Sectarianism and the Assad regime in Syria


This article was first published in Arabic in the magazine “Thawra Dai’ma” :

The link to the article in arabic :

The Syrian revolutionary process is still ongoing and has taken now both a peaceful and armed nature to confront the violent repression of the regime. The popular movement in Syria, despite its messages, statements and chants of unity and solidarity of the Syrian people, had had to face the continuous accusations by the regime and some specific groups on the left regionally and internationally of being dominated by religious extremist Islamist controlled by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, while the supporters of the regime has portrayed the Assad regime as secular and protector of the religious minorities.

This does not mean however that sectarianism does not exist in Syria among the popular movement, it does and we should not deny its existence. In a revolutionary process, different ideologies are present and battle each other, and some groups in Syria resort to sectarian propaganda in their struggle against the regime. What is therefore the role of the revolutionary left in this circumstance? Do we expect us to leave the battle and wait for the perfect social revolution, as some do and did in the traditional left? Or do we decide to be a full part of this revolutionary process and throw our forces completely in this struggle to overthrow the regime and in the same time to work for the radicalization of the different elements of the revolution?

Lenin answered to this question a while ago:

‘To imagine that social revolution is conceivable … without revolutionary outbursts by a section of the petty bourgeoisie with all its prejudices, without a movement of the politically non-conscious proletarian and semi-proletarian masses against oppression by the landowners, the church, and the monarchy, against national oppression, etc.-to imagine all this is to repudiate social revolution. So one army lines up in one place and says, “We are for socialism”, and another, somewhere else and says, “We are for imperialism”, and that will be a social revolution!…

Whoever expects a “pure” social revolution will never live to see it. Such a person pays lip-service to revolution without understanding what revolution is.”

A revolutionary process is not of a single color and will never be; otherwise it would not be a revolution. On the other hand, the role of the revolutionary left is crystal clear: struggle against the regime and radicalize the popular movement!

We have nevertheless shown and demonstrated in many articles how a great majority of the Syrian popular movement has repeatedly since the beginning of the uprising rejected sectarianism, despite the regime’s attempts to ignite this dangerous fire. The slogans of the demonstrators such as “We are all Syrians, we are united” are repeated constantly. In many demonstrations we have seen banners saying “No to sectarianism”. The Local Coordination Committees in Syria organized in June a campaign under the banner, “Freedom is My Sect”, in which the LCC raised signs indicating its rejection of the abominable sectarian speech, the regime’s sectarian practices, and the regime’s deadly attempts to drag the Syrian Revolution into a sectarian trap[1]. In the Saraqeb Committee, LCC demonstrators raised signs bearing symbols of all Syrian sects[2], while demonstrators in Dael raised a sign saying “In future Syria, the exclusion policy will end”. In the past few months we also saw placard written sectarianism is the grave of the revolution.

The popular movement has reaffirmed its struggle for the unity of the Syrian people and against the divisions, developing a sense of national solidarity and social that transcends ethnic and sectarian divisions.

What is less known on the opposite is the use of sectarianism by this regime as a weapon to divide the Syrians both on a religious and ethnic, and it has been used since the arrival of Hafez Al Assad to power.  This does not mean that the regime is sectarian or composed of one sect as presented by some in the Syrian opposition and so called analysts. The regime is above all an authoritarian and clientelist regime. This latter has found support – alongside the security service apparatus, mostly dominated by Alawis personalities, and networks of bureaucrats and crony capitalists consolidated around public sector patronage, and which developed increasingly in the 90s in the private sector after the implementation of the investment law Decree No. 10 of 1991[3]  – among the predominantly Sunni and Christian bourgeoisie in Aleppo and Damascus, which benefited from the neoliberal policies of recent years, especially since the launch of the social market economy in 2005.

We should also not forget that in 1970, the urban merchants of Aleppo and Damascus had praised the arrival of Hafez Al Assad to power and the beginning of the “the Corrective Movement” (harakat tashiyya) launched by this latter, which put an end to the radical policies of the 60s which challenged their capital and political power. The urban merchants, whom had been very active against the left wing of the Baath at this period, sent demonstrators into the streets of big cities with banners that read “We implored God for Aid – Al Madad. He sent us Hafiz Al Assad[4].   The regime since that period has built a network of loyalties through various ties, mainly economic, with individuals from different communities.

