Syria: the background

by Alain Chouet

Alain Chouet (b. 1943), is the former head of Security Intelligence of the General Directorate of External Security (the DGSE), France's external intelligence agency, and an expert of the Arab-Muslim world. This is the text of a conference at the Institut des Hautes Etudes de Défense Nationale, held at Nice on June 27, 2012.  It is a scathing, informative analysis.

Alain Chouet

The worst conjectures which were formulated during the first semester of 2011 about the Arab revolt movements have become a reality. I have exposed them at large in various writings and publications "against-the- maintstream" of Western public opinion, which was generally enthusiastic and more than anything else, naïve. Because one really needed to be naïve to believe that, in countries which have been subjected for half-a-century to dictatorships having eliminated all forms of liberal and pluralistic opposition, democracy and freedom were going to rise like the genie from the lamp by the sole virtue of the Internet, to which only a tiny minority of the privileged in these societies have access.

Having put the libertarian effervescence and the agitation of Facebook adepts behind us, we must now face the evidence. Namely, that political power has fallen into the hands of the only structured political forces which had survived the national dictatorships, because they had been supported financially by the theocratic oil-monarchies whose values they are sharing, and politically by the West, because they constituted a shield against the influence of the Eastern Block: and these are the fundamentalist religious forces. The “Arab Spring” took all of six months to transform itself into an « Islamist Winter.”

In Tunisia and in Egypt, the Islamist parties, the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist extremists found themselves sharing comfortable majorities in Parliaments having emerged from popular revolts. They have been co-managing the situation together with military commands, the role of which as dominant economic actors they cannot but respect, of course, while moving away insidiously from the popular demands which brought them to power. With great constancy in their practice of double-talk, they do exactly the contrary of what they are claiming to be doing. In Egypt, after having stated loudly that they by no means aspired to power, they wasted no time in claiming successively the Presidency of the Republic, the parliamentary majority and the whole of political power.

In Tunisia, after having officially given up on including the Shari’a law into the constitution, they organized, in the provinces and the middle-sized towns, safely away from the attention of Western media, comities of religious vigilance in order to apply rulings inspired by the Shari’a. This movement gained progressively more important cities, and even capitals, where bans of all kinds are multiplying, such as censorship of spectacles and of the press, fundamental liberties being hidden under the bushel, together with, it goes without saying, the rights of women and of non-Sunni minorities.

And these reactionary political forces have nothing to fear from coming electoral deadlines. Being generously financed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar for whom they are guaranteeing a pledge of submission within the Arab world, they have all the means at their disposal to buy up consciences and to constitute for themselves a clientele which will perpetuate their domination in the face of a broken-up, impotent democratic political landscape, which they can easily demonstrate to be of foreign, and therefore impious inspiration.

Only the Syrian regime is resisting this generalized movement of Islamization, at the price of a generalized misunderstanding and international opprobrium. 

Before developing this subject, I think I must make a few things clear, as some seem to discover in my words, and in the positions which I am taking, a whiff of the extreme-right and complacency towards dictatorships.

I have regularly gone to Syria since 1966 and I lived there for a number of years. I do not claim to know this country intimately but still, I believe that I know it better than some journalists who are coming back from there chock-full of certainties, after a three of four days’ stay.

My activities have brought me to deal for a variety of reasons with leaders of the civilian and military security services since the end of the 1970s. I have had the occasion to notice that they are not wasting their time in lace-making or poetic activities, and that they behave with absolute savagery. It’s not that they have a conception of human rights that is different from ours. It’s that they don’t have any such thing as a conception of human rights…

Their history in great part explains this absence. First, they learned their manners from four centuries of occupation by the Ottoman Turks, who were great experts in empalement, skinning alive and exquisite cutting-up. Then, they found themselves under the crook of French colonial troops during the mandate of 1920 to 1943, and, as soon as the country reached independence, they got technical advice from former Nazis refugees, from 1945 until the middle of the 1950s, and after that from experts of the KGB  until 1990. All this did not contribute to develop in them a sense of kindness, tolerance and human respect. 

As for the Syrian regime itself, there is no doubt in my mind that it is an authoritarian, brutal and closed regime. But the Syrian regime is not the dictatorship of one man alone, nor even of a family, such as was the case with the Tunisian, Egyptian, Libyan and Iraqi regimes. Just like his father, Bashar al-Assad is only the visible part of an iceberg of complex communities and his eventual departure would change strictly nothing to the reality of the relationships of power and force in the country. There are standing behind him 2 million Alawis who are even more determined than he is to fight for their survival, and several million members of minorities who have everything to lose from a take-over of power by the Islamists, this seeming to be the sole political scenario which the West is willing to encourage and to promote in the region.

When I went to Syria for the first time in 1966, the country was still politically dominated by the Sunni Muslim majority which held in its hands all the economic and social levers. And Sunni bourgeois still bought – sometimes by means of certified contracts – young Alawi men and women whom they turned into real, life-long slaves, as agricultural or construction workers in the case of the boys, as household maids in the case of the girls. 

The Alawis are a social and religious community which has been persecuted for more than a thousand years. I will give you here a rapid and schematic description which would probably make experts scream, but time is lacking for an exhaustive presentation.

