By Henry Srebrnik, [Saint John, NB] Telegraph Journal
The war in Syria is the defining conflict of this decade. From its origins in peaceful demonstrations for political reform, the confrontation between the Alawite regime and its opponents evolved into a regional and global proxy war. By now, at least half a million people have been killed.
At the centre is Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, who has weathered international condemnation to emerge still secure in power.
The protests that began in 2011, despite the ferment throughout the Arab world known as the Arab Spring, apparently took Assad by surprise. He fancied himself a more modern, rational ruler, not an autocrat like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak or a deluded fanatic like Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi.
Assad had married outside the family sect, and he had spent his formative years in London qualifying as an ophthalmologist. Many western leaders considered him a reformer.
His elder brother Bassel, to whom the presidency was meant to have passed, had died in a car accident in 1994.
But sectarian tensions, particularly between the majority Sunni Muslim community and Assad’s Alawite sect -- an offshoot of Shia Islam -- nonetheless escalated into violence, and Assad was faced with a state coming apart at the religious and ethnic seams.
Soon enough, with the assistance of the army, the air force, semi-private Shi’ite militias, and a national network of intelligence agents, Assad began destroying rebellious communities -- executing civilians, looting, and burning homes.
Assad’s father Hafez, a far more brutal tyrant who ruled for 30 years until his death in 2000, dreamt of a single overarching ideology for Syria. It would be under the wing of the Ba’ath Party (“resurrection” or “renaissance” in Arabic). But it was not to be.
In line with the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, the French and British had divided the former Ottoman Middle East between themselves at the end of the First World War.
The French occupied the northern Levant, from the Mediterranean to the Euphrates River and beyond – a 200,000 square-kilometre area. They quickly realized that their Syrian dominion was a patchwork of conflicting communities.
The polity they created was a collection of hostile ethnic and religious groups, even before little Lebanon was lopped off in order to create a Christian entity along the Mediterranean coast.
The Alawites were promised a fair amount of autonomy in their own area around Latakia, between Lebanon and Turkey. A nominally Shi’ite sect that most Muslims regarded as heretical, they were eager to associate with the new non-Muslim rulers.
They provided the French with excellent soldiers and would later form the backbone of the Ba’ath Party’s armed forces in the independent country that emerged in 1946.
The Druze community was a major power in the mountainous areas south of Damascus and were initially provided with an entity of their own. Later, Jabal Druze were merged into a single Syrian state with Damascus and Aleppo.
Independence brought a succession of military regimes and even a brief incorporation into Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s United Arab Republic between 1958 and 1961.
Finally, the Assads took over in 1970, coopting all non-Sunni or non-Arab minorities, such as Kurds and various Christian sects, in order to check the majority Sunnis.
They have held on for dear life – literally – ever since.