It is nevertheless true that the security apparatus is composed in majority of Alawis, linked very often by kinship, tribal or family ties to the Assad family.

The use of sectarianism as a weapon was developed through following ways and in conjunction with the repression on opposition popular secular and civil organization and political parties, while promoting sectarian and primary identities, such as tribal links, among Syrians.

This policy was deployed by the authoritarian capitalist regime to divide Syrians and divert any criticism of its corruption, social inequalities, repression and absence of democracy.

Sectarianism or the weapon of the ruling class to divide the people

Sectarianism is very often explained as revivals of primordial passions, or the immemorial hatred between two communities, as for example between Shias vs Sunnis in Iraq, Bahrain and Lebanon; Alawis vs Sunnis in Syria; or even Christians vs Sunnis in Egypt. In this case sectarianism is therefore understood as a reminiscent of past history preventing the modernization of these countries, or as something that is essential to the people of the region. We disagree strongly with this understanding of sectarianism and on the opposite believe it to be, unfortunately we might say, a product of modernity. Dr Ussama Makdissi explained well this dilemma around the analysis of sectarianism and wrote the following thing in his book

Among the greatest red hearings of the history of the Middle East has been the characterization of sectarianism as an obstacle to modernity and as a symptom of a so-called arc of crisis. This interpretation has led to an increasingly frustrated path of historical inquiry, with some scholars earnestly searching backward in time for answers while the problem of sectarianism marches forward, growing ever more entrenched and even more complex. The beginning of sectarianism did not imply a reversion. It marked a rupture, a birth of a new culture that singled out religious affiliation as the defining public and political characteristic of a modern subject and citizen.[5]

Yes sectarianism is a product of modernity and it has been one of the preferred arms of the authoritarian and capitalist countries of the region to divide the people and repress popular movements. In Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, despite calls and statements made by the opposition, which gathered Sunnis and Shias citizens of the countries, to these regimes against sectarianism and for the unity of the people against the dictatorship, these authorities have accused them of being sectarian movement supported by Iran. A Saudi comrade actually explained well the situation by saying that:

“Sectarianism is a product of the regime which creates discrimination between workers and state employees and creates legends for each section of workers, in order to break all efforts to unify and act directly by confronting the class which exploits and oppresses. That’s why we created a struggle between the Shiite and Sunni sects – while in reality there is no relationship of exploitation between the poor Sunnis and the poor Shias.” [6]

In Lebanon, sectarianism emerged as the result of two primordial elements, which developed conjointly on one side in the context of Ottoman reforms in the nineteenth century in Mount Lebanon and on the other side the development and expansion of European capitalism in the Middle East. The book of Osama Makdissi “culture of sectarianism” perfectly explains its development in the culture of Lebanon and dates its appearance as well: “When the old regime in Mount Lebanon, which was dominated by a hierarchy in which the secular rather than rank religious affiliation defined politics, was discredited in the mid-nineteenth century.”These changes were a reflection of social transformations, specifically related to the development of silk industry, concentrated in the Maronite villages of Mount Lebanon, which began in the eighteenth century. Until today, the various political forces of Lebanon, both from March 8 and March 14, use sectarianism and the sectarian political system to establish and develop their power, while in the same time pursuing policies aiming at dividing the people, in addition to impoverish them by promoting neo liberal policies, to prevent any popular mobilization uniting the Lebanese citizens against their rule.

In Egypt, we have seen at many occasions in the past, the use by the military regime of sectarian policies notably in repressing demonstrations led by Coptic demonstrators as in Maspero in November 2011, or by the attempt to divide and create fear among Muslims and Christians. The best example was the 2010 New Year’s Eve bombing of al-Qiddissin Church in Alexandria in which 21 people were killed, and where former Interior Minister Habib el-Adly’s was accused of being behind this terrorist act.

Sectarianism as we can observe is a weapon in the hand of the ruling class to oppress and divide the people and especially the downtrodden of all societies. In all these cases we are not facing sectarian regimes guided by sectarian interests, but authoritarian, bourgeois and clientelists state using sectarian policies as one of its instrument in the repression and division against the people.

The Syrian regime has not lag behind in this kind of policies. It has developed a double of policy of repressing independent popular civic and secular organizations and political parties, letting as only alternatives organizations from the regime, while reinforcing sectarian and primary, including tribal, identities through the ages through different ways.

