Thursday, April 19, 2012

Shadow Of Another War Hangs Over Southern Lebanon Border

By Michael Young
The negotiations in Turkey over Iran's nuclear programme last weekend were not particularly high in the attentions of the Lebanese living along their country's southern frontier with Israel. And yet if Iran is one day attacked militarily because the talks have failed, the Marjayoun-Hasbayya district will probably again become a front line in a destructive confrontation between Hizbollah and the Israelis.
This serene district, located in Lebanon's south-east corner, is a reminder of the country's bracing contradictions and essential beauty, whatever its status as a past and future battlefield. Lying at the foot of Mount Hermon, the area includes inhabitants from most Lebanese religious groups. It's not wall-to-wall harmony, but the intricacy of the communal geography, like the economic challenges faced by all, has favoured collaboration over conflict.
Hizbollah remains the ultimate decision-maker. However, the party maintains a low profile, and is largely unseen in the succession of non-Shia towns and villages stretching from the majority Christian agglomeration of Marjayoun to the mainly Druze Hasbayya. This contrasts with Hizbollah's much greater visibility in the central section of the border area, principally around the Shia township of Bint Jbeil. That may partly explain why United Nations troops deployed in Marjayoun-Hasbayya seem more relaxed, and can be seen eating at sidewalk cafes without perceptibly heightened security measures.
And yet all around there is precariousness, and an uneasy equilibrium. Israel's northernmost settlement, Metulla, is so close as to seem a part of the Lebanese landscape. Israeli listening posts dot the ridges leading from Mount Hermon southward, and behind them is the Golan Heights, which Israel occupied in June 1967. Among the Israelis, Hizbollah, the Lebanese army and UN contingents, we have one of the more heavily militarised of international boundaries.
One potential flashpoint is the Israeli-controlled town of Ghajar, which is considered the westernmost extension of the territory taken from Syria. Half the town belongs to Lebanon, but was again seized by Israel during the war of summer 2006. The inhabitants are Syrian Alawites who once thrived on smuggling. In 1981, when Israel annexed the Golan, they accepted Israeli citizenship.
I recall overhearing a conversation some years ago between two members of a Shia political party walking below Ghajar. "Who are they?" one asked, wondering whether he should return a wave from the villagers. "Even they don't know," his comrade answered.
How true - of Ghajar and sometimes of the Lebanese in Marjayoun-Hasbayya, who still are dealing with the legacy of the long Israeli occupation that ended in 2000. Many of those who remained during that time collaborated with Israel, or in one way or another benefited from its presence. This was usually the consequence of necessity, but it's also undeniable that thousands of Lebanese - Christians, Shiites and Druze - had ties to the instruments of occupation, above all the South Lebanon Army, the Israeli-backed proxy militia.
No one likes to mention it, but at the time the economy of the border region was more prosperous than today. The combination of an open border and a substantial number of people on the Israeli payroll meant a transit trade of sorts and cash to spend. In contrast, Marjayoun-Hasbayya has today become Lebanon's dead end, far from the centres of economic vitality, facing closed doors all around. The situation there is more difficult than in the Bint Jbeil district, where Shia money, bolstered by significant remittances from a dynamic emigrant community, has produced additional work opportunities.
Everyone in the south, however, suffers from the fact that the Lebanese army does not allow foreigners near the border without authorisation from the defence ministry. Hizbollah in particular, ever worried about Israeli spies, is equally reluctant to see travellers traipsing through a strategic area. The restrictions are resented by the population, which is eager to benefit from Lebanon's tourism trade. That's understandable, because the virgin region potentially offers a wide variety of leisure interests.
There is a consensus that if a new war were to break out between Hizbollah and Israel, it would be far worse than that of 2006. The Israelis would probably re-enter Lebanon, and they have reportedly been training for this eventuality. Marjayoun-Hasbayya, particularly the Hizbollah stronghold at Khiyam, would be a prime target in any ground campaign, as Israel strives to dismantle Hizbollah's infrastructure. The district also provides ready access northwards, into the lower reaches of the Beqaa Valley, where Hizbollah has built a defensive line that extends into the Jezzine district.
If the Israelis were to remain in Lebanon for an extended period of time, to impose a resolution on Hizbollah, Marjayoun-Hasbayya could turn into a double-edged sword for the party. The topography makes it ideal to pursue a guerrilla war. At the same time, however, the sectarian mix would require Hizbollah to be careful when it comes to managing the aftermath. Everyone in southern Lebanon, including Shiites, dreads having to endure yet another round of fighting. But while the discontent among Shiites could be easier for Hizbollah to neutralise, that would be less true for the other communities.
That's where the tranquillity of Marjayoun-Hasbayya, and much of the rest of southern Lebanon for that matter, is most meaningful. The mild people of the south are sick of the destruction that has been visited on them for decades. Hizbollah risks quite a bit if it drags Lebanon into fresh hostilities, above all on behalf of Iran. An idyllic setting hides myriad anxieties that still remain unaddressed.
-This commentary was published in The National on 19/04/2012
-Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut

