Since the beginning of the Syrian conflict, many have claimed that the Assad dynasty is secular. How do supporters of this claim defend their argument? It's impossible to answer this question simply, although the regime's supporters and opponents have tried to do so many times over many years. It seems the true answer to this question, which has been on my mind for some time now, is more nuanced than those debated on social media, flashed across television screens, and written about in newspapers.
Considering this debate reminds me once again of the outcry over the horrors of ISIS in the Arab press, and how both the regime and opposition have each relentlessly resorted to their own particular reasoning to associate one another with ISIS.
The Assad regime argues that its opponents, far from being secular or reformist, are the ideological soul-mates of ISIS, takfiris, and terrorists. On the other hand, the opposition claims that the Wests’s delay in aiding and arming moderate rebel groups during the early phases of the Syrian revolution has weakened non-sectarian forces, as well as peaceful protestors. The opposition also claims, and rightly so, that extremist religious groups benefitted logistically from the regime’s release of former prisoners who would later go on to fight alongside ISIS, though this was initially a simple attempt to divide its opponents by creating strife between moderate and extremist opposition groups. Even without regime ploys, the various opposition forces display a tendency to point fingers at the regime with secular factions directly correlating the weakness of the moderate opposition with the ascension and success of radical sectarian groups like ISIS, to whose strength the regime contributed both directly and indirectly.
With every new ISIS horror, from the mass murder of Yazidis and the forceful expulsion of Christians from Mosul, to the gruesome beheadings of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, spurious claims relating to Assad's commitment to secularism continue to resurface, thanks to his loyal propaganda machine in Lebanon, as well as to the remnants of his well-funded public relations contacts in Europe and the U.S.
Yet, this simple history does not even begin to cover how the fallacy of Assad’s alleged commitment to secularism has managed to endure for so long; claims to secularism continuously resurface even after the largely sectarian-based murders of close to 200,000 people and the forceful displacement of almost half of Syria's population. Thus, accepting claims to Assad secularism proves imprudent whether made by Western "public relations" firms, or by media cabals in Lebanon and Syria. In either case, the goal remains one of propaganda, to sell their master to the West as a leader with secular credentials.
The fact that we can now regularly find support for this viewpoint from such sources suggests that there are more to these claims than the genius of Al Akhbar and As Safir columnists in Lebanon, or the media advice offered by former Al Jazeera host, Luna al-Shibl who assumed a job as a media advisor to Assad. Instead, the numerous assertions attributing a secular ideology to the regime derive from a body of scholarship, both Western and non-Western, a literature whose dominance in academic circles, although on the wane, still provides Assad apologists with the intellectual ammunition to cover up the regime's discrimination in favor of its narrowly based Alawite community.
When I started my graduate studies at UCLA in the 1980s, students, including myself and many other Arab-Americans and future Mideast scholars (many of whom still vouch for Assad's secularism) were socialized into the belief that entertaining sect, tribe or region as motivations for individual or group political behaviors in the Arab world was at base a form of anti-Arab, anti-Muslim racism We held this approach to be a legacy of Orientalist scholarship designed to portray Arabs as inferior and uncivilized, and suggested that analytical approaches used in studying Western politics were inapplicable to the Arab and Muslim world.
Spending years researching Syrian politics under the Baath, I fell for some time under the sway of the Political Economy, Dependency, and Structuralist academic approaches and became skeptical of the application of concepts like sect or tribe to any legitimate explanation of Syrian politics. These approaches dismiss sectarianism, tribalism, culture and even religion as fundamental determinants of politics, and instead offer social class, dependency, and colonialism as relevant analytical tools for the analysis of Syrian and non-Syrian politics alike.
Although an argument for or against the validity of these approaches in and of themselves belongs to another venue, it must be acknowledged that many scholars failed to speak out when the facts supported neither ideology nor theory in the Syrian case. Many of those same scholars, both in the West and the Arab world, still remain chained to old ideas invalidated not only by time, but by the hundreds of thousands dead, by the equal numbers maimed, and by the millions displaced. When we read or hear current assertions, both private and public, regarding the Syrian conflict, we discover, in the most vivid and concrete terms, the phenomenon of ideological totalitarianism.
Rather than living up to their own supposed standards of relying on theories grounded in history and facts, the regime’s intellectual-propaganda apparatus seems to bury itself in old books and "antiquated" ideologies. Unless the regime has decided to excise the events in Syria since mid-2011 from the pages of history, the facts debunk the myriad of claims defending Assad's supposed secularism.
Careful examination of the regime’s military operations over the past three and a half years reveals a clearly sectarian character. Though the horrific details of the massacres often obscure their underlying goals, the geographic locations of each operation reveal the intentions of the perpetrators. The same applies to the types of violence as well: instances of rape, torture, assaults on bakeries and funerals, as well as the Al Ghouta chemical massacres, with its first-year anniversary commemorated last August. The immediate causes of such atrocities should not overshadow the fact of their Sunni-dominated locations, or the overwhelmingly Sunni identities of the victims themselves. The consequence of the regime’s violence remains the ultimate clue to unraveling its real goals, despite attempts to cloak them in anti-terrorist rhetoric. In short, sectarian cleansing, or forced demographic transfer of Sunnis from towns and villages with mixed communities (Alawites, Sunnis, and Christians) forced dominance by the Alawites. This inhuman transfer, this displacement of millions both inside and outside of Syria, serves as the Assad regime’s true motivation, and the cruel goal of its sectarianism.
Sectarianism thus fulfills many regime functions. Due to the regime's failure in defeating the opposition, Assad has adopted a lethal strategy, one that has already fulfilled a major goal, namely, the sectarian cleansing of entire swathes of the Syrian population. Since the army, 350,000 strong, has been unable to defeat the opposition, the regime has decided to enlist Syrian society in its militaristic campaign, sparing no thought for the deadly implications of such a strategy. In other words, the regime unleashes and inflames the country’s different religious groups in hopes that religiously opposed parties will battle one another in a campaign from which Assad will emerge the main beneficiary. This strategy further allows him to portray the conflict as a sectarian civil war, rather than acknowledging it as a revolution against a repressive regime.
Assad’s sectarianism has become visible and no longer remains in doubt. While the bloodshed of the past three years has revealed the true nature of the regime and has consequently called for restraint in leftist defenses of Assad, “secularism” remains the only surviving claim in support of this leader, thanks only to the “rejectionists” who still cling to this conviction. Yet, one must be weary of those “rejectionists” who seek only to salvage their own credibility, shattered when they chose to side with Assad in the first place. Nothing can or should erase the fact that their support extended a lifeline to a regime lacking any morally or politically redeeming qualities.
This essay draws on a longer version which appears in Al Jadid, Vol. 18, No. 67
© Copyright 2014 AL JADID MAGAZINE