We will look at the policies of the regime to deepened sectarian policies this last 40 years without forgetting that in the current uprising the regime has used it, such as resorting to an intense propaganda of a sectarian and fundamentalist Sunni uprising to describe the revolutionary process, or armed some minority religious groups for example Christians in Damascus, but not only including tribes and others, to include them in their struggle against the so called “terrorists[7].

The repression of secular and civil political organizations and political parties

The advent of Hafez Al Assad to power marked a new era in Syria where independent popular organizations from trade unions, professional associations and civic associations came under the regime’s authority after harsh repression.  Professional unions of doctors, lawyers, engineers and pharmacists were dissolved in 1980. They were the main organizations to have led the years before the struggle for the return of democratic freedoms and the lifting of the emergency rule. They were later re-established and their leaders were replaced by state appointees[8].

In the school system, the regime targeted principally leftist teachers from different tendencies in the 1970s, letting develop in the same time religious fundamentalists currents[9].  Independent intellectuals, such as Michel Kilo and Wadi Iskandar, and university teachers, including Rif’at Sioufi and Asef Shahine, critical of the regime were also the targets of the regime[10].

No immunity was granted to university campuses in any way, neither to teacher nor students. Security agencies could actually arrest students inside lecture halls and or on campus.

In a similar manner the regime imposed its domination on the bureaucracy of the trade union workers, and this is what prevented and hindered the labor struggle against neo-liberal policies pursued by the authoritarian regime since 2000, which has caused the decline of standard of living of the majority of the people, as well as political repression, and these were the main causes which launched the wave of protests, and that were in the past years turning around the economic question. For example, in May of 2006, hundreds of workers protested at the public construction company in Damascus, and clashed with security forces, and at the same period taxi drivers went on strike in Aleppo.

Just as in the past, the Worker’s trade union is completely silent against the repression of the Syrian people, and more specifically against workers. These latter have also been target of the repression.  Successful campaigns of general strikes and civil disobedience in Syria during the period December 2011 paralyzing large parts of the country also shows the activism of the working class and the exploited who are indeed the heart of the Syrian revolution. For this reason, the dictatorship has laid off more than 85,000 workers from January 2011 to February 2012, and closed 187 factories (according to official figures), to break the dynamics of protest.

Repression also included all political parties refusing to submit to the diktat of Hafez Al Assad and to enter the umbrella of the National Progressive Front, where they had quasi no right for political activities except under the approval of the regime, have suffered from the harsh repression of the region since the advent to power, and not only the Muslim Brotherhoods. In the beginning of the seventies, various secular political parties, especially from leftist tendencies were the targets of the regime, including the movement of February 23 (the radical tendency of the Baath close to Salah Jadid), the League of Communist Action (Rabita al amal al shuyu’i), which members were mostly coming from the Alawi sect, and to a lesser extent the Communist Party Political Bureau (CPPB) of Ryad Turk[11]. The National gathering, which included various leftist parties, was also severely repressed in the beginning of the 80s.

This trend has continued in 2000s and the arrival of Bachar Al Assad to power. An opposition movement gathering of intellectuals, artists, writers, scholars and even politicians who demanded reforms and democratization of the State from 2000 to 2006 was repressed by the various security apparatus. This was accompanied also by the opening of forums to debate and between 2004 and 2006 by the multiplication of sit-ins, a new political phenomenon in Syria. Calls for sit-ins came from political parties and civil organizations at the same time. The government of Bashar Al Assad cracked down this movement, forums were actually closed, sit-ins were severely repressed and many intellectuals who launched this call for civil society and democratization were imprisoned. In the same time the Kurdish Intifada of 2004 was severely repressed.

The Syrian Society became increasingly under the control of the regime in all its various components.   The Baath Party was the only political organization which had the right to organize events, lectures and public demonstrations on the campus of a university or military barracks or to publish and distribute a newspaper at the university and the military. Even the political parties allied to regime in the National Progressive Front, linked to the regime, and did not have the right to organize, to make propaganda or to have a small official presence in these institutions. The Baath also controlled an array of corporatist associations through which various societal sectors were brought under regime tutelage. They were called popular organizations and incorporated peasants, youth and women.

