Syria is beset by an historic problem of weak state institutions, with the exception of those state and quasi-state forces through which the ruling Assad dynasty has exercised its power. The account offered by Seth Kaplan in A New U.S. Policy For Syria: Fostering Political Change in a Divided State offers an historical perspective on the conditions which have led to today’s situation. It is worth extending this explanation, however, to relate to ongoing protests in the country and the government’s complex response. As estimates for the death toll in Syria climb to 1,400, 350 of which are claimed to be security personnel, the pressure mounts to understand internal events in Syria, even though concrete information is nearly impossible to find.
The division of many Middle Eastern countries into arbitrary blocs occurred after the First World War and the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Syria, formerly under French mandate, was granted independence in 1946, but lacked the strong institutions required to govern a state. Moreover, as Kaplan points out, there was no cohesive national identity. The numerous coup attempts before the rise of the Assad dynasty are testament to the ongoing instability before the arrival of the current, security-obsessed regime which governs a profoundly multi-confessional population.
To make the ethnic complexity clear, there exists a Sunni majority of around 70%, while the centre of the regime is unquestionably the Alawite sect, a branch of Shia Islam which constitutes around 12% of the population. There are many other minorities, including Christian (10%) and Kurd (7%), the latter of which has a profound allegiance to a Kurdish state despite the heavy-handed efforts of the Syrian regime to ban all manifestations of Kurdish culture or political independence. The prospect of a Kurdish uprising, and a wider fear of sectarian violence of the kind witnessed in Iraq, informs the current actions of the regime as well as limiting direct interference on the part of international actors. The insecurity of the Assad regime in this respect is exacerbated by its failure to co-opt parts of the Sunni majority, namely a substantial religious minority who refuse the economic and political benefits garnered by rich Sunni merchants who cooperate with the secular regime. Meanwhile, the United States fears a civil war in Syria as much as Bashar Assad, not least because of its strategic relationship with Turkey, an important Nato ally.
A brief look at Syria’s use of military force confirms the fears of the regime, which extend to defections in its regular army. Historically, the only military units permitted to enter Damascus have been those with unquestionable loyalty – usually ensured by appointing officers directly from the Assad family and its Kalbiyya tribe, as well as substantial cash incentives which come from Syria’s dwindling energy reserves. In particular, the 4th Armoured Division of the Republican Guards, led by the president’s brother Maher Assad, has seen the most combat, including entering Dara’a in mid-March. The significance of the reliance upon this unit is that the regime can be assured of its loyalty, unlike the regular army, where there have been rumours of widespread defections, as well as real defectors crossing the border into Turkey.
However, the regime has also benefitted from armed militias, loyal to the ruling tribe, who have conducted drive-by and sniper attacks on peaceful protests. The Shabiha, as the militia is called, owes its loyalty and economic interests to the regime and the Assad family, providing both ideological and practical reasons for its actions. The EU has explicitly condemned the actions of the Shabiha militia, sanctioning the son of Bashar Assad’s uncle Jamil, Mundir Assad, for his role in the orchestration of this violence. Reports suggest that local police have been disarmed in order to allow the tribal militia to do the work of the regime, to the extent that intervening police officers were allegedly shot and killed. State institutions have become second to those forces that are unswerving in their loyalty to the regime – forces which crucially wield enough might to quell any uprising. The central focus must therefore be on how firm the support is amongst the peripheral tribes of the Allawite sect and those rich Sunni families that cooperate with and protect the regime.
Assad’s tribal background is, interestingly, in the region of Latakia, Syria’s principle port and the site of unrest in recent months, leading to further questions about the extent of the Assad family’s popular support. Another emphasis of the tribal nature of today’s conflict is the activities of Rami Makhlouf, also condemned by the EU. Makhlouf, owner of Syriatel, is the most prominent businessman in Syria and maternal cousin of President Assad. He belongs to the Haddad tribe of the Alawite sect and is accused of using his considerable wealth to bankroll the pro-government militias which have attacked peaceful protests across Syria. Prior to the current uprising, rumours circulated of Rami Makhlouf falling out with Maher, the unpredictable brother of Bashar Assad and leader of the 4th Armoured division, leading to Makhlouf transferring assets to Dubai in response to anti-corruption activity by the regime (Makhlouf’s business empire is built on corrupt acquisition of contracts from government and foreign investors). It is possible that Makhlouf’s recent desire to fund tribal militias stems from a need to demonstrate tangible support for the regime, or even his desire to do so while avoiding direct support to Maher Assad.
The vested interests in the regime are vast as is the consequent support from co-opted Allawite tribes, not least with $3bn behind the Makhlouf family, as well as prominent Sunni families. Bashar Assad’s uncle, Rif‘at al-Asad, has cemented relations with the latter element of the regime’s support by marrying tactically, in particular Raja Barakat, a member of the rich Sunni Barakat family of Damascus. It is clear that the secular regime has permitted marriages of convenience which consolidate tribal and business alliances, assuring a wider base of support for the regime and giving merchant families crucial access to the centre of power and the economic benefits this entails.
The truth of Kaplan’s assertions is therefore clear: “Syria is a divided polity with weak formal institutions” and “the Asad regime systematically broadened its base of support by judiciously using the powers and spoils of government to co-opt important factions”. These facts have played out in the intricate tribal alliances associated with the regime, and in the current military and militia crackdown on unrest. The pressure is on those families and individuals that have lent support, or at least acquiescence, to the regime – how long will their economic and political interests be best served by the ailing Assad dynasty?