In mid-March 2011, the arrest and torture of teenagers who had written anti-regime graffiti sparked a wave of demonstrations in the southern Syrian city of Deraa. As a result of the brutal reaction by security forces, protests rapidly escalated and spread to the coastal cities of Latakia and Banyas, the suburbs of Damascus, and the central governorates of Homs, Hama, and Idlib. Protestors initially demanded democratic reforms, yet the Syrian government’s violent response to the demonstrations—which has now taken the form of armored divisions besieging the rebellious towns and cities—has led many to openly call for the fall of the regime.

From the point of view of the authorities, the most threatening phase of the uprising so far was the massive demonstration that saw tens of thousands flooding the main square of Homs, Syria’s third largest city, on April 19. Following the bloody suppression of the gathering, the Syrian Ministry of Interior declared that the country was witnessing “an armed insurgency” aimed at “establishing Salafi emirates.”[1] Such discourse is beyond any doubt part of a poor attempt at concealing the fact that the regime is actually facing a genuine popular uprising. Nevertheless, it has succeeded in convincing part of the population, in particular members of religious minorities that have been traumatized by the failed Islamic revolution of the early 1980s, that Islamist militants are seeking to take control of the state. Moreover, if the situation deteriorates further, the regime might well create the reality it pretends to fight, as its unrestricted use of violence against civilians and manipulation of sectarian divides are likely to fuel Sunni radicalism.

Assessing the Depth of the Crisis
To some extent, the bloody crushing of the 1979-1982 Islamist uprising in Syria was the last stage of the coup carried out by the Ba`ath Party in 1963. Indeed, what Syrians still remember as “the events” were nothing but the final showdown between a regime dominated by sons of peasants, the most powerful of them belonging to the Alawite minority,[2] and the scions of their historical foes, the conservative Sunni merchants.

As for the current wave of unrest, it seems to be exactly the opposite. The central quarters of Damascus and Aleppo have remained relatively calm so far, which suggests that despite widespread corruption and unfair competition on the part of regime cronies, the majority of the merchant bourgeoisie has benefited enough from the last decade of economic liberalization to prioritize stability.

Instead, the uprising started in Deraa, the administrative center of the Hauran, a Sunni rural and tribal region that is a historical stronghold of the ruling Ba`ath Party. Indeed, it is the homeland of such senior officials as Vice President Faruq al-Shara` and Vice President of the National Progressive Front (the alliance composed of the Ba`ath and satellite parties) Suleiman al-Qaddah. It must be noted that unofficial media outlets of the intelligence service have attacked al-Qaddah, apparently for his lack of enthusiasm at supporting the regime’s repressive policies, which have also been openly denounced by several representatives of the Deraa governorate in the (rump) national parliament.[3] All of this, in addition to the rallying of senior local clerics and tribal leaders to the “revolution,” suggests that the movement relies on a broad popular base that encompasses both the grassroots and the notables.

Other signs that a significant part of the Ba`ath’s rural support base has turned against the regime have come from the governorates of Homs, Hama and Idlib, in central Syria, where many villages and agricultural towns (al-Rastan, Talbisa, Ariha) have witnessed large and brutally suppressed demonstrations.

Other major hotbeds of unrest have been the suburbs and satellite towns of Damascus (in particular Duma, Ma`damiyya, and Dariya) that are home to members of the working and lower middle-classes.

These developments at first suggest that the current events have an obvious social and economic dimension and might be seen as consequences of the regime’s shift from socialism to a so-called “social market economy.” Such a reading of the situation, however, does not explain why the uprising has taken roots in the cities of Latakia and Banyas, on the coast, and of Homs, in the center, since these economies are much better than that of the rural hinterland. Nor does it help explain the relative calm that prevails in the countryside of Aleppo (North) and in the Jezireh (North East), where social and economic conditions are by far the worst in the country, all the more so since local agriculture has been devastated by drought since 2007.

An alternative explanation is the sectarian factor. Indeed, all of Latakia, Banyas and Homs are home to sizeable Alawite communities that have migrated from the mountains and countryside during the 20th century and live in relatively homogeneous neighborhoods. Of course, the mere presence of Alawites did not stir up Sunni resentment; rather, it could be their massive recruitment into the local security apparatus, whose corruption and voracity has increased while the redistributive capacities of the state have diminished. Of course, the situation is no different in the north and northeast, but in those regions, in the absence of Alawites, the intelligence services have mostly recruited among (Sunni) Bedouins and Kurds, which has possibly allowed for relatively smoother relations between the population and the security apparatus.

Since the rallying to the opposition of the merchant bourgeoisie of Damascus and Aleppo does not seem plausible in the short-term, the real key to the fate of the regime is the loyalty of the countryside of the north/northeast, and more particularly of the governorate of Aleppo, which is home to 25% of the country’s total population. Were the uprising to spread there, the Syrian army would be quickly overstretched, since there are good reasons to think that only a small proportion of its 300,000-strong active manpower would be as loyal against civilians as the (predominantly Alawite) 4th Brigade, which has been besieging Deraa, or the Republican Guard, which defends the capital.