Having originated in the 10th century at the borders of the Arab and Byzantine empires from a remote scission of Shiism, they practice some sort of a complicated mystical syncretism between elements of Shiism, of Hellenistic pantheism, Persian Mazdaism and Byzantine Christianity. They designate themselves under the name of Alawis – that is, followers of Ali, the Prophet’s son-in-law – when they want to be taken for Muslims, and as Nosaïris – from the name of Nosaïr, the Shiite mystic who founded their current – when they want to distinguish themselves from the Muslims. And – in fact – they are as remote from Islam as are Siberian shamans.

And it did not bring them happiness… For all revealed monotheistic religions, there is no greater crime than apostasy. Alawis are considered by Sunni Islam as the worst of apostates. This earned them in the 16th century a fatwa from the Salafist jurisconsult Ibn Taymiyya, the ancestor of present day Wahhabism, prescribing their systematic persecution and genocide. Despite the fact that Ibn Taymiyyah is considered to be an unauthorized exegete, his fatwa has never been put into question and it is still in force today, notably among the Salafists, the Wahhabites and the Muslim Brotherhood. Hunted and persecuted, the Alawis found refuge in the arid coastal mountains between Lebanon and present-day Turkey, their creed acquiring a hermetic and esoteric character, authorizing dissimulation and lies in order to escape their tormentors.

They had to wait for the middle of the 20th century to take their revenge. Subjected to foreign military occupation for centuries, the Sunni Muslim bourgeois of Syria made the classical parvenus' mistake when their country became independent in 1943. Considering that the military profession was hardly profitable and the military institution but a mediocre tool for social climbing, they kept their sons away from it. With the result that they left the whole leadership of the army of their very young country to the poor, meaning, to the minorities: Christians, Ismailis, Druzes, Shiites and, especially, to the Alawis. And when you give the control of the arms to the poor and the persecuted, you are taking the more or less certain risk that they will use it to rob the rich and to take revenge on them. And this is exactly what happened in Syria from the 1960s on.

In the 1970s, Hafez al-Assad, coming from one of the most modest families of the Alawi community, having become the head of the Air Force then Minister of Defence, took power by force in order to secure the revenge and protection of the minority to which his family belonged and of the allied minorities – Christians and Druzes – who helped him on his march to power. He then employed himself to methodically guarantee to these minorities – his own foremost – the control of all the political, economic and social levers in the country, using authoritarian means and methods the description of which can be found in an article I published over 20 years ago. 

Facing the rise of fundamentalism progressing in the wake of the present upheavals in the Arab world, his successor, Bashar al-Assad, is finding himself in the same situation as the Jews in Israel: with his back to the sea and a choice between winning or dying. The Alawis have been joined in their resistance by other religious minorities of Syria, the Druzes, the Shi’ites, the Ismailis and especially by Christians of all obediences, who are quite well informed of the fates of their brethren in Iraq and of the Copts in Egypt.

For, contrarily to the litanies peddled by beautiful souls claiming that « if we don’t intervene in Syria, the country will sink into civil war… » well, not so, the country will not sink into civil war! For the country has been in the middle of a civil war since 1980, when a commando of the Muslim Brotherhood penetrated in a school of Army cadets in Alep, carefully sorted the students between Sunnis and Alawis and massacred 80 Alawi officer cadets with knives and assault rifles, all in application of the fatwa of Ibn Taymiyya. The Brotherhood paid dearly for it in 1982 at Hama – the Brotherhood’s stronghold – which the uncle of the present President razed to the ground, making between 10,000 and 20,000 dead. Violence between religious communities has never ceased since, even if the regime did everything in its might to hide them. 

So that, proposing to the Alawis and to the other non-Arab or non-Sunni minorities of Syria to accept reforms which would bring Salafist Islamists to power would be exactly like proposing to Afro-Americans to revert to the statu quo before the Civil War. The Alawis and the minorities will fight savagely against such a perspective.

Little accustomed to communication, the Syrian regime left the monopoly of the latter to the opposition. But not just to any opposition. For there exist in Syria authentic liberal democrats, open to the world, who did not accommodate well with the regime’s authoritarianism and who were hoping for a political opening-up on the part of Bashar al-Assad. They obtained only some space of economic freedom in exchange for giving up on demands of liberal reforms, which were perfectly justified. But these democrats are too dispersed, devoid of means and support. They are not asked to speak up and they remain inaudible to the Western media because, in their majority, they do not belong to those who clamor for the mediatized lynching of the « dictator, » such as was done in Libya.

If you keep yourself informed about Syria using the written and audio-visual medias in France in particular, you will not have failed to notice that all information about the situation is being sourced to the « Syrian Observatory of Human Rights » (SOHR) or more laconically to “NGO,” the latter being the same thing, the NGO in question being always the “Syrian Observatory of Human Rights.”

