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Syria: Assad regime responsible for rise in religious sectarianism

Alawite supporters of the Assad regime.

Read more on Syria.

By Michael Karadjis

February 17, 2014 -- - Syrian Revolution Commentary and Analysis, posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with the author's permission -- Much of the criticism of the Syrian resistance to the Bashar al-Assad regime is based on the fact that Sunni sectarianism has become an important element within it, in particular sectarianism against the Alawites, the sect to which Assad belongs. This criticism is justified, especially with reference to the extreme jihadist elements, but is also greatly exaggerated and generalised to unjustly cover all the resistance, which is also anti-sectarian in large part.

Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that there has been a gradual drift further towards sectarian discourse even among non-jihadist parts of the resistance. Often this is merely verbal, on the part of such groups, and (unlike the jihadist-sectarians) does not correspond to any propensity to engage in armed sectarian attacks. But this very fact, of groups that seemingly have no history of or ideological dedication to sectarianism adopting sectarian language, raises the question of what is driving the sectarian dynamic of the struggle – a struggle that began in 2011 as an anti-sectarian democratic struggle to overthrow a tyranny.

One of the answers most commonly given is that it has been driven by the sponsorship of parts of the resistance by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Gulf states, who are supposedly driven to divert the democratic struggle into a sectarian Sunni-Shia conflict in order that the democratic spirit of the Arab Spring does not reach their own tyrannical regimes. This is certainly a factor, but a hard look at the reality forces me to say that this factor has been greatly exaggerated and misunderstood (including in some pieces I have written, e.g., http://mkaradjis.wordpress.com/2013/09/24/the-geopolitics-of-the-syrian-uprisinginsurgency).

One factor that has received not nearly enough discussion has been the role of the regime itself as the chief cause of sectarianism. As Gilbert Achcar wrote in a recent piece:

Let us take Syria for example. It is obvious that the transformation of the armed forces by Hafez el-Assad into a Praetorian guard of the regime, based on minority religious sectarianism, was likely to feed sectarian rancours within the majority. Let us imagine that the Egyptian president were Coptic Christian, that his family dominated the economy of the country, that three-quarters of the officers of the Egyptian army were also Coptic and that the elite corps of the Egyptian army were close to one hundred per cent Coptic. Would one be astonished to see “Muslim extremism” thriving in Egypt? Yet the proportion of Alawites in Syria is comparable with that of Copts in Egypt, that is to say approximately one tenth of the population  (http://internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article3279).

Recently, in some discussion, Assad apologists have tried to tell me that the sectarian nature of the regime has been exaggerated, or is merely a reference to the religion of Assad himself. They point to the fact that there are a number of top positions occupied by Sunni (e.g., vice-president, foreign minister). For anyone in doubt, you ought to take a look at this map of the regime: http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/uploads/Maps/Syria-Regime-Chart-20130826_2.

All the dark green are positions held by Alawites, light green Sunni and yellow "Others". First, don't be confused by most of the yellow -- nearly all of this is only yellow because it refers to businesses connected to the regime and so is only "other" in the sense that they are not individuals, and therefore cannot be given a sect. The only regime individuals I can see that are "other" (presumably Christian, Druze or Shia?) are four positions.

For the same reason, we can for the moment omit several dark green and light green squares which refer to regime-connected Alawite or Sunni businessmen, but who are not in the regime as such.

Counting just the regime individuals, we find there are 23 Alawites, five Sunni and four "others". That is, Alawites, some 10-15 per cent of the population, occupy some 72 per cent of the regime. Sunni, some 75-80 per cent of the population, occupy under 16 per cent of the regime. The "others", with four positions, about 12 per cent, would be slightly, but not enormously, over-represented (though given the regime discourse that it is the protector of “minorities,” we could thus say that “minorities” make up 20-25 per cent of the population but 84 per cent of the regime, and the vast Sunni majority only 16 per cent of the regime).

Then we need to look at other aspects.

First, a large part of the Alawite regime people are connected to Assad by family, so the regime is both sectarian and family run.

Second, Alawite elements are absolutely dominant within the military and security elements of the regime -- including head of the Republican Guard, chief of staff of the armed forces, head of military intelligence, head of the air force intelligence, director of the National Security Bureau, head of presidential security. What this means is that the appointment of a few loyal Sunnis to the officially top positions -- defence minister and interior minister -- takes on the nature of being largely cosmetic, ceremonial.

Third, looking now at all the yellow-coloured regime-connected businesses. These are of course the Syrian bourgeoisie -- the big bourgeoisie, who absolutely dominate the economy. They are connected via two main branches. All the top right of the chart shows large companies (oil, banking, telecom etc.) connected via Alawite, and Assad-family connected, members of the regime. This includes Assad's cousins, the Makhlouf family, who reportedly control some 40-60 per cent of the Syrian economy.

But of course, if the regime is absolutely Alawite dominated, where it can claim to be a little more "multicultural" in relation to the capitalist class -- you wouldn't want to exclude traditionally dominant big Sunni capital. So the whole bottom-right of the chart shows big businesses connected via the "Sunni business elite" who are in turn connected by marriage to Maher al-Assad, the president's brother and head of the Republican Guard (wow, talk about the state as the "bodies of armed men" defending the capitalist class -- hard to get it more open that that).

So to the extent that the regime isn't entirely Alawite, it is the Sunni mega-capitalist class that is its chief non-Alawite support base.

So now let's further summarise, the regime is:

1. Alawite sectarian
2. Assad family-run
3. The executive committee par-excellence of the Syrian mega-capitalist class.

So when an Alawite-sectarian regime that has ruled for decades launches unlimited war against its population who rise up for democratic rights, and the majority of the rising population (though by no means all of it) just happen to be Sunni, then Achcar is right that this “was likely to feed sectarian rancours within the majority”.

