Blog: Syria – a history lesson

Courtesy of the excellent Ben Macintyre at The Times.  I thoroughly recommend you read this.

Unfortunately, it is behind a paywall, but this article is too good not to share.  I’ve linked it above but copied and pasted it below for your reading (and learning!) pleasure.

The moral of the story in Syria? Blame the French.

© Ben Macintyre at The Times Newspaper

The Alawites shoring up the Assad regime use hundreds of years of religious persecution to justify their brutality

When the French ruled Syria after the carve-up of the Middle East that followed the First World War, they needed a local group they could rely on, a favoured minority to keep the rest in check and to help to enforce their mandate. They turned to the Alawites, a tough, fierce, mysterious, mountain-dwelling Syrian sect: today Syria is paying the price for the French colonial policy of divide and rule, as Bashar Assad’s Alawite clan clings to power in an increasingly ferocious sectarian conflict.

Syria’s descent into violent protest and bloody repression lies, in part, in the story of the Alawites and an explosive heritage of paranoia, secrecy, persecution and the pursuit of power.

For most of their history, after branching off from mainstream Shia Islam in the 9th century, the Alawites or Nusayris (after their founder, Ibn Nusayr) suffered grim religious oppression. Under the Ottomans, they were regarded as heretics, taxed heavily and brutally repressed when they resisted conversion to Sunni Islam.

“The sect”, wrote T. E. Lawrence, “was clannish in feeling and politics. One Nosairi [sic] would not betray another, and would hardly not betray an unbeliever.”

The sect is a self-described branch of Shia Islam, but its mystical religion remains so shrouded in mystery that its very beliefs are still a matter of some conjecture.

French control of Syria, however, paved the way for the rise of the Alawites. France deliberately set out to divide the region along religious, communal and geographical lines. The Alawites, regarded as a “warlike race” (rather as the British saw the Gurkhas), were encouraged to join the colonial armies and police as a counterweight to the Sunnis and to obstruct the rise of Syrian nationalism.

In 1922, the Alawite district was proclaimed an autonomous state under French protection and was administered separately from Syria until 1942. The French thought Nusayri sounded too close to “Nasara”, a Muslim term for Christians derived from “Nazareth”, and formally changed the sect’s name to Alawites or Alawi, followers of Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet.

The Alawites dominated the military elite when Hafez Assad came to power through a coup in 1970. Although the two million Alawites make up only 11 per cent of Syria’s population (in a country that is 75 per cent Sunni), the sect dominates the Syrian state, monopolising almost all positions of power.

While publicly playing down sectarian divisions and courting other religious minorities who feared Sunni domination, the Assads packed members of their Alawite clan into every organ of state: the ruling Baath Party, the civil service, the intelligence service and, above all, the military and security elite. Some 70 per cent of professional Syrian soldiers and 80 per cent of officers are Alawites. The Shabiha, the vicious militia responsible for the worst mass killings, most recently in al-Qubair, is almost wholly composed of specially recruited and well-paid Alawite thugs.

The Assads have effectively taken their co-religionists hostage, providing money and housing for poor Alawites in return for blind loyalty, and so closely identifying the sect with their regime that many Alawites fear, probably rightly, that the fall of the House of Assad could lead to wholesale retribution by the Sunni majority.

The aggression and paranoia fuelling the horrors of al-Qubair and Houla reflect the isolation, suspicion and secrecy embedded in Alawite history. The Alawite faith, developed in closed and defensive mountain societies, is an extraordinary and fascinating amalgam of beliefs, incorporating elements of Christianity, Gnosticism, Zoroastrianism and Phoenician paganism. The faith does not encourage pilgrimages or fasts, has no mosques, regards prayer as unnecessary and maintains rituals with strong Christian overtones, such as the drinking of consecrated wine.

Alawites believe in the divinity of Ali, but also venerate a wide variety of prophets, beginning with Adam, including Christ, and even taking in figures from classical antiquity such as Plato and pre-Islamic Persian sages.

Above all, Alawite beliefs are cloaked in concealment. Women are not eligible to learn the religion and some elements of the faith are known only to a select few. Alawite religious rites are performed in secret, in line with the custom of taqiyya, the tradition of hiding one’s beliefs to escape persecution. As historians have pointed out, a society wedded to the idea of secrecy has created a fertile seedbed for the Mukhabarat, the feared Syrian military intelligence apparatus that has underpinned the Assad regime from the outset.

The existence of Alawite control was taboo under the Assads, who espoused a secular philosophy and claimed to be blind to sectarian differences while building up one of the most clannish governments in the Middle East. Now this domination is under threat, Assad is whipping up Alawite fears to defend himself: arms are reported to have been distributed to Alawite communities within Sunni areas and the Shabiha has been unleashed on towns linked to the opposition. The systematic murder of children by forces of the regime represents a new increase in the sectarian conflict; as in Bosnia, Rwanda and Nazi Germany, the Syrian state is now involved in a war of ethnic cleansing.

While the Syrian resistance is anxious to appear genuinely national, the fight against Assad is overwhelmingly Sunni-dominated: the opposition Syrian National Council has 311 members, of whom no more than ten are Alawites.