Regarding the role of the Baath in society, it should be said that the party loosed all its ideological credentials and dynamics with the arrival to power of Hafez Al Assad, who transform it in an instrument of control of the society. The organization of the party was modified with the end of internal elections by its replacement of a system of designation in a top down system decided by the regime and the security services, while elements opposing the regime policies were repressed. Rifaat Al Assad resumed well at the VII Regional Congress of the Baath his political conception of the party by referring to its model: “the leader designate, the party approves and the people cheer. This is how socialism functions in the Soviet Union. Who does not cheer goes to Siberia[12]. The post 1970s party elite have tended to take on the traits of functionaries, while their previous comrades of the 1950s and 1960s were often dedicated militants and/ or enthusiasts activists[13].

The post 1970s were characterized by mass enrolment in the party in the objective to broaden the popular base as far as far possible and to use the party as the main instrument for extending the control of the regime on society. From a total membership of the party of 65 398 in 1971, it rose to 374 332 in 1981 and 1,008,243 by June 30, 1992[14].

The sectarian composition of the Baath was also used at some occasions by the regime to alter the public perception of the “sectarian” character of his regime or more precisely to respond to some attacks from particular parts of the opposition. In January 1980, he induced changes in the makeup of the Baath regional command raising the proportions of Sunnis from 57.1 to 66.7%, while the numbers of Alawis decreased from 33.3 to 19%[15].  Tribal links also played an important role in the composition of the Baath these past few years.

The sectarian play in the regime in different institutions, Baath, Parliament (People assembly) and army     

The repression on popular organization went in hand in hand with the increased connection and collaboration with the predominantly Sunni urban business community through policies of economic rapprochement and controlled liberalization, as well as with conservative elements of society. This was reflected in the various institutions of the regime. Significant numbers urban Sunnis, mainly from Damascus, were co-opted into the top ranks of the party and many non party technocrats into the government[16].   In the People’s Assembly, greater voice and space were given to members of the professions or businessmen or religious Shaykhs and even some traditional tribal leaders among the non party and independent elements. They occupied 33.2% of the seats in Parliament in 1994[17]

Hafez Al Assad’s objective was to assure the stability of the regime, play secure capital accumulation and appease powerful segments of the business community[18]. Private businesses were given an increasing role under Hafez Al Assad’s rule, as well as religious conservatives’ elements.

The Muslim Brotherhoods were repressed severely in the 70s and the 80s, but this did not prevent the regime to develop a religious conservative discourse in total contradiction with picture conveyed by a so-called secular regime. The regime build numbers of mosques and made large contributions to Shariah or Islamic schools, patronized ulama, raised the pay of the country’s Sunnis religious establishment from Imams, mudarris, khatibs, etc… few times in the seventies and propagated Islam in the mass media, while trying to encourage a conservative Islamic establishment to channel Islamic currents and legitimate the regime[19]. In 1973, following protests and criticism from some particular Sunni religious personalities such as Shaykh Hassan Habannakah, Hafez Al Assad introduced an amendment to new constitution adopted by the People’ Assembly the same year, which declared that “the religion of the president is Islam[20]. This article has actually been kept in the “new” Constitution adopted by the current regime in March 2012, and the “Islamic jurisprudence is a source of all legislation” was added to re-enforce the Islamic credentials of the regime.

The regime under the rule of Bachar Al Assad has continued these kinds of policies and has increased the collaboration with religious associations and conservative segments of the society in conjunction of the new Social market economy and the implementation of accelerated neo liberal policies. This meant the withdrawal of the State in social subventions and many essential public areas. It should be known that prior the beginning of the revolution 30.1% of the population lived below the poverty line and almost two million people – or 11.4% of the population – had not the means to meet their basic needs[21]. Real GDP growth and real per capita income has been decreasing since the beginning of the 90s. This has pushed the regime to continue its neo liberal policies and search for more private capitals[22].

In the area of health notably, the regime withdrew considerably, letting an increasing space to charitable associations, and especially religious ones. In 2004, around 300 associations were providing a total of 842 millions of Syrian Pounds (SP) to more than 72000 families[23]. The most successful and notorious being the Jama’at Zayd, which has deep and rooted relation with the Damascus Sunni bourgeoisie, conducted by Rifa’i brothers, despite their well known opposition of the religious association o the regime in the past. Despite having a rather opposing tone to the regime nowadays, the association did not hesitate to have relations and collaborate with the regime in the past, by obtaining notably the control of new mosques at expense of others and some of their members were able also to reach important working position in various religious official institutions[24].  Neo liberal policies have re enforced religious associations, both Islamic and Christian, in Syria and their network of diffusion, increasing their role in society at the expense of the State.

