The Syrian Mafia

Since the beginning of 2011 there is war in Syria. The international community acts uncoordinated. Where the roots of this conflict are, explains KHALED YACOUB OWEIS

The origins of the Syrian civil war trace back to decades of rule by a minority sect. The situation has been similar to neighbouring Iraq, where Saddam Hussein's Sunni1 minority broadly oppressed the Shi'ite2 majority till the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam in 2003.

In Syria there has been no such foreign intervention that ended up being on the side of the majority, the Sunnis in this case. Therefore Bashar al-Assad has been able to cling to power since peaceful pro-democracy protests broke out against 40 years of Assad family rule in March 2011. Assad inherited power from his father, the late Hafez al-Assad, in 2000.

The Assads belong to the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Islam that was promoted by French colonial rulers of Syria in the 20th century. French backing eventually led to the sect taking over key units in the army, such as missile squadrons and military intelligence.

Nepotism as governing principle
Alawite officers staged a coup and took power in 1963. Hafez al-Assad, one the coup's plotters, staged his own coup in 1970 and became president. The elder Assad consolidated Alawite power, particularly in the secret police, and liquidated dissidents and political rivals, setting the scene for Bashar.

In the 1980s, Hafez crushed a Sunni insurrection led by an armed group from within the Muslim Brotherhood.3 The crackdown resulted in the killing, imprisoning and displacement of tens of thousands of Sunnis. Thousands more have disappeared, especially in the city of Hama, which was stormed by death squads4 led by Hafez's brother, Rifaat al-Assad.

Under Bashar the Alawites expanded economically as Bashar's relatives and cohorts ended up controlling large chunks of the telecom sector, construction, rampant smuggling, public procurement and infrastructure, as well as tourism and the duty free shops. But the minority rule was brittle under the surface.

Family rivalries and illicit money turned the ruling elite into a Syrian mafia of sorts.

Family rivalries and illicit money turned the ruling elite into a Syrian mafia of sorts. Godfather-like episodes surfaced from time to time. For example when Rifaat tried to depose Hafez 1980s, and when Maher al-Assad, Bashar's brother and the most powerful figure in the military, shot Assef Shawkat, a veteran intelligence chief who was their brother-in-law. Shawkat was assassinated in 2012.

Not only Russia supports Assad
When the Syrian revolt broke out in 2011, all opposition and public gatherings other that choreographed rallies to glorify Bashar had been banned for decades. The Assad regime had learned lessons from the Arab Spring uprisings that were underway in neighbouring Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and deploying security forces in main squares to prevent gatherings. Mosques became the only place where demonstrations could start, quickly giving the uprising a Sunni characters.

Assad's forces responded by shooting the mainly peaceful protesters and dispatching tanks to the cities that saw the largest demonstrations, such as Deraa on the southern border with Jordan, Hama in the centre of the country and Deir-ez-Zor in the eastern desert bordering Iraq.

Choosing not to take part in the crackdown, Sunni members of the military began defecting from their units , forming the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in the second half of 2011. Lacking serious outside backing, the FSA was eclipsed by Jihadists5, many of whom Assad released from his own jails in 2011 in a strategy to undermine the peaceful core of the revolt.

The Jihadists were boosted by foreign recruits as Assad relied more on militia from Lebanon, Iran and Afghanistan to prop up his regime. Most of the pro-Assad militia are Shi'ites, a sect theoretically more ideologically closer to the Alawites than the Sunnis. Russia, an old ally of the Alawites, also came to Assad's rescue, dispatching planes to bomb FSA and Jihadist targets in August 2015.

Assad's airforce have also had a free hand, carpet bombing rebel Sunni towns and cities, which has been the main reason for the mass exodus of refugees, many of whom have ended up in Germany. The United States launched its own strikes on the Jihadists, particularly the so called Islamic State (IS), in 2014. The IS is an offshoot of al-Qaeda. For Washington, the destroying the group has taken precedent over undermining the Assad regime, although Sunni resentment against Assad has fuelled Sunni extremism in and outside the country.

There can be no solution from the outside
Today Syria is fragmented, with Assad managing to build up a de facto alliance of minorities comprised of Alawites, Christians and Kurds that enabled the regime to maintain Damascus. The regime also still controls the coast, the central cities of Hama and Homs, half of Deraa, the birthplace of the revolt, as well as half of Aleppo, an ancient trading hub in the north near the border with Turkey. As far as the rest of the country, the IS controls most of the Euphrates River Basin in Eastern Syria.

Other jihadist groups, some of which are backed by Turkey and Arab Gulf countries, have a strong presence in and around Aleppo. The Army of Islam, a Saudi-backed rebel group, controls suburbs of Damascus called al-Ghouta. Remnants of the FSA have survived in in Deraa, which is 100-kms south of Damascus. The Kurds, who emerged as the most opportunistic actor in the civil war, have carved three self-declared cantons in northern Syria.

On the international level, the United Nations in due to convene peace talks on Syria in the second half of 2015 as the Jihadist threat drives the West to rehabilitate Assad and allow Russia to hit by air Assad's moderate and extreme foes alike.

Many of the Sunnis see the peace talks as a U.S. ultimatum: accept a taken deal that will keep the minority-ruled police state in Syria or the world will let Assad destroy you. But no amount of bombing and wheeling and dealing by outside powers will stop extremism from continuing to fester among a Sunni majority that has been oppressed for decades.

[1] The Sunni are the largest sect within the Islam.
[2] The Schiites are the second largest sect within the Islam. The conflict between these two sects is grounded in the discussion which sect should lead the Muslims.
[3] A very powerful islamist alignment in the Middle East. They belong to the sect of the Sunni.
[4] An armed group which kills or disperses persons due to political reasons.
[5] The term Jiihad denotes the effort, the fight on the way to god in the islamic religion.


Write a comment

First Name: *
Email: *
Your Comment: *

1 - 4


Redaktion   16:46 Uhr 28.10.2015

Unterschiedlich. Viele sind nicht blöd, ein paar Ausnahmen gibts aber immer.

Jörg Lübben   16:31 Uhr 28.10.2015

"Assads Luftwaffe beschloss, die Städte der sunnitischen Rebellen durch eine Flächenbombardierung zu zerstören. Das ist auch der Hauptgrund für die Massenflucht aus Syrien." Ehrliche Frage: Für wie blöd halten Sie die Leser dieses Artikels?

Jörg Schimke   21:19 Uhr 20.10.2015

Sie schreiben: "Assad ist es faktisch gelungen, eine Minderheitenallianz, bestehend aus Alawiten, Christen und Kurden, aufzubauen…".

Ich dachte, die Kurden gehören zu den Gegnern Assads?

EvM   17:46 Uhr 20.10.2015

Eigentlich ein sehr interessanter Artikel. Danke das ihr euch mit dme Thema auseinandersetzt. Ich bezweifel ein bißchen die Relationen zwischen der Stärke und den Gebieten die der IS und die anderen Rebellen einnehmen. Aus meiner Sicht sollten die anderen Rebellen Islamische Front, Al Nusra Front und die FSA stärker hervorgehoben werden. So kontrollieren diese Gruppen die fast gesamte Provinz Idlib. Aber vlt habe ich auch was überlesen.

beste Grüße und weiter so


1 - 4


  1. Volkswagen Das ElektroAuto.

  2. Arms Race Against America with the "Storm"

  3. Free Trade Agreement Politics at a standstill

  4. Parliamentary Elections Strongest Parties in European Countries

  5. Who is an idiot?