And it works the other way as well. As Thomas Pierret explains:

The kin-based/sectarian nature of the military is what allows the regime to be not merely "repressive", but to be able to wage a full-fledged war against its own population. Not against a neighboring state, an occupied people or a separatist minority, but against the majority of the population, including the inhabitants of the metropolitan area (i.e. Damascus and its suburbs). There are very few of such cases in modern history … No military that is reasonably representative of the population could do what the Syrian army did over the last two years, i.e. destroying most of the country's major cities, including large parts of the capital. You need a sectarian or ethnic divide that separates the core of the military from the target population. Algeria went through a nasty civil war in the 1990s, and Algerian generals are ruthless people, but I do not think that the Algerian military ever used heavy artillery against one of the country's large cities (http://angryarab.blogspot.com.au/2013/04/angry-arab-interviews-thomas-pierret-on.html).

But it is not only the presence of a totally sectarian regime waging war against its people that promotes a sectarian dynamic. It is also the fact that the regime early on set up sectarian Alawite militias (the Shabiha) to terrorise specifically Sunni populations, including through mass murder of hundreds of people at a time (the list is well known: Houla, Tremseh, Bayda and Banyas etc.), and ethnic cleansing, not to mention the wholesale destruction of districts and cities where Sunni live. To again quote Pierret:

The problem is that many people do not even recognize the sectarian character of these atrocities, claiming that repression targets opponents from all sects, including Alawites. In fact ordinary repression does target opponents from all sects, but collective punishments (large-scale massacres, destruction of entire cities) are reserved for Sunnis, just like they were reserved for Iraqi Shiites and Kurds under Saddam Hussein.

A sectarian, anti-Alawite response is thus to be expected as much as we find anti-Jewish responses among many Palestinians (and check Hamas’ virulently anti-Jewish founding charter if you don’t believe me, largely based on the Protocols). I believe Hamas has moved on a great deal since its founding charter, and I don’t think this characterises its politics today. However, such discourse understandably remains a factor among many Palestinians, and the address for those responsible for this is in Tel Aviv.

That of course does not make it alright. But the point of this contribution is not to justify real sectarian politics among some sections of the opposition, but to analyse its cause. A number of points can be made.

First, the fact that sectarian views have been rising among sections of the opposition, and that this had led to a number of actual sectarian attacks and crimes, and even at least one large-scale sectarian crime – the monstrous ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria group) attack on Alawite villages in Lattakia in August 2013, when nearly 200 were massacred (http://www.hrw.org/reports/2013/10/11/you-can-still-see-their-blood) – is evidence that the regime’s crimes are the major factor making life insecure for the Alawite masses, in the same way as the crimes of the Zionist regime occupying Palestine are the main factor making life insecure for the Jewish masses.

Second, the massacre just referred to is the only one on that scale, i.e., on a similar scale to the kinds of massacres of Sunni that regime militias regularly carry out. That does not mean that smaller scale ones are OK. What it means is that, by and large, most sectarian attacks on Alawites by opposition forces have been opportunist attacks by undisciplined elements, not part of a strategy of any of the leading groups other than ISIS, and cannot be compared to the massacres organised by the regime.

It is also important to be aware of fake “sectarian massacre” stories spread by the regime, such as the alleged massacre of Shia villagers in Hatla in June 2013 (see http://blog.you-ng.it/2013/06/17/hatla-fabrication-of-a-massacre), the more recent faked “Adra massacre” (see http://www.interpretermag.com/the-massacre-in-syria-that-wasnt/ and especially http://lopforum.tumblr.com/post/70411153632/alleged-adra-massacre-collated-media), the alleged large-scale massacre of Kurds by jihadists last August
(where the jihadists did carry out crimes in their war against the Kurds, but not of this nature or scale, see http://claysbeach.blogspot.com.au/2013/08/breaking-news-assad-iran-you-lie-on.html), among others.

As for Lattakia itself, ISIS is of course widely reviled by the rest of the opposition, who see it as either a front for the regime or a dictatorship that must also be fought, and since early January 2014 all the other resistance forces have been engaged in a frontal war on ISIS.

Third, therefore, it is wrong to call the entire war a sectarian conflict or to call the entire anti-Assad uprising a sectarian uprising. In such a wide-ranging revolt against the murderous regime, there is a huge spectrum of opinions on everything. The task of supporters of the Syrian revolution is to do our best to support the best, anti-sectarian elements.

To take one example, the contrast between the ISIS-led massacre of Alawites last August, and this appeal by the local Free Syria Army (FSA) Battalions and Committees of the Sahel (Coast) in solidarity with Alawites in Lattakia who were waging their own struggle against the regime (http://darthnader.net/2012/10/13/and-then-there-was-hope/), speaks volumes about the differences between elements of the opposition. This is also the case with many Islamist groups outside the jihadist-sectarian fringe, for example, Liwa al-Tawhid, the large moderate-Islamist militia that dominates Aleppo, makes a point of protecting Christians (http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Middle-East/2013/Sep-21/232025-christian-hostel-in-aleppo-has-own-view-of-jihadist-rebels.ashx#axzz2gfb4z1J2). Indeed there are Alawite, Christian and Druze units of the FSA; here is an important article about anti-Assad Alawites: http://freehalab.wordpress.com/2013/06/04/the-free-alawite-front/.