Around 10 000 mosques, hundreds of religious schools were built and more than 200 conferences headed by clerics were held in cultural centers of important towns during the year 2007. In the same time, the high religious establishments of all the sects were used by the regime as actors of the “Syrian civil society” and presented a modern and consensual image of the country to foreign delegation visiting the country.

Bachar Al Assad did not hesitate to meet the famous Youssouf Al Qardawi, currently “supporting” the revolution against the regime, who visited Damascus in 2009 at the head of the World Union of Oulemas.

The regime continued the policy of the détente started at the beginning of the nineties towards opposition Islamists through the release of thousands of political prisoners in 1992, the tolerance of Islamists publications and some movements as long as they refrained from political involvement. In 2001 for example, Shaykh Abu Al fath Al Bayanuni, the brother of the ex head of the Muslim Brotherhood, was authorized to come back after 30 years of exile and his son, a rich businessman, participated to the creation in 2010 of the first sexually segregated mall in Syria[25]. These policies were also part of a strategy to create and deepen the rapprochement with economic elites of Aleppo.

These government’s measures were also accompanied by censorship of literary and artistic works, while promoting a religious literature filling more and more the shelves of libraries and Islamizing the field of higher education. This is true particularly in the humanities and, expressed itself in the rather systematic referral to religious references of any scientific, social and cultural phenomenon. The government also withdrew in 2007 authorizations to two feminist organizations (the Social Initiative and one organization affiliated to the Communist Party linked to the regime) following pressure from various religious groups and personalities[26].

At the beginning of the uprising in April 2011, the regime actually sought to reach to the conservatives sectors of the society by closing the country’s only casino and scrapped a ruling that banned teachers from wearing the niqab.  The regime banned the niqab from the classroom in July 2010, forcing hundreds of women from teaching roles into administrative positions. The regime also met with a number of religious dignitaries from different towns to try to appease the protest movement.

Th Alawis, or the will to build a political sect submitted to the leadership of the Assad family

While in the 60s, the Baath’s access to power improved considerably the standard of living of rural areas and population, including Alawis who used to be in their majority from rural areas but not solely, giving them more social and economic opportunities, there has been a political strategy by the Assad regime to link the Alawi community not only to the regime, but more precisely to the Assad clan since Hafez’s arrival to power. The Assad regime tended to develop different policies to reach this objective by trying to eliminate any dissent voice inside the Alawi community and trying to transform the Alawi community into a political sect link to the Assad clan, which never realized until today, as we will remind later in this section of the text.

Hafez Al Assad eliminated firstly possible Alawi military alternative to its rule and who had relations with the Sunni Damascene bourgeoisie, including the general Muhammad Omran, assassinated in Lebanon in 1971. His position as historical chief of the Baath military comitee and close relation to the civil wing of the Baath Party of Salaheddin Bitar was a threat to Hafez Al Assad. Hafez Al Assad also imprisoned Salah Jdid, who was in power from 1966 to 1970, at his arrival to power until 1993.

The regime was behind the formation of the Imam Ali al Murtada association in 1981, which had the objective to weld the Alawi community and gather increase Jamil Assad’s power, the brother of the President, in the region of Lattakia where he resided. This latter actually described the objective of the association was to develop an Alawi “personality” ( Shakhsiyya) [27]. Jamil Assad particularly used the association against the local Baath party, presenting candidates of the association against it in the elections of the People’s Assembly in 1980, and to build a network of patronage in the city and its outskirsts. The Ali Murtda’s association was nevertheless short lived and ended in 1983, following increasing criticisms and protests from the Baath party and members of the regime.

Except the Ali al Murtada’s association, the regime did not allow the development of any charitable sectarian organization in the Alawi community, unlike others sects. The Assad family did not want any alternative source of power concurrent to its own one inside the community. Most of the relationships were established on a clientelist basis between the Alawi community and officials on a personal level following a variety of forms derived from mutual interests and loyalties to the family or of narrow clan. Many in the Alawi community actually often complained that most of the officials of this community were helping other communities than them because these latter paid more for example, or because of an unwillingness to engage in issues of bribery with relatives and acquaintances, who might criticize them[28].

