More than a year after civil unrest broke out and plunged part of Syria into the chaos of the ‘Arab Spring’, the Baath government remains firmly in control and the majority of the country is calm; almost untouched by an opposition which is scattered and confined to the cities of Homs and Hama, as well as a few towns on the Turkish and Lebanese border. The main reported cases of unrest are linked to regular attacks from Salafist bands which are of an extremely violent nature and more importantly, the Free Syrian Army. The latter counts amid its ranks numerous Qataris and Libyans, all whom have been trained in the art of urban guerilla warfare by the French army in refugee camps, which provide perfect bases from which to operate and orchestrate attacks.
How can one explain the resilience of this regime? A regime which is more or less in complete control despite facing what is usually described as a “revolutionary populist uprising”? One which is determined to overthrow the “Alawite dictatorship” from the political and economic realms of Syrian society, the so-called privilege of the Alawi, a community which accounts for no more than about 10% of the population?
Perhaps it is because the reality does not correspond to this over simplified equation.
Indeed, the communitarian and religious Syrian patchwork is far from closing ranks on the Alawi population. Moreover, this group, do not in fact monopolize the political landscape.
Therefore, even back in the 1980s, when Hafez Al-Assad, father of the incumbent president, Bashir, and author of the “Alawi coup d’état”, succumbed to serious health issues, he had designed a directorate of six members to run the Syrian government – All six were Sunnis.
Furthermore, all the prime ministers who have served in Bashir Al-Assad’s government have been Sunnis. Similarly key positions including the Ministers of Defence, Finance and Oil and the heads of the numerous police corps and the secret service do not depend on the Alawi community. The Druze, Christian, Shiite and Kurd minorities also benefit from governmental representation.
This would explain why the opposition is a fractious minority whose support base lies outside Syria’s borders rather than at the heart of the population.
In these circumstances it is understandable that Russia (and China), treading carefully in order to preserve her last card in the Middle East, resolutely opposes the pressure to sign up to the latest United Nations Security Council resolution. This would undoubtedly lead Syria into a scenario similar to Libya, where tens of thousands of civilians would perish as during the destruction of Sirte (and Russia has asked for there to be a UN commission to investigate these Atlantic war crimes).
The most striking element is this whole situation is that the UN has neither the right nor the objective, to decide the nature of a sovereign government, less still the identity of its head of state; meaning that the text proposed to the Security Council by the Arab league, calling for the departure of President Bashir Al-Assad, a text supported by Qatar with substantial French backing, is directly opposed to the basic principles of international law and completely surreal.
Furthermore, if the Baath regime is dictatorial and brutal, so are numerous factions of the opposition: an opposition which is seriously divided and made up of groups with conflicting objectives, none of which necessarily represent the Syrian population; for on the one hand there are the radical Islamic factions, who massacre their opponents and commit atrocities against the military (kidnappings, mutilations, decapitations…) but also civilians who refuse to support their objectives. This is why Russia has demanded that any UN resolution must be applied not only to the government forces but to all factions resorting to violence, including those supported by foreign states, specifically France and Qatar.
It would therefore seem that from an Alawite fantasy to the surrealism of the United Nations, Syria as depicted by the mass media certainly bears very little resemblance to the reality of the actual situation.
Pierre Piccinin is a professor of political science at the Ecole Européen de Bruxelles
[Editor's note: This article was originally published on March 6th 2012]