Mercury Rising 鳯女

Politics, life, and other things that matter

Understanding Syria

Posted by Charles II on February 22, 2012

While understanding what is going on in Syria is probably all but impossible for those of us who do not live in the Middle East/North Africa, there are some good sources to begin with.

Syria is split into multiple factions. The dictator, Asad, is an Alawite, which (according to Robert Mackey of the NYT) is

“an esoteric Islamic sect, the Alawites, whose belief in the divinity of Ali, Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, is just one of the reasons that they were oppressed as infidels for centuries by other Muslims.”

Mackey then quote Malise Ruthven in the NY Review of Books:

they evolved a highly secretive syncretistic theology containing an amalgam of Neoplatonic, Gnostic, Christian, Muslim, and Zoroastrian elements.

Nusayrism could be described as a folk religion that absorbed many of the spiritual and intellectual currents of late antiquity and early Islam, packaged into a body of teachings that placed its followers beyond the boundaries of orthodoxy.

Nusayris believe in metempsychosis or transmigration. The souls of the wicked pass into unclean animals such as dogs and pigs, while the souls of the righteous enter human bodies more perfect than their present ones.

According to the BBC, the Alawites are a minority (8-15%) whose power in Syria is a legacy of French colonial rule, which created an Alawite state yclept Latakia. Seventy five percent of Syrians are Sunnis. Ten-fifteen percent are Kurds, there is a significant (10%) Christian minority, 2-3% are Druze, 1% are Ismaili Shia, and presumably some are secular. (So, as you can see, there are 106% – 119-plus% Syrians, a genuinely remarkable achievement.)

The government involves Alawites operating in an alliance with some Sunnis, Kurds and Christians, as well as perhaps Druze. Still, government forces represent a small fraction of the population. Crosscutting this are perhaps more important tribal loyalties, generational conflicts, and regional loyalties. Hassan Hassan in the UAE’s The National (via perhaps the most important American source on Syria, Professor Joshua Landis);

The Egaidat is the largest tribal confederation in Al Jazira, with at least 1.5 million members, and links mainly to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Al Neim is the prominent tribal confederation in Deraa that includes the houses of Zoubi, Rifai and Hariri, and has a strong presence in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and also in the UAE, especially in the Northern Emirates. Al Eniza is another prominent Gulf tribal confederation with members in Al Jazira, Suwaida, Homs, Hama and Aleppo. Al Dhafir tribe has members in Al Jazira, Hama and a few in Deraa, as well as a presence in Saudi Arabia and less so in Kuwait. The Shammar confederation has at least one million members in Syria and is also one of the largest tribes in Saudi Arabia and Iraq.

Several leaders of the Syrian branches of the tribes continue regular visits to the Gulf states and often meet members of the royal families. A significant number have returned to the Gulf and become naturalised citizens mainly in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait. Many hold privileged positions in these countries and, as the bloody crackdown in Syria continues, tribal kinships have grown closer, with tribes in Deraa contacting their “cousins” in the Gulf asking for a firm diplomatic and economic position regarding Damascus.

So, in very crude terms, there are interest affiliations something like the chart above.

One Response to “Understanding Syria”

  1. Sounds like the answer given by an average Syrian to “which religion/tribe/faction are you?” is highly dependent on whether or not the questioner is pointing a gun at the questioned.

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