In the same vein of preventing any other source of power among the community, the Assad regime did not allow any form of civil representation to form a higher Alawi Supreme Council, such as the Shiite Supreme Council or the Ismaeli Supreme Council, there are no public religious references for the Alawi community, and this was not due to the so called secularism of the regime, but in order to link the community to the regime and the total domination of the Assad family. The regime also encouraged tribal division within the Alawi community, allowing the emergence of the narrow tribal loyalties within the community[29]. There is no private chamber or laws in courts for the Alawi community; they follow the same laws as the Sunni community regarding the law of personal status (marriage, divorce, inheritance, etc…).

The Alawi community on the other side did not benefit from any specific economic policies favoring them against other communities from the regime. In the nineties, the scholar Hanna Batatu wrote that complaints were made by the Alawis from the highlands that the bulk of peasants in their areas were destitute of comforts and were still dependant for tillage on erratic weather conditions. In addition to this, their real earnings from agriculture diminished and many had to seek additional sources of revenue[30]. In a recent report of the ICG, they were stating that “the Alawi countryside remains strikingly underdeveloped; many join the army for lack of an alternative; members of the security services typically are overworked and underpaid. Young members of the community for the most part joined the security apparatus solely because the regime offered them no other prospects. Ordinary Alawis rarely benefited, from high-level corruption, least of all under Bashar[31].

These trends were common to other regions in Syria and show the similar conditions of all Syrians regardless of their community.

The Alawi Mountain is the second most impoverished region after the North Eastern ones populated in majority by the Kurdish people. The region and the Alawi community suffered just like others in the country of the liberalization of the economy, the end of subventions and high inflations.

These policies of the regime were not totally successful in homogenizing the community around the leadership of the Assad leadership and linked its destiny to it, as many in the community have been and are struggling against the regime.

Alawi activists such as feminist Hanady Zahlout and long-time dissidents Habib Saleh, Samar Yazbeck, Louai Hussein and Fadwa Soleiman are all figures of the opposition, without forgetting prominent economist and opposition member Aref Dalila, who has spent more than years in prison for his activities against the regime. An Alawi brigade was also formed in the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in the province of Idlib, while numbers of officers and soldiers of the community have defected as well[32].

Facebook pages have appeared showing the involvement of the community in the uprising, such as “Alawi Coalition Against the Assad Family Regime,” “Committee of anti-Bashar Assad Alawi Youth – Homs”.  There has also been a profusion of like-minded public statements, with titles like “Statement by Members of the Alawi Sect,” or following the Houla massacre as well.

Kurdish discrimination

The Assad regime since 1970 has increased the discrimination against Kurdish people and raise tensions between the different populations (Kurdish, Arabs, Assyrians, Turkmens) living in the North East region of Syria to hide the corruption and social and economic problems of the most impoverished region despite the oil reserve present in it. In this case it was the ethnic divide that was used to separate the people.

Under the Assad regime, the Kurds — who constitute more than 10 percent of the population and are the largest minority in the country — always had second-class status. They were neither allowed to teach their own language nor cultivate their traditions. Behavior violating these rules could result in a 10-year prison sentence.

The Kurdish population has been deliberately kept impoverished. Land was leased to Arab landowners, oil fields were taken from them by the state and roads were left in disrepair.

Between 1972 and 1977, a policy of colonization was implemented in specific regions populated dominantly by Kurdish population. Around 25 000 “Arab” peasants, whose lands were flooded by the construction of the Tabqa dam, were sent in the High Djezireh and established in “modern villages” close to Kurdish villages[33]. The new “modern villages” were well equipped in water, electricity, hospitals, schools, roads, police stations, etcc… while their Kurdish neighbors were lacking of nearly everything.  The Kurdsih population in theses regions was facing daily discriminations including the dismissal from the administration of teachers, under the pretext they were foreigners, layoffs of workers, destruction of houses, and arrests of political leaders,etc…[34] The Syrian government has changed Kurdish place names to Arabic, banned shop signs in Kurmanji and prevented parents from registering their children with Kurdish names.

This policy of the The ‘Arab Belt’ was a plan for a cordon sanitaire between Syrian and neighboring Kurds around the northern and northeastern rim of the Jazira, along the borders with Turkey and Iraq. Kurdish land was confiscated and Kurds told to resettle in the Syrian interior to make way for Arabs. There was also a strong military presence in this cordon and Arab settlements were provided as we said above with superior facilities and state benefits to encourage greater economic prosperity[35].