The "Syrian Observatory of Human Rights" is a denomination which sounds good to Western ears, for which it has become the privileged if not even the sole source of information. Yet it has nothing whatsoever to do with the respectable League of Human Rights. It is in fact an emanation of the Muslim Brotherhood and it is led by Islamist militants some of whom have formerly been condemned for violent activism, particularly its founder and first President, M. Ryadh el-Maleh. The SOHR settled in London at the end of the 1980s, under the kindly protection of the anglo-saxon services and operates quasi-totally on Saudi, and now on Qatari funds.

I do not mean at all to say that information emanating from the SOHR is false, but, taking into account the origin and the partisan orientation of this organism, it is no small surprise to me that the Western media, and particularly the French ones, should be using it as their sole source without ever trying to recoup what is emanating from it. 

The other favorite of the Western media and politicians is the Syrian National Council, created in 2011 in Istanbul on the model of the Libyan CNT, at the initiative moreover not of the Turkish government but of the Islamist party AKP. Supposedly federating all the forces of opposition to the regime, the SNC has quickly announced the color – in the proper sense of the term… The Syrian national flag is made up of three horizontal bands. One black, the color of the Abbasside dynasty which reigned over the Arab world from the 9th to the 13th century. The other white as a reminder of the Umayyad dynasty which reigned in the 7th and 8th centuries. Finally, one red, supposedly representing the socialising aspirations of the regime. Right from its creation, the SNC replaced the red band with the green band of Islamism, as you can see at demonstrations against the regime, where one can hear shouts of « Allahu Akbar ! » much more often than democratic slogans.

This having been said, the predominant place given the Muslim Brotherhood in the SNC by the Turkish AKP and the American Department of State ended up exasperating just about everybody. Syria is not Libya, and the minorities which represent a good quarter of the population want to have their say, even within the opposition. At a visit of Kurdish opponents in Washington, things went badly. The Kurds are Sunni Muslims, but they are not Arabs. And as non-Arabs, they are vowed to an inferior status by the Brotherhood. Having come to the Department of State to complain about their being marginalized within the SNC, they got the answer that they should submit to the authority of the Brotherhood, or try to manage on their own. Returning to Istanbul quite angry, they joined up with other minority opponents to dismiss the President of the SNC, one totally submissive to the Brotherhood, and had him replaced with a Kurd, Abdelbassett Saïda who would do what he could – meaning, not much – in order to neither lose the hospitality of the Turkish Islamists, nor the support of the American neoconservatives, nor, especially, the financial support of the Saudis and the Qataris. 

All this looks messy, of course, but more than that, it is revealing of the orientation which Islamist states, supported by American neoconservatives, intent to give to the protest movements in the Arab world.

Obviously, these considerations are not going to reassure the minorities in Syria and incite them to being conciliatory, or to holding back. The minorities in Syria – in particular, the Alawis which are in possession of the restraining apparatus of the State – are worried for their survival which they will defend violently. To knock the Syrian President out of the game could, at a pinch, have symbolic significance, but it will change nothing to the problem. He is not the one who is being targeted, it is not he who is being put in question, but the whole of his community, which will turn even more violent and aggressive if it loses its bearings and its leaders. The more time passes, the more the international community will try to exert pressures on the threatened minorities, the worse things will become, following the model of the Lebanese civil war which bled that country from 1975 to 1990.

It might have been possible for the international community to change the deal if in 2011 it had demanded liberal reforms from the Syrian regime, in exchange for international protection being assured to the threatened minorities. And as Arabia and Qatar – two theocratic monarchies claiming to belong to wahhabism – are theoretically our friends and our allies, we might have asked them to declare the fatwa of Ibn Taymiyyah nul, void and obsolete, in order to quiet down the game. No such thing was done. To these threatened Syrian minorities, the West, France in the forefront, has doled out only condemnation without appeal and sometimes hysterical anathema, while provoking everywhere – politically and sometimes militarily – the accession to power of Islamist integrists and the supremacy of theocratic States supporting political Salafism. 

Having gotten rid of those hardly virtuous tenors of Arab nationalism, of Saddam Hussein, of Ben Ali, of Mubarak, of Gaddafi, and being sheltered from Iraqi, Algerian and Syrian criticisms, the latter countries being bogged down in internal conflicts, the oil-theocracies have had no difficulty taking control of the Arab League with the help of their petrodollars, and to turn it into an instrument for pressuring the international community and the UN, all in favor of fundamentalist political movements which comfort their own legitimacy and shield them from any form of democratic protest.

That the reactionary monarchies should defend their interests and that fundamentalist political forces should try to seize a power which they have been oggling for almost a century should not be particularly surprising. What is more strange, by contrast, is the eagerness of the West to favor everywhere integrist take-overs which are even less democratic than the dictatorships  for which they are being substituted, and then to pillory those who are resisting them.

Logic remaining absent, at least morality and reason should invite us to ask ourselves questions about this curious schizophrenia of our politicians and our media. The future will tell us if our infantile fascination with the neo-populism being vehiculated by the Internet, and the massive investments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia in our crises-ridden economies were worth our complacency in the face of a rise of barbary against which we would be wrong to think that we are protected. 

Paris, Friday November 13, 2015

Translated from the French by Anne-Marie de Grazia (shortened)

Some of the victims of the attacks of November 13

Read also (in English): Alain Chouet: The European Union and Terrorism