab Christians, Assyrians and Armenians); and the remainder are a hodgepodge of religio-ethnic groups including Druze, Turkmens and Circassians.
Let’s focus on the Sunni, the Alawites and the Kurds. The Sunni majority includes the Muslim Brotherhood. It is subjugated by the ruling Alawites led by the al-Assad family. The Sunni majority, which lost power in the takeover of Syrian rule by the Alawite-dominated secular nationalist Syrian Baathist Party in a 1963 coup, began to cause increasingly violent unrest led by the Muslim Brotherhood. This later developed into open revolt.
In 1980, after an assassination attempt against President Hafez al-Assad failed, he came down on them like a ton of bricks, literally. In 1982, the city of Hama, a Muslim Brotherhood stronghold, was destroyed by regular Syrian army forces, including tanks and artillery, commanded by Rifat al-Assad, Hafez’s younger brother. An estimated 20,000 residents of Hama were killed. The revolt was quelled and the Alawite al-Assad family continued to rule.
However, the real dispute goes way back. The Sunni majority view the Alawite minority as heretics. The Alawites, or Alawi as they called themselves because of their adherence to Ali (the Muslim prophet, Mohammad’s cousin and son-in-law), were originally called by the Sunnis the “Nusayri” after the Shi’ite Ibn Nusayr in the 9th century, indicating their break with Islam. After 1920 and French rule in Syria (which included Lebanon), the persecuted Alawites ingratiated themselves with the new rulers.
The French encouraged Alawites to join the French-commanded Syrian army and dominate the officer corps as a counterweight to the hostile Sunni majority. This subsequently set the stage for the Alawite dominance of the Baath Party and the 1963 takeover of the Syrian government.
The Kurds, while only 9 percent of the total Syrian population, comprise the majority of the Jazira province, and are affiliated with major Kurdish populations in neighboring Iran, Iraq and Turkey. Historically, the Kurds once ruled their own land known as Kurdistan which included eastern Turkey, northern Iraq, northwestern Iran and northern Syria. The Kurds in all of these countries are persecuted by the current ruling regimes in their respective countries.
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