Phillip Smyth26 Middle East Review of International Affairs, Vol. 16, No. 1 (March 2012)position vis-à-vis Syria’s Sunni majority thatthey are natural allies for most of Syria’sother minorities.
Through a mixture of patronage networks, fear of massacre at thehands of Sunni Muslims, and a wish not tocede power, most Alawites have remainedloyal to their coreligionist rulers.
Though,support for the Ba’thists from other minoritygroups has not always followed this specificmodel.Unlike other Arab Spring states, such asEgypt, Tunisia, and Libya, Syria is home toa wide and diverse range of ethnic andreligious minorities. These groups includethe dominant Alawites, Druze, variousChristian groups, Kurds, Shi’i sects, andsmall numbers of Yazidis. According tomost estimates, the collective numbers forthese minorities range between 25-36percent of the Syrian population.
What ismore, around 7-15 percent of the SunniMuslim population is not Arab, butethnically Kurdish.
The minority position in Syria reflects thedire nature of most minority groups in theMiddle East. The region often witnessesdifferent sects forced to choose theuncertainty of a revolution or the stability of autocratic rule. Many minorities have lookedat events in Iraq, which saw wide scaleethnic and sectarian violence and ethniccleansing. The rise of anti-minority Islamistsin Egypt has also provided an example tosome minority groups of what could befallthem in a post-Asad Syria. Thiscontemporary fear, exploited by Damascus,has served as a great benefit to the regime.However, fears of an Islamist takeoverare not the only factors influencing minoritysupport for Bashar al-Asad. Since the rule of Bashar’s father, Hafiz al-Asad, the Syrianregime has been cultivating links withminority groups in the hope of establishingeasily manipulated allies to support theadministration’s influence and grow theBa’thi powerbase. According to ananonymous regime official, “there are 360diplomats within the Syrian ForeignMinistry. Of these, 60 per cent are Nusayri[Alawite]. The number of Sunni diplomatsdoes not exceed 10 per cent.”
Clearly, theAlawite sect has provided the regime withits backbone of support. Nevertheless, if thenumbers are correct, this would necessitatethat minority groups, other than theAlawites, are recognized as having animportant place within the Ba’thi regime.The Ba’th Party’s nationalist agenda of pan-Arabism has also affected how theregime engages minorities. Initially,Arabism was seen by some minorities as away to secure relative safety and retainpolitical influence in lands where theyhistorically faced persecution. Concurrently,the same inclusive Arabism has alsoexcluded certain groups like the Kurds orhas disparaged other minority quests forself-identity by those that Arabistsconsidered “Arab.” Doctrinaire Arabismwould hardly allow for incorporating oraccepting “separatist” ideals.The Iraq War and the 2005 Syrian pulloutfrom Lebanon also resulted in newawakenings among Syrian minoritypopulations and weakened Arabism’spredominant position. In 2005, a spokesmanfor the banned Syrian party, the AssyrianDemocratic Organization, told the
New York Times
, "[i]n Syria, gradually it's becomingsafer to talk about minority rights andhuman rights... The interaction betweenminorities in Iraq and its neighboringcountries really depends on how particularminorities view their own situation.”
This new and undeniable reality causedthe Asad regime to shift how it dealt withsects that openly embraced non-Arabidentities. Nevertheless, while the Asadregime continues to push and reaffirm theprimacy of Arabism, it has recognized theneed to engage certain minority groups’changing ideologies and identities. This has