Any Given Friday In Syria

How a battle over a Facebook page became a war for the soul of the Syrian revolution.


A woman stands in the middle of a busy Damascus street. Yellow cabs honk and weave around her. Her red dress, splattered with white paint, flows in the wind along with a red fabric banner held up above her head like a translucent shield. A group of people gathers on the sidewalk to observe as she turns side to side, for all to see. As we watch them watching her through our computer screens, we hear a new sound -- not a familiar chant of the revolution, but loud claps of extended applause. When she faces the camera, we finally read her words: "Stop the killing. We want to build a country for all Syrians."

Her name is Rima Dali, and she stood in protest alone, armed with a red scarf and a powerful message, in front of the Syrian Parliament on April 8. She would be detained for two days for her dissent.
Dali's action, while brave, would have been easy to disregard as a fleeting incident if it hadn't happened again, a few days later, in front of the Palace of Justice. And again a few days after that, when more people occupied Dali's place and even more onlookers clapped from the sidewalk.

Activists like Dali, who had a strong presence at the beginning of the uprising, are trying to rewind Syria's clock to the early months of the revolution, when the message of selmiyeh -- peaceful -- dominated the streets. During the past two weeks, despite the regime's relentless violence, Syria protested like it was 2011 again.

During the 10-day lull between the announcement of U.N. and Arab League special envoy Kofi Annan's six-point plan for a ceasefire and its implementation on April 10, violence sharply escalated in Syria -- as it usually does before every international ultimatum directed at President Bashar al-Assad. But since then, while shelling and government attacks have continued in certain flashpoints, the daily death toll has decreased significantly. Within opposition circles, another sentiment was brewing even before the ceasefire: a realization that it's time to reclaim the revolution in order to reclaim the country.

For months, the civic and social activism of these peaceful protesters have been rendered obsolete next to the physical heroics of the Free Syrian Army's (FSA) military operations against the regime's brutality. Peaceful protests in city squares not only seemed impossible, but utterly useless against tanks, shells, and snipers. As armed resistance took its place within the revolution, the nonviolent activists slowly became passive pacifists. In recent days, however, that has changed.

This sea shift has been evident in the change in tenor of the names for the Friday protests. Every week, anti-Assad activists take to the Syrian Revolution 2011 Facebook page where, every Wednesday, they vote on the name of the upcoming day of protest. With more than 444,000 "likes," the page is one of the most popular online hubs of the revolution. In fact, people use the number of common "friends" they have with the page as a badge of honor: If you are pro-revolution and only a few out of your hundreds of friends have "liked" the page, it means you need to find new friends.

On April 6 -- Good Friday -- the chosen (and very awkward) name for the weekly day of uprising was rooted in Islamic history: It was the Friday of "He who has equipped a fighter has himself fought."

