Kenny Coyle, Morning Star (London), Sunday July 29 2012
Western media coverage of Syria has made much of the fact that many of its leaders, including the dominant Assad family, belong to the Alawite sect of Islam.
Perhaps it's a response to the appalling superficiality of coverage of the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq - in light of widespread sectarian violence journalists are more willing to view Islam as a creed with many tendencies.
But this comes at a cost. Now religion is presented as almost the sole factor in
conflicts, neatly obscuring the historical and current role of outside imperialist interference.
The mainstream narrative is that the Middle East is destined for incessant sectarian conflict.
Yet religious sectarianism - from Derry to Damascus - has always been used by colonial powers as political cover to divide and rule people who might otherwise unite in defence of their common interests.
Imperialism has often used the mantra of the "failed state," arguing that a country is too riven by age-old conflicts and tribalism to rule itself. Intervention is then presented as a response to, rather than a cause of, these divisions.
On May 30 the BBC's Mark Urban wrote on its website: "Reports that hundreds of Sunni jihadists from across the Middle East have joined the fight against Bashar al-Assad's minority Alawite regime are also causing some in Washington to think long and hard about lining up on the same side as al-Qaida."
But the Assads have not dominated
Syrian politics for 40 years by representing only the Alawites, who comprise perhaps 12 per cent of the population.
Syria is certainly in the throes of a bitter and bloody conflict where sectarian forces are increasingly active.
One effect of the early shift from peaceful protests to armed conflict has been to polarise the country further, fuelling a cycle of revenge killings.
But, as Urban
concedes, much of this is being stimulated from outside Syria.
It is the combustible mix of external interference with internal political crisis that threatens Syria with further bloodbaths reminiscent of 1990s Yugoslavia.
But to understand the Syrian crisis we need to place the ethnic and religious divisions in a broader political and social context.
About 25 per cent of the population are
non-Sunni Muslims. Alongside the Alawites are the Druze and Isma'ilis, as well as mainstream Shia. There are also Christians of various denominations.
And among the Sunnis there are non-Arab minorities, such as Kurds, Circassians and Turkomans.
Sandwiched between Lebanon to the west and Iraq to the east these communities - whatever their past and current grievances - have plenty of reason to fear the fall of Assad's authoritarian but essentially secular state.
Nor should we assume that the Sunni population is some homogenous bloc. There are heterodox Sufis, militantly political and anti-regime Salafis and many who follow a secular lifestyle.
Traditionally Alawites were damned by many Sunni theologians as heretics - they don't worship in mosques, don't observe the five pillars of Islam, the women don't wear headscarves or veils and they observe a variety of feasts and holidays from other traditions. Unlike Jews and Christians the Alawite and Druze communities were denied official recognition in Ottoman times and suffered all-round discrimination.
Under French rule Alawites and other minorities were recruited in great numbers by the colonial forces. For Alawites military service offered a means of social advancement, security and status.
After the French left the Alawites continued to dominate the military ranks. US Middle East expert Joshuah Landis estimated that Alawites made up almost 60 per cent of non-commissioned officers in the Syrian army by 1955.
When Bashar al-Assad's father Hafez came to power in 1970 it was
due to his roots in the military wing of the ruling Ba'ath Party rather than an attempt to create an Alawite ruling elite.
Due to their history of persecution and their secretive, unorthodox rites and customs, Syria's Alawites have generally favoured secular government and have shunned the political Islamic movements common among both Shia and Sunni.
Alawites were therefore especially open to the secular philosophy of Ba'athism and one of the party's original ideologists Zaki al-Arsuzi was himself an Alawite.
Ba'athists found themselves competing against Islamist groups early on, particularly their arch-rival the Muslim Brotherhood, the Syrian wing of which was founded in 1944.
In Syria the Brotherhood has historically been split between two factions - an Aleppo wing, considered more moderate, and a more radical faction with Homs as its base.
It was banned during the Adid al-Shishlaki dictatorship of the early 1950s and remained ineffective during Syria's
brief union with Egypt. In 1964 radicalised Brotherhood supporters launched a jihad in Hama against the newly installed Ba'athist regime. The revolt was bloodily crushed.
During the 1960s and '70s there was also a growing gap between the Brotherhood's public commitment to non-violence and the increasing involvement of its members in radical armed groups, the most important of which was known as the Fighting Vanguard and had its origins in the Hama revolt.
In 1973 there were mass protests against Ba'athist moves to advance a secular constitution, leading to a revival of the
Brotherhood and the armed groups. By the late '70s Islamist groups were engaged in a guerilla war against the government.
In June 1979 a Fighting Vanguard unit massacred scores of army cadets in Aleppo military academy. It also organised an assassination attempt on Hafez Assad and orchestrated dozens of shootings and bombings across the country.
Assad's response was brutal and effective. Membership of the Brotherhood became a capital offence. There were large-scale executions of Islamist prisoners.
In February 1982 the army laid siege to Hama. In scenes chillingly reminiscent of the current crisis it first ordered non-combatants to leave the city and then bombarded the Islamists, who used the cover of the remaining civilian communities.
Fighting lasted nearly three weeks and cost thousands of lives, many civilian.
Despite some attempts at reconciliation during the early part of Bashar al-Assad's rule the Brotherhood and the Ba'ath Party are again on a
collision course. The exiled Syrian National Council (SNC) has a significant Brotherhood presence.
The Brotherhood is promoting a moderate image and claims that the Assad government is responsible for violence, not the opposition. But that isn't the view of former SNC supporter Kamal Lebwany, who told the New York Times on May 5 that the Brotherhood "monopolises everything - the money, the weapons, the SNC. The SNC has a liberal peel covering a totalitarian, non-democratic core."
And in addition to Syria's homegrown Islamists, there is a new breed. Politicised and militarised by
Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, hardline jihadist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra have carried out car bombings and other attacks.
But most foreign Islamist fighters are being integrated into the various militias under the umbrella of the Saudi and Qatari-funded Free Syrian Army (FSA).
An interview with a Sunni Lebanese fighter published in Beirut's Daily Star newspaper mentions Lebanese fighters joining "regular FSA brigades" and even an entirely Lebanese armed unit. It also quotes "militants" saying that other Arab nationals are fighting alongside the Syrian rebels, including
"citizens from Tunisia, Algeria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia."
The internationalisation of the Syria conflict is no propaganda ploy of the Assad regime but a dangerous reality.