Assad knows that his best hope of survival lies now in fomenting sectarian divisions in the hope that, as the split between Sunni and Shia starts to spread beyond Syria into the wider Middle East, the threat of outside intervention will grow ever smaller.

As Kofi Annan, the former UN Secretary-General, has observed, Syria now faces the “spectre of all-out civil war” — a war between tyranny and the forces of democratic change, between a corrupt and murderous elite and an impoverished populace, but also between different religious sects, separated by ancient beliefs and a violent history.

“Shabiha” is Arabic for ghosts, and the name is ghoulishly apt. Hundreds of years of religious persecution, the accidents and manipulations of colonial domination, a divided country ruled through force and fear — these are the ghosts that stalk Syria’s past and its future.


Article: Billy Elliot – Lessons for the UK Economy

I’ve decided to join the wonderful world of Huffington Post blogging.  It really is a blogging behemoth.

My first article has been posted and I hope to continue posting; I’d quite like to make it a more regular thing but time pressures of a full-time job that has nothing to do with mainstream politics can make this difficult!

The original post can be found by clicking here.

On Wednesday evening, I was at the Victoria Palace Theatre in London to watch Billy Elliot: The Musical. A magical evening was made more magical thanks to the appearance of Sir Elton John, whose music and lyrics have contributed to the show’s 7-year longevity and critical acclaim – including an Olivier and a Tony Award – to celebrate what was to be its 3,000th show.

For those not in the know, Billy Elliot is the story of an eleven year old motherless boy in County Durham who trades in his boxing gloves for ballet shoes, set against the backdrop of the 1984-85 coal miner’s strike in the UK. It was estimated that the strike cost the economy some £1.5 billion.

With the UK currently in double-dip recession, the struggles of Billy’s widower father and his coal-mining colleagues were a little too close for comfort; the sentiments on stage, representative of 1984, didn’t seem too different from the sentiments I read or hear about in 2012.

I already despair that we don’t seem to have learnt any lessons from the banking and subsequent economic crisis from 2008 – credit rating agencies are still able to influence market movements (just ask France and Greece in recent months) and bank bonuses are set to rise by between 5 and 15 per cent in 2012.

But in digging a little deeper as to what the UK was like in the year of my birth, the UK I know today doesn’t seem to be all that different to Billy’s.

In 1984, The European Court of Human Rights ruled in favour of Surrey businessman, James Malone, who accused the police of illegally tapping his phone. Leveson take note.

The Labour Party started the year 3pc points ahead of the Conservatives in the polls, riding the wave of discontent over Thatcher’s economic policies. By the end of the year, Labour were 9pc points behind. Miliband Jr. take note.

Perhaps most enlightening is that UK unemployment today has reached the levels we would have seen in 1984. UK unemployment stood at a record 3.3 million, whilst youth unemployment reached a record 1.2 million. Today, unemployment stands at around 2.6 million, whilst 1.03 million young people are unemployed. Grayling take note.

In fact, some of the key events of that year – the expulsion of 30 Libyan diplomats following the death of PC Yvonne Fletcher, protests outside the Houses of Parliament, the wave of goodwill for the Royal family following the birth of Prince Harry and Everton winning the FA cup – would not look out of place in today’s papers. Except, perhaps, the Everton story.

But the point is this – we’ve been here before. The general malaise surrounding the UK (save for this week where Diamond Jubilee celebrations give us, and the papers, a chance to get away from Leveson it all) is something we’re accustomed to. But the key difference is that half way through this year, the UK doesn’t seem to be learning from some of the positive lessons of 1984. This last week has been more about sharp u-turns, rather than attempting to climb through the traffic on the mountain en route to that thing they call “economic growth”.

1984 saw the start of the FTSE 100 index; whatever you might feel about financial markets, you have to admit it showed bold ambition. It was perhaps this kind of ambition that attracted Nissan to open a car factory in the UK for the first time. The Queen was cutting ribbons at a new airport terminal in Birmingham and the very British Vauxhall car company doubled its market share with its European Car of the Year, the MK2 Astra. Britain was very much open for business.

I appreciate that I’ve glossed over the privatisations of British Telecom, the Trustee Savings Bank (Lloyds today) and the share sale of British Gas, but the point about generating economic growth by making the UK open for business is important.

The last few years should have taught us that big business can mean big failures and you can go too far. But given that “economic growth” seems to be the rallying call – even from non-tax paying heads of the IMF– Britain’s entrepreneurial spirit must be rekindled quickly. That might mean creating favourable conditions for businesses to thrive; revamping education to encourage innovation, creativity and enterprise (1984 was the year the GCSE was announced as the replacement for O-levels); and creating industrial hubs that create the scope for apprenticeships and new employment opportunities. Economic cycles are repetitive but present opportunities to take some positive lessons too.

The beginning of the second act in Billy Elliot starts with a not-so-complimentary performance of “Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher” and chants of “Maggie! Maggie! Maggie! Out! Out! Out!”. Two years into his term, Cameron still has the opportunity to prevent a rewrite of that song.