The name was intended as a call for Arab countries such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia to fulfill their religious duty and arm Syria's opposition. In stark contrast, last year on Good Friday, the Friday was named just that: al-Jumaa al-Azimeh, to express the unity of the Syrian people above divisive sectarianism. This time around, many asked: Why couldn't the same name have been repeated again this year? But the long-winded name had won -- by Facebook's version of democracy.

Last week, before the Facebook polling closed for the name of the April 13 protests -- the day after the U.N. ceasefire deadline, the day in which solidarity was key -- one name was in the lead: the Friday of the Armies of Islam. Yet another divisive (and completely off message) choice. This time, however, peaceful activists were ready to take action and fight back in a battle for the Friday name.

On Wednesday, April 11, media activists on Facebook and Twitter began a campaign to "rock the vote" for Friday's name. They advocated the secular, inclusive choice, "A Revolution for all Syrians." It was an intense campaign. Usually around 8,000 votes are cast each week, but last week there were more than 30,000. It was as much a battle between Islamic sentiment and secular inclusiveness as it was a struggle between those dedicated to solely an armed resistance, and those who still valued the power of nonviolent activism.

The gap between the two names slowly narrowed, and eventually the message of unity won by almost 2,000 votes. This small but significant victory unleashed palpable excitement among Syria's online activists: There was a sense that they had been heard and gained control of the revolution's message, at least for the moment. It was a needed boost of energy to a group of worn-out activists and, more importantly, it proved that a revolution within the revolution was not only possible but necessary.

Syrians' practice of naming the Fridays of the revolution was inspired by their Yemeni counterparts, who did the same thing during their revolution. The first Fridays were named by the Revolution page's administrators, and reflected the popular aspects and crucial demands of the revolution: Friday of Dignity, Friday of the Martyrs, Friday of Freedom for Detainees, etc. The names grew to have such influence on the street that the various opposition groups decided everyone should have a say in naming each Friday. In an exercise of online democracy, a voting system was established on Facebook with a weekly suggestion of seven potential names -- two nominated from the Revolution page, two from the Local Coordination Committees within the country, two from the Revolutionary Councils inside Syria, and one from the what is called the "red rose" group representing pacifists and secular individuals.

Some weeks, the names referred to current events, while others seemed to be random and at odds with the principles of the revolution. Fridays that request some sort of intervention have become common: There has been a No-Fly Zone Friday, for example, and Buffer-Zone Friday, a reference to the idea of setting up a safe zone for anti-regime Syrians along the Turkish border. Some Fridays seek to legitimize certain opposition factions -- for example, "The Syrian National Council represents me Friday" and "The Free Syrian Army protects me Friday." In fact, the Free Syrian Army was dedicated three separate Fridays of support.

The Friday names both stem from the street and in turn influence it. Especially for the politically charged names, the process seems to work in a cycle of forced legitimization: the Revolution page suggests the names, people on Facebook vote, the name is raised on banners held up by the people, who in turn give legitimacy to the name that was given to them. The name becomes a part of the revolution's timeline -- each week, it appears in media reports and video clips as the guiding principle behind the protests.

In the last two weeks, the need for active voices of nonviolent resistance was apparent in efforts both inside and outside Syria. One instance of Syrians being inspired by the world outside their borders was a flash-mob protest in the Sham City Center Mall in Damascus, which emulated flash-mob protests that have been popular for months with university students across American and Canadian cities, though of course without the same level of danger.

Another example of youth activism occurred in the early morning hours of April 12, the first day of the Annan ceasefire, when a large group of University of Aleppo students created a human SOS formation on campus grounds. Armed regime thugs soon arrived, locking the gates to trap the students. Some were beaten and arrested in the aftermath.