The Role of the Islamists and the Prospects for Radicalization
Contrary to official allegations, Islamic forces have played a minor role so far in the Syrian protests. The exiled Society of the Muslim Brothers, which was completely eradicated inside the country following the insurgency of the early 1980s, kept a low profile for more than one month after the start of the uprising, probably to avoid feeding the regime’s propaganda campaign against the domestic opposition. The Brothers nevertheless changed their mind with the conference of the Syrian opposition held in Istanbul in late April, following which they issued their first formal call to demonstrate.[4]

In Damascus, although some senior Muslim scholars initially vowed support for demonstrations, most of them have been quickly silenced through a mixture of threats and concessions such as the closure of Damascus’ casino, the opening of a new institute for higher Islamic studies, the reinstatement of face-veiled teachers that had been transferred to administrative positions, and the creation of an Islamic satellite channel.[5]

Local clerics have joined the opposition and, in some cases, have become its main speakers in rebellious cities such as Deraa (imam of Grand Mosque Ahmad Sayasne and Mufti Rizq Abazayd, who resigned from his position in protest at the crackdown, then accepted to be reinstated under official pressure) and Banyas (Anas `Ayrut). This is apparently, however, not the result of any active involvement in the early stage of the protests but rather that demonstrators have put forward these well-known and respected figures.

Whereas the demands of the aforementioned clerics have remained focused on democratic reforms rather than on a specifically Islamic agenda, there were at least two substantiated cases of men of religion giving fiery sectarian speeches in front of the demonstrators. In one of them, however, the contrast between the speaker’s enthusiasm at vilifying “infidels” and his refusal to call for the fall of the regime gives some credence to the theory that this established cleric was actually sent by Syrian intelligence services to undermine the credibility of the protest movement.[6]

The Syrian official press has repeatedly pointed to the killings of several dozen soldiers and policemen as proof of the involvement of Saudi-backed “extremists” in the uprising. For its part, the opposition has accused the regime of executing members of the military who refused to shoot at civilians. In fact, there is no need to resort to any of these theories to make sense of the death of security operatives. Light automatic weapons such as AK-47s are widespread in the Syrian countryside and coastal region, where they are used for hunting, protection of livestock against hyenas, and feuds. Therefore, it would not be surprising if people sought revenge for relatives killed by security forces during the recent demonstrations, all the more so that the most violent clashes occurred in regions where tribal bonds are strong.

In addition to its ruthless character, the regime’s handling of popular unrest is also distinctly sectarian, which might help jihadist groups promote their narrative among the Sunni population. As soon as the first demonstrations started in the Sunni neighborhoods of Latakia, the government labeled them as a sectarian fitna (discord) while agents provocateurs reportedly sought to create tensions between the Sunni and Alawite communities of the city. In addition to the fact that repression chiefly relies on the most loyal (predominantly Alawite) units of the army, the authorities have resorted to Alawite paramilitaries and thugs called “Shabbiha.” In a video that quickly went viral on YouTube, plainclothes militiamen are seen beating trussed up prisoners in the Sunni village of al-Bayda (Banyas) while shouting to one another with distinctly Alawite names such as “Ali Abbas.”[7]

At the moment, Syria does not seem to be home to organized jihadist networks that could exploit such a situation in the short-term. Throughout the 2000s, the country has exported most of its radical Islamists to Iraq and, to a lesser extent, Lebanon (such as to the group Fatah al-Islam). As a result, Syria has suffered relatively little from terrorism during the last decade; with the exception of the bombing in September 2008 that killed 17 near a center of the intelligence service in Sidi Qazzaz, a suburb of Damascus, the country witnessed only three failed (and, for two of them, somewhat curious) attacks by Islamic militants,[8] in addition to a series of skirmishes between the latter and security forces in 2005-2006. Moreover, dozens of jihadists perished in the suppression of a riot at the prison of Seydnaya in the summer of 2008.

In late 2004, London-based Syrian jihadist scholar `Abd al-Mun`im Halima (also known as Abu Basir al-Tartusi) launched the online magazine Risalat al-Mujahidin (The Mujahidin’s Newsletter) with the aim to encourage fellow Islamic militants to identify Syria as a “land of jihad.” With U.S. troops in Iraq, and because of Syria’s anti-Western policy, the magazine failed to attract any attention, with the result that it stopped printing after a couple of issues. The current events have led al-Tartusi to focus on Syria again.[9] With the rising number of (mostly Sunni) victims of state repression, and the active involvement in the latter of de facto sectarian Alawite militias, there are some reasons to fear that he might end up being more successful this time.

After two months of unrest and the killings of almost 1,000 people, the situation remains uncertain. Although President Bashar al-Assad has made full use of his military might, he has failed to crush the movement. At the same time, the number of demonstrators has remained limited to probably less than 50,000 nationwide, and protests have still not taken root in the central districts of Damascus and Aleppo or in the populous northern countryside. The Syrian “revolution” is thus increasingly looking like a war of attrition whose result is impossible to foresee, since neither side seems to lack determination.

Mahmud Hasan is an independent researcher on Syrian affairs.

[1] Syrian Arab News Agency, April 19, 2011.

[2] The Alawites (“supporters of Imam Ali”), also known under the (derogative) name of “Nusayris,” are a Muslim sect that has been considered as “heretical” by most Sunni and (until very recently) Shi`a theologians throughout history. A downtrodden minority, they have lived in the coastal mountains of Syria for centuries. During the 1960s, Alawite officers became extremely influential within the Syrian military, to the extent that one of them, Hafiz al-Assad, became the head of the state in 1971. Upon his death in 2000, his son, Bashar al-Assad, succeeded him as president of Syria.

[3] Ignace Leverrier, “Des dissensions se font jour dans le système syrien,”, April 24, 2011.

[4] “Communiqué of the Society of the Muslim Brothers in Syria Concerning the Assessment of our Position,”, April 28, 2011.

[5] Al-Watan [Damascus], April 6, 2011.

[6] Sermon of Sheikh As`ad Khalil on “Freedom Square” in Homs, April 18, 2011, available at

[7] This can be viewed at

[8] Against an empty UN building in April 2004, an empty building of the national television in June 2006, and the U.S. Embassy in September 2006.

[9] See, for example, “Important Advices and Orientations for Demonstrators,”, April 30, 2011.

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