Syria: Countering Sectarian Apologetics for Imperialist Sponsored Bloodshed

According to Michael Karadjis’ latest article published on 17 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 over-representation 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 over-represented 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 over-represented 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 over-representation, 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 over-representation (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 over-represented 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 over-represented 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 over-represented 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 post-colonial nation.

It seems Karadjis is completely oblivious to the range of historic factors that explain why Alawis are over-represented 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.”1

What’s more striking about the post-independence origins of the modern Syrian Arab Army isn’t the over-representation 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.”2 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 meta-narratives.

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.”3

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.4

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.”5
 
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.6 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.”7 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 2 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.8

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, “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 (except for Tremseh) 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.

  1. From Patrick Seale’s book Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East, 1995, p. 38. []
  2. Seale, p. 39. []
  3. From Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam by Mark Curtis, 2012, p. 12. []
  4. Curtis, p. 22-23. []
  5. Seale, p. 92. []
  6. Seale, p. 42. []
  7. Seale, 1995, p. 94. []
  8. 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. []

Jay Tharappel is a Masters student of Political Economy at the University of Sydney, Australia. He can be reached at: jay.tharappel@gmail.com. Read other articles by Jay.