Syria's Sunnis Reject Jihadism; Many Support Assad
The Western idea that Sunni sectarianism has to be appeased in Syria to defeat the Islamic State is wrong
Since the start of the Russian military intervention in Syria, two arguments have been made by its critics.
The first is that the Russian military intervention will ultimately fail because Russia is backing the side that is certain eventually to lose.
The argument is that the Syrian government - which Russia is supporting - is a minority sectarian Alawite regime, which is heavily outnumbered by Syria’s Sunni majority, who oppose it and who will in time overwhelm it.
The second is that by destroying the “moderate” opposition Russia is leaving Syria’s Sunnis with no option other than to turn to the Islamic State. The argument goes that the Alawite sectarian nature of the Syrian government and its supposed brutality towards the Sunnis means the Sunnis will never accept it. If left with no other choice the Sunnis will look to the Islamic State to protect them from it.
For a classic recent expression of this argument see here.
Both these arguments are wrong. They fundamentally misunderstand Syria and the dynamics of the war.
The starting point of these arguments - and their common denominator - is the claim the Syrian government is a sectarian regime based on the Alawite community.
This claim is repeated so often - and is so rarely contested - that it is universally taken to be the truth.
Since Alawites form no more than 12% of Syria’s total population, the argument goes that this means that they and the government must in time be overwhelmed by the Sunnis, who account for 74% of the population, and who have the backing of the two great Sunni powers, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
This sometimes leads to further claims that the Syrian army no longer exists, and that what is left is an Alawite militia, with the government now depending for its survival on this militia, and on Shia militias and on Hezbollah.
The reality of Syria on the contrary is of a society that prior to the war had successfully avoided the sectarian divisions that disfigured politics in neighbouring Lebanon, and where the prevailing ideology not just of the state but also of the great majority of the people was founded not on religion but on Arab nationalism.
People in Syria identified themselves first and foremost as Arabs and Syrians, not as Sunnis, Shias, Alawites, Christians or Druze.
My own experience in dealing with many Syrians is that the fact the country’s leader - whether Hafez Al-Assad or his son Bashar - was from an Alawite family was always of much more interest to outsiders than it was to Syrians themselves. In the case of Hafez Al-Assad his undoubted intelligence, and his success in defending Syrian and Arab interests by standing up to the US and Israel, earned him a grudging respect even from those Syrians who deplored his regime for its arbitrariness and corruption.
I would add that though under the Assads - Hafez and Bashar - Syria was and remains a dictatorship (as all the other Arab states except Tunisia are), it has never been a terroristic tyranny like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, or a totalitarian religious despotism like Wahhabi Saudi Arabia.
This is not to say that there has not always been in Syria a minority of people who are hardline sectarian Sunni religious fundamentalists. Whilst it is impossible to say what proportion of the population before the start of the war held these views, the best estimates I heard from people who know the country is that they were less than a tenth of the total population, and that they were concentrated disproportionately in a small number of provincial cities such as Hama, Idlib and Homs.
At this point it is necessary to say that the common view that religious sectarianism in places like Syria is a rural peasant phenomenon is wrong. Most rural Sunnis in Syria and elsewhere are devout. However extreme Sunni religious sectarianism of the sort that spawns violent jihadism is - as shown by numerous studies of the background of violent jihadis - overwhelmingly an urban phenomenon.
That the people who could be called violent Sunni religious sectarians in Syria were only a small minority of Syria’s population - and a minority of its Sunni population - is shown by the Syrian government’s success in putting down the uprising of the Muslim Brotherhood that lasted from 1979 to 1982.
Then as now many in the West added up what they thought were the numbers and predicted the government’s fall. I remember the Economist produced a cover showing the country’s President - Hafez Al-Assad - vanishing down an hour-glass over the caption “time runs out for Assad”.
In the event the government not only survived but won - as it could not have done if Syria’s Sunnis had all opposed it.
The same mistake that was made in 1979-1982 is being made now.
There is no doubt that in 2011 when the protests against the government began many people in Syria were unhappy with the government.
It does not follow from this however that the government had no support - which transcended sectarian lines - or that many of the people who were unhappy with the government and who were Sunnis wanted a fundamentalist sectarian Sunni government in its place.
That most Syrians are not religious sectarians every survey of opinion that has been conducted in Syria has confirmed.
