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February 1, 2012

Who are the Syrian Sunnas?

By Prof. Arthur Kane Scott

This is the last in my series of articles on Syria.  Since last summer, Syria has been rocked by revolution, and that energy primarily emanated from the Sunna community. Who are they, what is their history, and why have they became so antagonistic to the Bashir regime?

Historically, the Sunna community arose following the death of the Prophet Muhammed in 632 CE. The Muslim community split over the question of succession into Sunna/Shiia. The Sunna maintained that only a worthy Muslim could be chosen to lead as Caliph or Successor to Muhammed. The Shiia, on the other hand, insisted that leadership must pass through the lineage of Ali. Ali was both Muhammed’s cousin and son-in-law, who had married the Prophet’s favorite daughter, Fatimah.

The Shiia belief is that Ali’s family possessed a deeper understanding of Islam, ilm, than was true of the immediate successors to Muhammed called Rashidun or “Rightly Guided” by Sunnis. For Shiia, Islam took a wrong turn in 632 becoming increasingly consumed by the world, power and empire, rather than religion and community. Today most Muslims are Sunna, 85 percent, the balance Shiia. The Shiia heartland is Iran, and to a lesser extent Iraq and Syria. There are significant Shiia populations in Yemen, Bahrain and Lebanon. (Cf, Tamim Ansary, Destiny Disrupted, pp.33-66.)

Besides the Syrian sectarian divide among Sunna/Shiia, Alawites/Christians, Sunnis have been socially and economically discriminated by the Alawite ruling elite represented by the Assad family since it came into power in the 1970’s. This poses the question why/how? Historically Syrian Sunnis had been the dominant ruling elite under the Ottoman Empire which likewise was Sunna, and ruled its far flung empire through Sunna families or tribal/family groups. With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire during World War I the Sunna majority took up the flag of Arab Nationalism unleashed by the Hashemite, Sharif Hussein bin Ali of Mecca, who entered into secret correspondence with the British, in which London hinted at supporting an Arab rebellion against the Turks, by which the Arabs in exchange for fighting against the Turks, would be able to create a greater Syrian state centering on Damascus. Unfortunately this implied agreement with bin Ali, which gave rise to the emergence/legend of Lawrence of Arabia, was aborted by Britain/France because of the Sykes-Picot secret agreement. London/Paris decided to divide the Middle East into mandates which they controlled. (Margaret Macmillan, Paris 1919, pp.347-458.)

Sykes-Picot was largely influenced by Western Imperial geo-political considerations, especially oil. Syria came under French control by the Treaty of Sevres in 1920, and it would rule, not without stiff Syrian opposition, through the end of World War II. It was the Sunni population along with Christians who resisted French rule calling for independence. Most Sunnis were nationalists calling for secular rule rather than Islamists. But there was a significant segment of Sunnis whose nationalism was grounded in Islam.  What triggered this split within the Sunna community was the presence of the Alawites who occupied the remote mountainous region of western Syrian north of Lebanon. Alawites historically have attempted to identify themselves as the “Twelvers”, which is a branch of Islam viewed also by the Sunni majority as a heretical group. One of its claims is that Imam Ali is divine! During the French period the French played the Alawites against the Sunna as a way of weakening the opposition.

 By the end of World War II, French control in Damascus ended, and this ushers in a period of political instability triggered in part by the machinations of the Cold War, and by the conflict between the military and the secular government beginning with the First Arab-Israeli War in 1948, leading to the rise of Nasser Arab nationalism in Egypt in the fifties culminating with the Six Day War in 1967. By this time, Arab nationalism had become the dominant vehicle within the Arab world, including the military and the emerging Ba’ath Party, as the underlying energy that could best unite the various cultures, sects and nationalities comprising Syria.

The Ba’ath Party’s platform consists of “Unity, Liberty and Socialism,” and it came into power through a coup in 1963. Initially the Ba’ath Party was founded by a Christian, Michel Aflaq, a Sunni, Salah al-Din al-Bitar and an Alawite, by the name of Zakai al- Arsuzi, reflecting the Syrian social complexity. Following Syria’s defeat in the 1967 Six Weeks War in which Syria lost the Golan Heights, the military under Hafez al-Assad, emerged triumphant and transformed the Ba’ath Party into a single, centralized, family party enterprise. Hafez saw the military and the Ba’ath Party as a pathway by which he and the minority Alawites could dominate and control not only the levers of state power but the Sunnis who had historically despised them. Very quickly Assad and the Alawites consolidated their power in Syria to the chagrin of the Sunnis, especially the Islamists led by “Islamic Brotherhood”, who had looked upon the Alawites not only as heretical but also as cultural inferiors if not pariahs to the Sunna.