Fourth, however, the fact of this sectarian aspect, even if only from part of the resistance, makes it all the more difficult for the Alawite masses – which, if we take out those in the ruling elite, are, like most Sunnis, often poor rural folk – to break with the regime and join the ranks of the revolution. Even many of those who despise the regime. Of course this is a Catch-22 however – because to the extent that Alawites are seen to be blocking with a sectarian regime that it slaughtering the majority, anti-Alawite sectarianism will increase, whereas if a powerful anti-Assad group of Alawites did emerge, it would nullify such a trend. This adds weight to the view that a purely “military situation” is impossible, and that if some kind of ceasefire could be forced out of the regime, which allowed for the civil struggle to resume, it could be a good thing for the revolution if such space were used right.

Finally, however, the fact that this sectarianism has been created, driven, perpetuated by the regime, also means that purely “diplomatic solutions” that aim to save the regime with some cosmetic changes will also not work – the chief cause of the cancer cannot be the “shield” against it, as some imagine.

Both diplomacy and military struggle, like civil struggle, are tactics, parts of an overall “revolutionary solution”, which removes the regime. Even to get to a ceasefire that aids the struggle – i.e., the opposite of one that merely allows the regime to go on killing behind a façade after the revolutionary forces have demobilised – will require not nice talk to a regime that has waged all-out, unlimited war for three years, but real military pressure on it via the opposition being able to get real arms in relevant quantities.

And if we have to accept that at this stage part of the resistance has become sectarian due to the regime’s sectarianism, and that little can be done about it until the regime is removed, by the same token all the non-sectarian parts of the resistance need to wage a relentless struggle against the influence of this destructive, reactionary sectarianism within its ranks – the war currently being launched against the ISIS by the rest of the resistance being a very positive step in that direction.

Comments

Splitting the Alawites from the Assads

An excellent addition to the very question of the Alawites, coincidentally published the same day: Splitting the Alawites from the Assads: http://notgeorgesabra.wordpress.com/2014/02/16/splitting-the-alawites-fr...

Gulf states and sectarianism

Posted on behalf of Chris Slee

* * *


I agree with Michael Karadjis that the Assad regime is promoting sectarianism. But I think he is wrong to downplay the role of the Gulf states in also promoting sectarianism.
The Gulf states have been giving money and weapons to Sunni Islamic rebel groups, while secular rebel groups have received little outside support. This increases the weight of Sunni groups in the anti-Assad rebellion.
This tends to alienate non-Sunnis from the rebellion. Even if most Sunni groups do not carry out massacres of non-Sunni civilians, they are still distrusted by non-Sunnis, because they are not inclusive of all religious communities.
Thus the Gulf states have helped alienate non-Sunnis from the rebellion, and thereby increased the tendency for the war to become a sectarian conflict.
I believe that the United States basically supports the actions of the Gulf states. Religious sectarianism has been a useful tool to undermine the possibility of a real democratic revolution in Syria, which would threaten imperialist control of the Middle East.
However the US does not want the most extreme sectarian groups such as ISIS to get too strong.  The Western imperialists will want to rein in the sectarian conflict at some stage, to enable the formation of a anew pro-imperialist government which may include representatives from different religious communities.  Groups such as ISIS could be an obstacle to this.

Syria: Countering Sectarian Apologetics for Imperialist Sponsore

According to Michael Karadjis’ latest article published on the 17th of February titled ‘Assad Regime Responsible for Rise in Religious Sectarianism’, it is the secular Syrian government that is responsible for the rise in sectarianism, and not the actual bloodthirsty insurgents of all factions who have earned an international reputation for their sectarian brutality.

The main theme of Karadjis’ article is his argument that the sectarian hatred endemic among most, if not all rebel factions, is primarily a predictable outgrowth of the overrepresentation of Alawis in the Syrian government. He refers to the Syrian state as a “family run” “Alawite regime”, which is nothing more than a lazy cliché that serves to transform the story of a complex nation and its political history into a generic caricature that ultimately serves imperial interests. There are many who support the so-called revolution who wouldn’t go this far, or who would at least balance this viewpoint with an emphasis on the heavy funding provided to the insurgency by the Saudi & Qatari regimes, or the vicious propaganda of oil-money sponsored Salafi clerics calling for Bilad ash-Sham (the Levant) to be cleansed of religious minorities. According to Karadjis these explanations are peripheral as it’s the “Alawite dominated” regime that supposedly constitutes the original source of sectarianism.

Karadjis begins by citing an argument by Gilbert Achcar who contends that if, hypothetically, the Copts in Egypt dominated the state, then one would naturally expect to see Muslim extremism thriving. This ignores the obvious reality that despite NOT dominating the state, the Coptic community have for decades been the victims of Islamist terrorism, including violent pogroms, kidnappings, and the destruction of churches. Such an abysmal analytic failure on Achcar’s part is to be expected given his reactionary politics, as exemplified in 2011 when he supported the NATO bombing of Libya and the racist anti-Gaddafi death-squads.

According to Karadjis, the insurgent-led campaign of hatred and violence against Alawis is the government’s fault because it’s dominated by sectarian Alawis, although the evidence he provides for this claim is pathetically weak. He begins by pointing out that Alawis are overrepresented in the government. His evidence for this is a chart, provided by the Washington Institute for Near East policy – a U.S. think tank with a board of advisors that includes prominent Zionist Joseph Lieberman, and war criminals such as Richard Perle, Condoleeza Rice, and Henry Kissinger. The chart, in Karadjis’ mind, is a “map of the regime”, although it doesn’t actually specify what exactly is being mapped. Is it the sectarian composition of the Syrian cabinet, or the military, or the business elite, or any other institution? No, it doesn’t provide any categories, it’s nothing more than a collection of some but not all military figures, cabinet ministers, and business people.