All of them show an overwhelming rejection by Syria’s people of the country’s division on sectarian lines, and all show that the government has the support of a majority, or at least of a plurality, of Syria’s people - something which would not be possible if all Syria’s Sunnis opposed it.
The same story is told by the response of Syria’s institutions to the crisis.
In contrast to what happened in Iraq in 2003 and in Libya in 2011, and despite coming under relentless pressure, the Syrian army, bureaucracy and diplomatic service have remained solidly loyal to the government.
Not only have there been no significant defections or desertions. Syria’s institutions even held firm in the dark days of last summer when - following the fall of Idlib and with the US announcing plans for safe havens and a no-fly zone - it looked as if the Syrian government’s time was finally up.
This all the more striking because most of the officers of the Syrian army, most of the soldiers who fight in its ranks, most of the officials who work in Syria’s bureaucracy (including most of the ministers of the government) and most of the country’s diplomats, are Sunnis.
This is often disputed. However it is confirmed by those who have actually made it their business to study these institutions. By way of example I attach below a discussion of the state of the Syrian army provided by a scholar of Britain’s Royal United Service’s Institute, which makes precisely this point.
It turns out that not only are most of the army’s officers Sunnis, but that Sunnis occupy key command positions in the army, and that the army’s Sunni officers, despite intimidation and bribes to get them to defect, have remained loyal to the government.
The article also confirms something else. This is that the Syrian army very definitely still exists.
In fact the two best informed Western journalists in the region - the Independent’s Patrick Cockburn and Robert Fisk - not only confirm this from personal observation, but they say the army has a core of four divisions that are not only loyal to the government but which are also militarily effective.
It is the Syrian army - not Hezbollah or Shia militias - that is in fact leading the offensive around Aleppo. The key unit is the Syrian army’s Fourth Division, which contrary to claims is not an exclusively or predominantly Alawite unit.
Once it is understood that the Syrian government is not an Alawite regime and that most Syrians see themselves as Syrians and Arabs, not as Sunnis or Alawites or Shias or Christians or Druze, the falsity of the arguments I mentioned at the start of this article becomes clear.
Firstly, Sunni sectarianism carries less traction within Syrian society than is claimed.
That this is so is shown by the fact that back in 2012 German intelligence was reporting that no fewer than 95% of jihadi fighters in Syria were not Syrians at all but foreigners.
Whilst the proportion of jihadi fighters who are Syrians has undoubtedly increased since then, what this shows is that the Syrian conflict was not in its early stages a sectarian civil war. Rather it was an invasion of Syria by outsiders who sought to take advantage of an internal political conflict - itself partly instigated from outside - in pursuit of their sectarian objectives.
The idea the Syrian government is therefore predestined to lose the war, and is unable to re-establish itself throughout Syria, because most Syrian Sunnis axiomatically oppose it for sectarian reasons, is wrong.
As for the idea that Syrian Sunnis prefer the genocidal tyranny of the Islamic State to the Syrian government - and will be driven into the arms of the Islamic State once the other jihadi rebels are defeated - that is a fantasy, and one which moreover is being peddled without evidence to substantiate it by advocates of regime change, in order to rationalise their demand for the overthrow of the Syrian government.
That in itself is of course a good reason to be wary of arguments like that, even if it is not by itself a reason to reject them outright.
Recent Syrian history - and Syrian facts on the ground - however show that this argument - and others like it - are simply wrong and have no basis.
This article was first published by The National Interest
Four years ago, Turkey’s then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said that within in a few weeks he would be praying in Damascus’s Umayyad Mosque, as Assad was about to fall. Similarly, Israel’s most decorated soldier, former Defense Minister Ehud Barak, predicted that Assad and his military would be toppled within weeks. That was at the beginning of 2012, when there were no Iranian soldiers on the ground or Russian planes in the skies.
As another round of Geneva peace talks collapses and the world wonders what’s next for Syria, it is time to begin with the warnings of Henry Kissinger and Zbignew Brzezinski. Kissinger and Brzezinski, the most seasoned and influential U.S. policymakers on the Middle East since World War II, have gone against popular opinion and stated that President Bashar al-Assad has more support than all the opposition groups combined.