By the 70’s, the tension between Sunna and the Assad regime intensified. The Sunna community had become swept up by the “Islamic Resurgence” which called for Muslims to return to the Five Pillars and to reject the secularism, materialism and modernity of the West. This put the Islamic Brotherhood at loggerheads with Hafez al–Assad/Alawite government, similar to their Brotherhood counterparts in Egypt, who had attempted to assassinate Nasser and Sadat on various occasions. The conflict was religious, social and political. Religious in that the Sunna majority looked upon the Alawites as heretical, and called for a religious state grounded in the Shariah; social in that Sunnis for decades had been economically discriminated since the 1970’s in jobs, positions, and economic opportunities; and politically their voice was silenced by Assad through systematic political harassment and persecution climaxing with the “Hama Massacre” in 1982 leading to the death estimated at 40,000 residents. This horrendous event, in which Hama was turned into a parking lot by the Alawite military, led Tom Friedman to coin the phrase “Hama Rules” in his book From Beirut to Jerusalem.  Within its pages, he concluded that there are “no rules” by which the Assad family rules except violence. 

Today Syria under Hafez’s son Bashir is in the grip of a revolutionary whirlwind that demands an end to the Assad nightmare. The Sunni majority of 71% has declared “enough is enough”! The other factors that drive this Syrian version of “Arab Spring” are high unemployment, especially among Sunni youth, limited social opportunities, and an information technology, from internet to cell phones, which makes dissembling the regime’s violence against its own people impossible to hide. The other factor working in behalf of the “Syrian Street” consists of the role of the United States. Relations between Damascus and Washington cooled over the refusal of Syria to support the Iraqi invasion; its close ties to Iran, as well as its political interference in Lebanon which probably led to the death of prime minister Rafik Al–Hairi in 2005 leading to the Lebanese Cedar Revolution, and the withdrawal of Syrian troops, but paradoxically allowing Hezbollah supported by Iran to consolidate its political base dominant in Lebanon. 

Washington has increased its pressure on Damascus by freezing their commercial accounts.  In July 2011, Hilary Clinton remarked, after Ambassador Ford traveling across Syria had been threatened by pro-Bashir forces, that the American goal is not to shore up Bashir but “to see that the will of the Syrian people for a democratic transformation occurs.” The United States has taken the matter of Syria to the Security Council of the United Nations only to have its request for sanctions blocked by Russia and China dubious about intervention and regime change. The continued Assad violence has so escalated that even the conservative Arab League found it necessary to send in observers to mediate the situation with mixed results. The Arab League’s call for Bashir al-Assad to resign has met a skeptical response from Damascus.

At present, it appears that the forty year minority dictatorships of the Assad family/ Alawis is on the verge of collapsing as illustrated by the heroic resistance in Homs. Homs is located in the agricultural heartland of Syria and constitutes a major transportation hub linking Damascus and Aleppo. Homs historically has been primarily a Sunni commercial center with pockets of Alawites and Shiite which in normal times get along quite well. But Bashir’s assault on the Sunna population in Homs has raised the specter in the Sunni mind of another “Hama Massacre” increasing the possibility of sectarian conflict as well as reinforcing their demand for regime change. Similar assaults have been made in Dara, Duma, Homs, Latakia and Aleppo.

Today, the Free Syrian Army opposition forces are gathering position and strength in the suburbs of Damascus. The great fear however still remains that the collapse of Bashir’s regime will trigger sectarian violence of the same fury which engulfed Iraq in 2006. One can only hope that when Bashir does resign that the Sunna majority, especially the Islamic Brotherhood, will exercise the restraint essential to building a civil society in dialogue with other Syrian segments: Christians, Kurds, Alawites, Druzes, Shiia’s, so that chant within the Syrian street for “freedom” can be realized in the noblest tradition of Islam; namely, peace, surrender and unity.

Arthur Kane Scott is Professor of Humanities and Cultural Studies at the Dominican University of California and Fellow of American Institute of International Studies.