On the basis of this incomplete information, Karadjis arrives at the laughable conclusion that Alawis, who are “some 10-15 per cent of the population, occupy some 72 per cent of the regime”, while Sunnis, who are “some 75-80 per cent of the population, occupy under 16 per cent of the regime”.

This has got to be most incompetent and lazy demographic analysis about Syria ever produced, and it could be dismissed simply by arguing that the chart provided by this U.S. think-tank (controlled by war criminals) doesn’t specify what it’s mapping. However it is possible to go a step further and provide data regarding the sect-based composition of Syria’s cabinet. See what I did there? I actually specified what I’m mapping – in this case the Syrian cabinet.

According to data featured in the book ‘The Struggle for Power in Syria’ (1995) by Nikolaos Van Dam, the aggregate percentage-wise sect composition of successive Syrian cabinets between 1970 (when Hafez Al Assad came to power) and 1995 (when the book was written) are as follows:

Sunni: 68.37 percent
Christian: 7.14 percent
Alawi: 20.41 percent
Druze: 4.08 percent

Sure, Alawis appear overrepresented by up to 8 percentage points above their proportion of the total population (12 percent), but there’s a huge difference between Alawis being 20.41 percent of cabinet ministers (over a period of 25 years) and Karadjis’ assertion that Alawis “occupy 72 percent of the regime”, which he bases on entirely misleading data. Additionally, if the figures for the period 1970-1976 are taken alone, Sunnis are shown to have comprised 81.18 percent of total cabinet ministers, which suggests a high degree of variability for reasons that could be entirely random as it would be unreasonable to expect a parliament to be proportionally representative (in terms of sect) of the population all the time, especially when parliamentary seats aren’t allocated on a confessional basis like in neighbouring Lebanon.

Unfortunately this data exists only up until 1995, but there’s no reason to imagine the situation would have been any different under President Bashar Al Assad’s administration. In any case the reason why such data is difficult to acquire is because in Syria, religion is considered a personal affair and as such politicians are unlikely to openly identify themselves by their sect. This cultural norm was actually a hurdle Van Dam faced when compiling his data on the sect composition of the Syrian cabinet (he told me this in a private conversation). Having dismantled Karadjis’ nonsensical claims of Alawi overrepresentation, what he’s left with is his own admission, which he doesn’t dispute, that “there are a number of top positions occupied by Sunnis”. Indeed this is correct, the Prime Minister Wael Al Halqi, the Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, the Defense Minister Fahad Jasem Al Freij, and the Interior Minister Ibrahim Al Shaar, are all Sunnis.

Karadjis’ next claim is that “Alawite elements are absolutely dominant within the military and security elements of the regime”, and on the basis of this assertion he concludes that “the appointment of a few loyal Sunnis to the officially top positions - defence minister and interior minister - takes on the nature of being largely cosmetic, ceremonial”. How does Karadjis know that the positions of defence and interior minister are “cosmetic” and “ceremonial”? Is he actually suggesting that the military overrides the civilian administration, and if so, on what basis does he reach conclusion? Quite frankly what can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.

It’s on the basis of Karadjis’ claims of Alawi overrepresentation (which are exaggerated to the point of being qualitatively false) that he concludes that the “regime” is “sectarian”, but just because a particular sect is overrepresented in a state’s institutions doesn’t mean the state actively discriminates on the basis of sect, which is what the label “sectarian” would suggest at the very least. Bottom line is this. To the extent that Alawis are overrepresented in government, their power doesn’t stem from their Alawi heritage, their sect holds no official privileges, and they’re not economically better off than other Syrians.

If someone were to argue that because Jews are overrepresented in the U.S. government that they control the U.S. government, I’d pay Karadjis the compliment of assuming that he’d (quite rightly) dismiss this as anti-Semitic propaganda. However it seems he’s willing to spout similar drivel to legimitise what is essentially an imperialist proxy war against an independent postcolonial nation.

It seems Karadjis is completely oblivious to the range of historic factors that explain why Alawis are overrepresented in the military. Prior to Syria gaining independence in 1946, families who wished to exempt their boys from military conscription (under the French mandate) would have pay a fee, which many Alawis, being a generally poorer community, couldn’t afford to pay. Moreover many considered it a lucrative career option because the military in their eyes was one of the few meritocratic institutions they could join to get ahead in life, and one where they wouldn’t be discriminated against because of their beliefs. According to former President Hafez Al Assad’s biographer Patrick Seale, “young men from minority backgrounds made for the army in droves rather than for other professions because their families did not have the means to send them to university” (p. 38).
What’s more striking about the post-independence origins of the modern Syrian Arab Army isn’t the overrepresentation of any particular sect, rather its class character. After independence, young men from poorer rural backgrounds began swelling the ranks of the army whereas their urban counterparts were more likely to serve their two year term in the military before returning to more profitable careers in the cities. This according to Seale was the “historic mistake of the leading families and of the mercantile and landowning class to which they belonged: scorning the army as a profession, they allowed it to be captured by their class enemies who then went on to capture the state itself” (p. 39). For someone who loves talking about class, Karadjis is unable or unwilling to recognise the elitist origins of anti Alawi sectarianism.

Karadjis desperate attempts to try and blame the “Alawite regime” for sectarianism ignores the enormous wahhabi elephant in the room, which is that for nearly a century, the most divisive and puritanical forms of political Islam were cultivated as a tool of American and British foreign policy. These forces were originally mobilised to counteract the forces of secular leftist Arab nationalism, which dominated the post-colonial zeitgeist, capturing the imagination of the Arab masses, who were drawn more towards Nasserism, Baathism, and Communism than towards religious metanarratives.