It is no secret that the Saudis and Qataris, with full U.S. support, have tried to bribe some of Assad’s innermost circles to defect. The all-important professional military cadre of the Syrian Arab Army, however, has remained thoroughly loyal.
The Syrian Arab Army was mostly a conscript force with only about eighty thousand professionals in its ranks. At the start of the war, much was made of the “defections” of thousands of officers, but these were mere conscripts who never wanted to be in the army in the first place, and would also have done anything to escape conscription in peacetime. The professional ranks, meanwhile, are still very strong and religiously pluralistic. When the Syrian opposition talks about a future pluralistic Syria, they fail to realize that while they may theoretically be pluralists in Geneva, Washington and Vienna, their representatives on the ground are allied with the most sectarian terrorist groups the Middle East has ever seen.
The Syrian Arab Army has held its own for more than five years; its numbers might have been depleted, as is normal for any wartime military, but a close glance at its military reveals that its core, perhaps unexpectedly to many, is Sunni.
The current minister of defense, Fahd al-Freij, is one of the most decorated officers in Syrian military history and hails from the Sunni heartland of Hama. The two most powerful intelligence chiefs, Ali Mamlouk and Mohammad Dib Zaitoun, have remained loyal to the Syrian government—and are both Sunnis from influential families. The now-dead and dreaded strongman of Syrian intelligence, Rustom Ghazaleh, who ruled Lebanon with an iron fist, was a Sunni, and the head of the investigative branch of the political directorate, Mahmoud al-Khattib, is from an old Damascene Sunni family. Major General Ramadan Mahmoud Ramadan, commander of the Thirty-Fifth Special Forces Regiment, which is tasked with the protection of western Damascus, is another high-ranking Sunni, as is Brigadier General Jihad Mohamed Sultan, the commander of the Sixty-Fifth Brigade that guards Latakia.
The history of the Syrian Army that Hafez al-Assad built is instructive today. As president, the elder Assad brought senior members of the Syrian Air Force into the military high command. Naji Jamil (another Sunni) served as air force chief from 1970 to 1978 and was promoted to the General Staff committee overseeing defenses on the Iraqi border. Another air force commander was Muhammad al-Khuli, who until 1993 held coveted logistical positions between Damascus and Lebanon. Other prominent officers above the rank of Brigadier in military and civil defense positions post-2000 were Sunnis, including Rustom Ghazaleh, Hazem al Khadra and Deeb Zaytoun. Since 1973, the strategic tank battalions of the Seventieth Armored Brigade, stationed near al-Kiswah near Damascus, have had rank-and-file Alawis under the command of Sunni officers. As well, two of the most decorated officers who rose to be Chief of General Staff under Bashar al-Assad were Sunnis: Hassan Turkmani and Hikmat Shehabi.
From the 1970s until the 1990s, the Syrian Arab Army had a mandate to stabilize Lebanon. During these years, it worked to outmaneuver both the IDF and the U.S. Marines by supporting various proxies in Lebanon. In post-Saddam Iraq, the Americans could never understand which elements of both the Sunni and Shia insurgencies were supported by Syrian military intelligence, much of this owing to the stealth with which the Syrian Army controlled various Iraqi agents dating back to the Lebanese civil war.
The Syrian Arab Army is also the only Arab army with multiple Christians serving as generals. The most famous of these was Daoud Rajha, the Greek Orthodox army chief of staff. The two most influential Lebanese Christian leaders, now on the verge of becoming the next president of Lebanon, are Michel Aoun and Suleiman Franjieh, who are also allies of the Syrian Arab Army and President Assad. Deir al-Zour is an entirely Sunni city which has held out against ISIS encirclement for two years—and is commanded by the Druze General Issam Zahreddine.
The fact remains: The moderate Syrian opposition only exists in fancy suits in Western hotel lobbies. It has little military backing on the ground. If you want to ask why Assad is still the president of Syria, the answer is not simply Russia or Iran, but the fact that his army remains resilient and pluralistic, representing a Syria in which religion alone does not determine who rises to the top. The military also represent as challenge against the spread of terrorism, which is why three of the top British generals of the last five years have openly called for the recognition that the Syrian Arab Army, loyal to President Assad, is the only force capable of defeating ISIS and Al Qaeda in the Levant.
Kamal Alam is a Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London and a Syrian Military Analyst advising several Damascus-based family offices.