There were periodic protests, confrontations and arrests in the 1980s and 1990s, often on significant days such as Newruz or the anniversary of the al-Hasaka census, the 1962 census in east Syria, which resulted in around 150 000 Kurdish being denied nationality and leaving them, and subsequently their children, denied of basic civil rights and condemned to poverty and discrimination. They are today more than 300 000.

In 2004, the Kursdih uprising that started in the city of Qamichlo and spread to in Kurdish areas across Syria – the Jazira, Afrin, Aleppo and Damascus was severely repressed by security forces and the use of Arab tribes by the regime in the North East region. Many Kurdish activists and protesters were killed and arrested, more than 2000, while others were forced to leave the country.

At the beginning of the revolutionary process, Bachar Al Assad issued a decree in Aril, following meetings with Kurdish representatives, granting to persons registered as foreigners in the governorate of Hassake Syrian Arab citizenship, while 48 prisoners, mainly Kurds, were also released. Many Stateless Kurdish are nevertheless still awaiting for citizenship until now.

The celebration of the Kurdish New Year festival of Newruz was also allowed by the regime in 2011, while before security forces would always intervene and repress any citizen celebrating it. These decisions were made to appease to Kurdish population feelings especially.

Kurdish activists have been playing a leading role in the uprising and are very present in the revolutionary process, though the press underplays their role. Many Kurdish activists have actually been the targets of Syrian security forces during the current uprising.


The regime as we have seen through the text is the main responsible and perpetuator of sectarian feelings and relationships. The Assad regime has for the past 40 years encouraged and implemented policies dividing the people along sectarian and ethnic lines to rule the country. All these elements in addition to the repression of popular and civic secular organizations coupled with lack of secular voices, which is normally filled up by the working class that has suffered various forms of repression and cooptation of the unions bureaucracy, have allowed space for a rhetoric of sectarianism that manifests itself among the most conservative elements of the Syrian revolution. The regime is therefore the one responsible for the division created among the Syrian people and not as claimed by the regime a conspiracy supported by foreign actors to divide the country. Our task as revolutionary socialist is to smash the main source of sectarianism, in other words the regime, and its perpetuators who are the reactionary and opportunist elements within the revolution.

Ussama Makdissi wrote that “to overcome sectarianism, if it is at all possible, requires yet another rupture, a break as radical for the body politic as the advent of sectarianism was for the old regime, It requires another vision of modernity[36].

The struggle against sectarianism is part of the struggle to overthrow this criminal regime, and to establish a radical break with the past. This break with the sectarian policies of the regime also opposes the section of the oppositions using a sectarian discourse and backed by the Arab Gulf states in their sectarian propaganda. Sectarianism can only defeated by struggling in conjunction for democracy, social justice, secularism and real independence.

The secularism we call for is not separated from our struggle for democracy, socialism and anti imperialism. Our secularism is part of our revolutionary struggle to liberate religion from political parties and to let people live freely their religion without the oppression of the state. Our revolutionary secularism does not differentiate from the different sects and ethnicities, and oppose any discrimination.  In addition, our secularism call as well for social equality and not only equality in front the law, in other words  struggle against social inequalities and injustices created and increased by the capitalist system, while we also oppose all forms of imperialism and act in solidarity with people in struggle, and firstly and mostly with the Palestinian people.

This means that we are in a full and total class struggle. These words in the struggle against sectarianism of a Lebanese Comrade make full sense for the case of Syria as well: “It’s not a struggle for a more tolerant society. This is a class struggle both a struggle against the dominant ideas and a struggle of the oppressed against the oppressors. This struggle can’t be waged by the bourgeoisie; on the contrary, it can only be conducted by a fight against the ruling bourgeoisie. This is where the centrality of the working class is no longer a theoretical question. Indeed, the only line of defense of the Lebanese people against the sectarian divisions and the brutal attacks of the ruling class is the class unity[37]”.

The struggle against Sectarianism is part of the struggle against the capitalist system and to unite the oppressed of Syria, be Arab, Kurdish, Assyrian, Sunnis, Christians and Alawis to overthrow the regime and build a new Syria.

As chanted by the protesters, the Syrian people are one and Freedom is my Sect!

Long live the Syrian revolution !