Winston Churchill, addressing the House of Commons in 1921 said of the Wahhabis of the Arabian Gulf “they hold it as an article of duty, as well as of faith, to kill all who do not share their opinions and to make slaves of their wives and children”. While he was shocked at their cultural practices, Churchill recognised the need to cultivate a close relationship with the House of Saud writing in 1953, “my admiration for [Ibn Saud] was deep, because of his unfailing loyalty to us” (from ‘Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam’ by Mark Curtis, 2012, p. 12).

Similarly the Muslim Brotherhood emerged in Egypt in 1928 promoting the slogan “the Qur’an is our constitution”, and advocating the restoration of Islam to the alleged purity of its historic origins. Their founding leader, Hassan Al Banna, collaborated closely with King Farouk who often used the Brotherhood’s paramilitary wing to terrorise the political enemies of the Egyptian monarchy, primarily secular leftists, nationalists, communists, and even bourgeois liberals like the Wafd Party (Ibid, p. 22-23).

After all why wouldn’t they? The Brotherhood ultimately represented the interests of the landed elites and merchant classes, and to the extent that they preached social justice, their policies extended merely to calling on the rich to provide for the poor, a position far removed from the democratic, redistributive, and socialist tendencies that defined their secular leftist opponents.

Meanwhile, the Brotherhood’s counterparts in Syria always clashed with the post-Baathist state for entirely reactionary reasons. In 1964, just a year after the Baath party had seized power, and six years before Syria’s first Alawi President Hafez Al Assad came to power (admittedly, Salah Jadid, an Alawi, became the defacto leader in 1966), the Muslim Brotherhood began their first insurrection, and for what reason? According to Seale it began in the souks (bazaars or marketplaces) with “prayer-leaders, preaching inflammatory sermons against the secular, socialist Baath”, that the anger stemmed from “merchants, dreading the inroads of Baathist radicalism”, and that “country notables resented the rise of the minority upstarts and their humble Sunni allies” (from Patrick Seale’s book ‘Asad’, 1995, p. 92).

The Hama elites backing the Brotherhood associated the Baathists with peasant uprisings, especially since prior to the land-reforms that followed the 1963 coup, four extremely wealthy (Sunni) families owned 91 of the 113 villages in the Hama region (Seale, 1995, p. 42). To quote Seale, for the new Baathist rulers, “the city had long been a symbol of oppression for the rural poor - the background of so many of them - and a stronghold of Sunni conservatism, but now they came to loathe it as a centre of malevolent reaction, an irredeemable enemy of everything they stood for” (Seale, 1995, p. 94). In 1973 when the Syrian constitution was modified to remove a clause requiring that the office of President must be held by a Muslim, the Brotherhood responded with violent protests.

Included in Karadjis’ Alawi-phobic conspiracy is the claim that the Makhlouf family (who are President Assad’s cousins) “control some 40-60 per cent of the Syrian economy”. This claim was originally made in The Telegraph on May 2011, “the president's first cousin [Rami Makhlouf] is thought to have control of over 60 per cent of the Syrian economy”. However the absurdity of this claim is evidenced by its sheer ambiguity. What does it mean to “control” a certain percentage of an economy? How is this quantified? Does it mean Rami Makhlouf (or the Makhlouf family as Karadjis alleges) has a net worth amounting to anywhere between 40 and 60 percent of Syria’s GDP? Well no, that doesn’t make any mathematical sense because Makhlouf is reported to be worth $5 billion, which is roughly 6 percent of Syria’s GDP. Does it mean that Makhlouf owns stakes in a large number of enterprises? If so, how can the 40-60 percent claim be quantified?

The point here isn’t to defend Makhlouf, who to be sure has a reputation for corruption and nepotism, rather to highlight how tenuous claims like this are used, by the likes of Karadjis and the rest of the Imperial-Left, to make sweeping and facile generalisations about the Syrian economy. In the interests of balance it’s worth mentioning that although Syria has the fourth lowest per-capita GDP when compared with its fellow Arab states, it ranks third highest in life expectancy (at around 74 years) beaten only by the oil rich emirates Qatar and the UAE (from Google’s public data bank sourced from the World Bank). A rather impressive feat for a sanctioned nation with very little oil, a nation that manages to punch above its weight (i.e. income level) when it comes to objective measures of human development like healthcare and education.

One only has to view the U.S. State Department’s ‘2011 Investment Climate Statement’ on Syria, which reads as a list of complaints about the Syrian economy for not being accommodating enough to capitalist interests, to realise that the simplistic portrayal, by Karadjis and his ilk, of the Syrian economy as some kind of neoliberal wasteland is grossly misleading. The Statement notes that “despite recent legislative attempts at reform, the economy remains largely centrally planned”; that "Syria’s labor laws are generally considered an impediment to foreign investment”; and that “government officials publicly reject the notion of privatizing state enterprises on ideological grounds”. On that last point, the state sector still contributes roughly 40 percent of Syrian GDP according to Bassam Haddad’s 2011 report titled ‘The Political Economy Of Syria: Realities And Challenges’.

Karadjis alleges that “the regime early on set up sectarian Alawite militias (the Shabiha) to terrorise specifically Sunni populations” although the three examples he cites to support this point, i.e. Houla, Bayda and Banyas, are ALL proven false flag attacks that were actually carried out by the so called “revolutionaries” the Imperial-Left love so much. The original Houla massacre story blaming the government was debunked by the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

The Bayda and Banyas massacres, also originally blamed on the Syrian government, have also been challenged. Very briefly, the Bayda massacre’s most well-know victim, Sheikh Omar Biassi, was a member of the National Reconciliation Committee, and an advocate of inter-faith dialogue and national unity. He was a government supporter who was on the record saying, “we believe that resolving the crisis in Syria, which was safe and stable, will be done by dialogue, for the ship with its captain Bashar al-Assad to reach safety”. A month prior to the massacre that claimed him he referred to the insurgents as “traitors” and that “the only solution” was to “kill them”. On the 2nd of May himself and 35 other members (36 in total) of his extended family were massacred. The government had no reason to kill him but the insurgents most certainly did. For a thorough debunking of this false flag operation, see ‘Media Disinformation and Coverup of Atrocities Committed by US Sponsored Syria Rebels’ by Adam Larson.

As for the “Tremseh massacre” which Karadjis brings up, it was alleged by “activists” (i.e. FSA sympathisers) in Hama that Syrian forces massacred 200 people, mostly civilians, although on closer inspection the majority of those killed were insurgents, not civilians. According to UN monitors, “The attack on Tremseh appeared targeted at specific groups and houses, mainly of army defectors and activists”. Guardian columnist Martin Chulov noted that “of 103 fatalities recorded by opposition sources, all are male”; and according to the New York Times, “although what actually happened in Tremseh remains murky, the evidence available suggested that events on Thursday more closely followed the Syrian government account”. Far from being a sectarian massacre against Sunnis as Karadjis alleges, the Battle of Tremseh was essentially “a lopsided fight between the army pursuing the opposition and activists and locals trying to defend the village”.

Karadjis’ coverage of these massacres was intended to strengthen his argument that the worst atrocities have been committed by the government, although the massacres at Houla, Bayda and Banyas, which Karadjis blames on the government, were actually perpetrated by the very insurgents he praises as “revolutionaries”. If we include the Latakia massacre of two-hundred civilians carried out by ISIS which Karadjis admits, that means the worst atrocities presented in his article were committed by the insurgents, not the state.

Here’s a major difference between the two sides that Karadjis wilfully ignores.

Even in cases of alleged crimes by state forces, every effort is made by the state to downplay or deny them as its considered shameful, where the “revolutionaries” not only commit sectarian atrocities, they brag about them openly.
The bottom line is this. When it comes to sectarianism, there is no moral equivalence between the Syrian state and the NATO-Saudi-Qatari sponsored insurgents.

The leadership of the two most prominent insurgent fronts, namely ISIS and Jabhat Al Nusra, are openly sectarian, while the front touted by the west as “moderate” is led by Zahran Alloush who openly calls for Syria to be ethnically cleansed of “Rafida” (a reference to Shias and by extension Alawis). In Alloush’s own words: “The mujahideen of Sham will wash the filth of the Rafida and the Rafidia from Sham, they will wash it forever, if Allah wills it, until they cleanse Bilad al-Sham from the filth of the Majous who have fought the religion of Allah”.

To suggest that parallels can be found on the side of the Syrian state, let alone to argue that the state is the source of sectarianism, is monumentally absurd, but Karadjis, being the loyal servant of U.S. imperialism that he is, manages, through incredible displays of mental gymnastics, to spin exactly such a tale.

- Jay Tharappel

More on Syria

Alan George, the author of a book on Syria, gives a nuanced view on whether or not the Assad regime is sectarian. He says the allegation that the Assad regime is an “Alawi minority clique” is “not wholly sustainable but not entirely without basis”. (“Syria: Neither Bread Nor Freedom”, Zed Books, 2003, p.6)

He says: “The Ba’athist regime is secular and includes key figures from all Syria’s main communities but its core, especially in the security and military services, is Alawi…Traditionally, the Alawis were an impoverished and marginalized group, many working as agricultural labourers for the Sunni landed gentry of the cities of Hama and Homs. The military was one of the few guaranteed ways in which the offspring of Alawi mountain peasants could secure a foothold in mainstream society. ‘We are all Arabs’ is the official line in Ba’athist Syria but the assertion is used to obscure the regime’s Alawi origins – and the tendency for Alawis to receive preferment in the bureaucracy and military and the security services”. (George, p.6)

The war has intensified tendencies towards religious sectarianism, both amongst those supporting Assad and amongst those fighting against him.

Michael Karadjis sees the sectarianism of the Assad regime as the cause of growing sectarianism amongst the rebels. But it also works the other way – the sectarianism of some of the rebels intensifies the sectarianism of some of the regime supporters.

Michael downplays the significance of the promotion of sectarianism in Syria by the Gulf regimes. But in my opinion their role has been crucial.

The Gulf monarchies have long promoted divisions between Sunnis and Shias to maintain their rule. But with their enormous oil wealth they are able to have an impact throughout the Arab world.

Before discussing Syria specifically, it is worth looking at the broader context. Throughout the Middle East and North Africa, following the upsurge of protests in 2011, reactionary forces have tried to divide the population on religious or racial lines, with the goal of weakening democratic and progressive forces, and avoiding the possibility of a genuine democratic revolution.

One example was Libya, where the anti-Gaddafi section of the bourgeoisie used racism as a part of their strategy to divert the 2011 popular upsurge in a reactionary direction.

There was widespread discontent with the Gaddafi regime, due to unemployment, growing inequality, political repression, etc. However Gaddafi still retained some popular support, due to the reforms he had carried out in the early stages of his rule.

To defeat Gaddafi’s army, the rebels had two choices. One option was to put forward a radical democratic program that could have won the support of the vast majority of the people, including the rank and file of Gaddafi’s army. The other option was to call on NATO to help them defeat the army.

The bourgeois leadership of the rebel movement chose the latter course.