[1] LCC (June 2012), Freedom is my sect,

[3] Haddad B. ( 2012), Buisness networks in Syria, the political economy of authoritarian resilience, XIV

[4] Batatu H. (1998), Syria’s Peasantry, the descendants of its lesser rural notables, and the  politics, 175

[5] Makdissi U. (2000), The culture of sectarianism, community, history and violence in nineteenth- century Ottoman Lebanon, 174

[6] (القطيف: بين ابواق البلاط و رصاص الشبّيحة)


[8] Hinnebush R. (2001), Revolution from above, 83

[9] Seurat M. (1983), L’Etat de barbarie Syrie, 1979-1982, 138

[10] Seurat M. (1983), L’Etat de barbarie Syrie, 1979-1982, 55

[11] Seurat M. (1983), L’Etat de barbarie Syrie, 1979-1982, 21

[12] Seurat M. (1983), L’Etat de barbarie Syrie, 1979-1982, 59

[13] Batatu H. ( 1999) Syria’s Peasantry, the Descendants of its lesser rural notables and their politics, 245

[14] Batatu H. ( 1999) Syria’s Peasantry, the Descendants of its lesser rural notables and their politics, 174

[15] Batatu H. ( 1999) Syria’s Peasantry, the Descendants of its lesser rural notables and their politics, 272

[16] Hinnebush R. (2001), Revolution from above, 83

[17] Batatu H. ( 1999) Syria’s Peasantry, the Descendants of its lesser rural notables and their politics, 277

[18] Haddad B. (2012), Buisness Networks in Syria, the political economy of authoritarian resilience, p44

[19] Hinnebush R. (2001), Revolution from above, 83

[20] Batatu H. ( 1999) Syria’s Peasantry, the Descendants of its lesser rural notables and their politics, 261

[21] PNUD (2005), Poverty in Syria 1996-2004,

[22] Haddad B. (2012), Buisness Networks in Syria, the political economy of authoritarian resilience, p5

[23] Al hayat, January 5 2006, Pierret T. (2011), Baas et Islam en Syrie, 115

[24] Pierret T. (2011), Baas et Islam en Syrie, 115

[25] Pierret T. (2011), Baas et Islam en Syrie, 115

[26] February 11 2007; Pierret T. (2011), Baas et Islam en Syrie, 115

[27] Seurat M. (1983), L’Etat de barbarie Syrie, 1979-1982, 64

[28], مقاربة ثنائية (سني – علوي) في الثورة السورية: كيف وصلنا إلى المجازر الحالية؟

[29] مقاربة ثنائية (سني – علوي) في الثورة السورية: كيف وصلنا إلى المجازر الحالية؟

[30] Batatu H. ( 1999) Syria’s Peasantry, the Descendants of its lesser rural notables and their politics, 229

[33] Seurat M. (1983), L’Etat de barbarie Syrie, 1979-1982, 181

[34] Amnesty International, Annual Report, 1973,1974)

[36] Makdissi U. (2000), The culture of sectarianism, community, history and violence in nineteenth- century Ottoman Lebanon, 174

13 thoughts on “Sectarianism and the Assad regime in Syria

  1. Pingback: Syria and Stop the War Coallition UK, or shame on you ! | Syria Freedom Forever – سوريا الحرية للأبد

  2. Pingback: Syria: the people will not kneel and will accept no injustice! | Syria Freedom Forever – سوريا الحرية للأبد

  3. Pingback: SYRIA: the people will not kneel and will not accept any new tyranny! | Tahrir-ICN

  4. Pingback: Syrie : la question Kurde, les islamistes et l’ASL | Syria Freedom Forever – سوريا الحرية للأبد

  5. Pingback: Syria: the Kurdish question, the Islamists and the FSA | Syria Freedom Forever – سوريا الحرية للأبد

  6. Pingback: Syrie : la question Kurde, les islamistes et l’ASL | Badil Tawri

  7. Pingback: A response to Slavoj Zizek: Syria a pseudo struggle | Syria Freedom Forever – سوريا الحرية للأبد

  8. Pingback: SYRIA: The struggle continues: Syria’s grass-roots civil opposition | Tahrir-ICN

  9. Pingback: The struggle continues: Syria’s grass-roots civil opposition | leilashrooms

  10. Pingback: SYRIA: Interview with Apatris on the Syrian revolution | Tahrir-ICN

  11. Pingback: Interview with Apatris on the Syrian revolution | leilashrooms

  12. Pingback: SYRIA: The struggle continues: Syria’s grass-roots civil opposition (by Leila Shrooms) | neweasternpolitics

  13. Pingback: A Response to Slavoj Zizek: Syria a Pseudo Struggle | The Žižek Times

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s