The rebel leadership promoted racist violence. This began with attacks on black migrant workers and culminated in the ethnic cleansing of the black Libyans living in the city of Tawergha. For a detailed account of this racist campaign, see the article “Race, ‘Humanitarianism’, and the Media” by Maximilian Forte:
http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/2011/forte200411p.html

This racism naturally alienated many people (especially black people) from the rebels. This ensured that, after some early defections, the bulk of the army remained loyal to Gaddafi and continued fighting for another six months.

Eventually the rebels were victorious, with the aid of NATO bombing and military advisers from the NATO countries and Qatar.

The result was a very distorted version of democracy. There were elections, but with candidates vetted for alleged links with Gaddafi. The elected government has little power, with real power being in the hands of reactionary militias, including the notoriously racist Misrata militia, which was responsible for the ethnic cleansing of Tawergha. The struggle for real democracy continues. For more detail, see my article entitled Libya’s continuing struggle for democracy:
http://links.org.au/node/3659/

Events in Syria have some similarities to those in Libya. In Syria, too, widespread discontent due to unemployment, inequality and repression led to protests in 2011, which were violently repressed. A large number of armed groups were then formed to fight against the Assad regime.

But in Syria, too, a section of the population supports the regime, or at least regards it as a lesser evil than the rebel movement.

In the Syrian case, the main problem is not racism but religious sectarianism.

The Assad regime promotes sectarianism, for example by arming Alawi militias which attack Sunni villages. But religious sectarianism is also a problem amongst the rebels.

The Gulf states have actively intervened in Syria to promote sectarianism. They have provided money and arms to rebel groups that identify with Sunni Islam, while refusing to arm or fund secular rebel groups. This means that Sunni groups can arm and pay their fighters, while secular groups can not. This strengthens the Sunni component of the rebellion and weakens the secular component. For more detail on this, see “Empowering the Democratic Resistance in Syria”, by Bassma Kodmani and Felix Legrand:
www.arab-reform.net/empowering-democratic-resistance-syria/

The result of this policy is that members of religious minorities (Alawi, Christian, Druze, etc) see the rebels as representing the interests of Sunnis only. Hence the minorities tend to support the Assad regime.

Thus sectarianism amongst the rebels, promoted by the Gulf regimes, actually helps the Assad regime to retain its support. Combined with the vastly superior arms supplied by Russia, and support from Iran and Hezbollah, this has so far enabled the regime to survive.

Bassma Kodmani and Felix Legrand, who have documented the role of the Gulf regimes in promoting sectarianism in Syria, fail to see that the United States has encouraged its Gulf allies to carry out this policy. They say:

“Western countries who denounced Assad’s crimes have largely relied on regional actors to provide financial and military support for what was understood to be a common objective of ending the Assad regime.

“They have often ignored the real agenda of these governments and failed to see how they select the recipients of the support”. (Kodmani and Legrand, p. 30)

In my view, the United States government supports the Gulf states’ strategy of promoting religious sectarianism in Syria. The US has helped the Gulf states to obtain arms to supply to selected rebel groups, and has vetted the groups which receive these arms. For more detail, see:
www.nytimes.com/2013/world/middleeast/arms-airlift-to-syrian-rebels-expa...

If the US is vetting the groups that receive arms from the Gulf regimes, and if the arms from the Gulf regimes go to Sunni groups rather than secular ones, that implies that the US wants to strengthen Sunni groups at the expense of secular groups.

The reason often given for the US’s failure to give a significant amount of aid to secular rebel groups is that this aid might fall into the hands of extreme Islamist groups. In my view this explanation does not hold water. The lack of substantial outside aid for secular groups, while Islamic groups are receiving large amounts of aid, increases the relative military strength of Islamic groups. I would assume that US policymakers understand this, and that this is the desired outcome of US policy.

Thus we may deduce that the US wants the Syrian people to be divided on religious lines. The purpose of this policy is to undermine the initial democratic character of the uprising.

If the whole population had united against the Assad regime, the rebels could have won over the rank and file of the army, and the repressive apparatus of the state could have collapsed. This would have made possible a very radical democratic revolution, which the US does not want.

However, to complicate the picture, it should be noted that not all Sunni-sectarian groups are backed by the US and the Gulf states.

Some groups, such as ISIS, are backed by sectors of the bourgeoisie and clergy in the Gulf states that are opposed to the existing Gulf regimes. These sectors of the ruling classes oppose the Gulf regimes’ subservience to the US, but do so from a reactionary ideological position.

The growth of ISIS could be a problem for the US in the future. The US would like to eventually bring about a negotiated settlement in Syria between a section of the rebels and a section of the regime (minus Assad). The most extreme sectarian groups, such as ISIS, could be an obstacle to such an outcome.

The US wants to create enough sectarianism to prevent a democratic revolution in Syria, but it wants to be able to rein it in when the time comes to impose a negotiated settlement. This is a delicate balancing act, and miscalculations are possible.

In conclusion, we should condemn Russian imperialism for supporting the Assad regime, and also condemn US imperialism for promoting sectarianism amongst the rebels.

Reply to Chris on the Gulf and Islamism

Chris Slee makes a number of good points in his comment, as he always does. He agrees that the regime has a large part of the responsibility for inciting sectarianism, though the purpose of his opening quote from Alan George is unclear – he says George has a “nuanced” view on the regime’s sectarian nature, because he says it is “secular” yet “its core, especially in the security and military services, is Alawi.” Since no-one claimed the Alawi-dominated nature of the regime was of a “religious” nature, then the regime’s “secularism” is not in doubt; but in a dictatorship, it is domination of precisely the “core” and especially the military-security apparatus which is everything, so George in fact demonstrates my point.

Especially given the fact that this Alawi-dominated military-security apparatus has been launching unlimited war on a mostly impoverished Sunni working class and peasantry, my point stands. (The challenge to my assertions in the very different pro-bourgeois-tyranny comment by Jay Tharappel I will deal with separately another time, I wouldn’t want to mix Chris’ intelligent comments with Jay’s reactionary pulp).

Noting my contention that the sectarianism of the Assad regime is a major cause of growing sectarianism amongst the rebels, Chris notes “but it also works the other way – the sectarianism of some of the rebels intensifies the sectarianism of some of the regime supporters.” Yes, that was also a point I was making in the last section, in my discussion about ceasefire, no military solution etc, points I have continuously made for the last 2 years, and my view expressed in my article that therefore “all the non-sectarian parts of the resistance need to wage a relentless struggle against the influence of this destructive, reactionary sectarianism within its ranks.” So again I think we agree.

The disagreement is about the relative role of the Gulf states in the promotion of sectarianism on the anti-Assad side. Chris says that I “downplay the significance of the promotion of sectarianism in Syria by the Gulf regimes. But in my opinion their role has been crucial.”

Of course I did not deny they had played a role. As I wrote, “this is certainly a factor.” In fact, as I pointed out, I had written of it quite emphatically in several articles in the past. In fact what I wrote was rather similar to what Chris writes here, that “The Gulf states have actively intervened in Syria to promote sectarianism. They have provided money and arms to rebel groups that identify with Sunni Islam, while refusing to arm or fund secular rebel groups. This means that Sunni groups can arm and pay their fighters, while secular groups cannot. This strengthens the Sunni component of the rebellion and weakens the secular component.”

However, as I noted in my article, “a hard look at the reality forces me to say that this factor has been greatly exaggerated and misunderstood” (including by myself).

And this is the point. I have no special desire to want to admit that I was (partially) wrong in these cases. I have no political/emotional attachment to not attacking reactionary and tyrannical regimes like those in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, and blaming them, along with the regime, for the sectarian carnage. In fact, this discourse is very neat and comforting to me, and to other leftists, including many who probably found my earlier articles commendable for exactly this reason.

And the reasons I gave, and that Chris gives, are entirely sound, taken by themselves: that the Gulf monarchies aim to divert the dangerous radical democratic momentum of the Syrian uprising into a sectarian conflict, dividing the Syrian masses in the face of the regime, while killing two birds with the one stone by also scoring a geopolitical victory against their geopolitical/sectarian rival Iran. In the context of the uprising of the Shia poor in Bahrain against the Sunni minority clique there – the mirror image of the Syrian uprising poor against the Alawi minority clique – this was all the more compelling a reason.

The theory is excellent; however, there was only one problem with this entire scenario: it only bears a very minimal connection to the truth, if any. Even if you look back at the articles where I wrote this, it would not be difficult to notice the lack of concrete evidence I presented. My “hard look at reality” can be summed up quite simply: I read more.

But to demonstrate this in detail, I have written an extensive piece on the subject of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the Gulf private networks and the Syrian uprising, at http://mkaradjis.wordpress.com/2014/06/03/the-gulf-and-islamism-in-syria...

This article will demonstrate that even the sources Chris gives, such as the excellent article “Empowering the Democratic Resistance in Syria”, by Bassma Kodmani and Felix Legrand (www.arab-reform.net/empowering-democratic-resistance-syria/), do not provide evidence for his contention.

A second article in the series, to come out a few days later, will explore the US role. This article will provide an update on this issue, which is a useful thing in and of itself, while also dealing, in passing, with Chris’ even more unlikely contention that “the United States government supports the Gulf states’ strategy of promoting religious sectarianism in Syria. The US has helped the Gulf states to obtain arms to supply to selected rebel groups, and has vetted the groups which receive these arms,” providing as evidence this NYT article: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/25/world/middleeast/arms-airlift-to-syria...

Chris notes in relation to this article that “If the US is vetting the groups that receive arms from the Gulf regimes, and if the arms from the Gulf regimes go to Sunni groups rather than secular ones, that implies that the US wants to strengthen Sunni groups at the expense of secular groups.”

But there are a few too many “ifs” here. As I show in my first article, Gulf state arms, as opposed to “Gulf arms,” do not mostly go to “Sunni groups;” and moreover, even when you read that article Chris links to here, it is clear that US vetting was aimed precisely at making even more certain that the Gulf states do not send any arms to Islamist fighters: the article explicitly states that “the United States became concerned about some of the Islamist groups that Qatar has armed” and explains that “the American government became involved … because there was a sense that other states would arm the rebels anyhow” so the CIA role “gave the United States a degree of influence over the process, including trying to steer weapons away from Islamist groups and persuading donors to withhold portable antiaircraft missiles,” while rebels reported “hearing from arms donors that the Obama administration was limiting their supplies and blocking the distribution of the antiaircraft and anti-armor weapons they most sought.”

Thus, while I show that arming Islamists is not even the view of the Saudis, it is even less the view of the US; or to the extent that there is any truth about any level of Gulf state support to some Islamists, even this limited support is vigorously opposed by the US.

Of course, Chris is right that the US excuse for not arming the secular rebels, that the arms might fall into the hands of extreme Islamist groups, “does not hold water.” We are in agreement that the US is hostile to democratic revolution in Syria, and using the bogey of “Islamists” merely covers the US hostility to the FSA.

But my article show that this should not be confused with any US preference for Islamists getting weapons; rather, US strategy for at least a year and half has centred around trying to use a section of “moderate” rebels to launch an all-out attack on the radical Islamists, in order for them to slaughter each other, commit mutual suicide. Thus far, hardly any militants of the secular FSA have expressed the willingness to be that “moderate;” they have understood the difference between being democratic-secular, and treachery – and this has ensured that most have still never received a bullet from the US.

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