Recently, the launch of the Zero Hour Internet campaign -- a manifesto calling for mass protests to occupy the squares and streets across Syria -- created a positive, revolutionary buzz. Video clips supporting Zero Hour came from prominent activists inside Syria as well as supporters outside. While many are skeptical whether this hour will ever come to fruition, the strong, unified reception it has garnered from activists, opposition military forces, and politicians has underscored the urgent need for this message.

These events have emerged in tandem with the U.N. ceasefire and the beginning of yet another monitoring mission, with the first five of an advance team of 30 monitors arriving in Damascus on Sunday. The creative, nonviolent resistance tactics counter the regime's escalation of violence toward the Syrian people, despite the agreed-upon ceasefire. The FSA, for the most part, has held the truce while the regime pounded areas in Homs, Zabadani, Idleb, Douma, Taftanaz and rural Aleppo with rockets and shells. Bullets from security forces and snipers continued to target civilians protesting in many areas of the country, including the cities of Aleppo and Deraa. Despite these gross violations by the regime, the opposition continues to restrain the armed resistance and call for peaceful civilian protests.

Rima Dali's last Facebook status before being detained was inspired by a Martin Luther King quote: "The means we use to achieve our goals must be as pure as our goals." Her message has since become a Facebook page, and inspired a renewed campaign of nonviolence. One of Dali's friends, activist and harpist Safana Baqleh, was detained while attempting to protect her from security forces. She is still missing. On Monday, a group of activists protested in front of the Ministry of Interior once more. Their signs focused on the injustice Syrian citizens face every day at the hands of the police: "If you must arrest me, arrest me gently"; "If you want to arrest me, let my family know where I am"; and Rima's direct question about her detained friend Safana, "Where is the harpist?"

Using means as pure as our goals is one of the most difficult -- but also the most important -- principles of the Syrian revolution. To follow it in the face of increased brutality, the opposition must fine-tune and recalibrate its actions and message as the revolution moves forward. The difference between the Revolution Facebook page and Rima's red scarf is the difference between forcing a message and being the message. It is a lesson that the Revolution page, despite its popularity, must embody if it wishes to remain relevant.
In the beginning, no one thought Syria faced an endless list of Fridays ahead, but now, 57 Fridays in, it may be time to rethink the practice of naming the weekly day of revolt. The concept, once powerful and unifying, has grown tired and divisive. The Friday with a perfect name, "A Revolution for all Syrians," marked a rare moment of rewinding the past and perhaps capturing a glimpse of what may have been if we had not grown passive. It's a moment worth holding on to for a while.

Let every Friday be a day dedicated to the Syrian's people fight for freedom and dignity. And let each one be called, simply, Friday.

-This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 18/04/2012
-Amal Hanano is a pseudonym for a Syrian-American writer. She has written extensively about the Syrian Revolution in Jadaliyya and the National

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Who Broke Syria?

Bashar al-Assad did. But the international community and the media made things worse.
                                                                           Syrian President Bashar al-Assad
Less than a week into a U.N.-brokered ceasefire in Syria, the arrangement is already looking pretty shaky. The Syrian government has promised to pull its army back from major cities, but now seems to be reneging on that deal. But rather than castigating its motives, perhaps it might be a good time now to take a fresh look what exactly has been accomplished by the internationalization of the Syrian "problem."
I've been going to Syria for some years now, both as a journalist and an ordinary citizen, and it's been inspiring to see how the country has changed. Some of my friends are ordinary civilians; others are now involved in the motley collection of opposition groups that have emerged since the uprising began in March of last year. What's often lost in the account of crisis given by po-faced humanitarians, with their pictures of dead bodies and tales of indecipherable evil, is how inspiring the revolt originally was for many ordinary Syrians. Virtually all the people I know in Syria have changed their opinions radically in the last year, and their demands have grown bolder and more ambitious.
As spring 2011 gave way to summer and fall and the flagging Baathist regime moved to snuff out dissent, some opposition groups looked to the force of arms to protect their demonstrations and their communities. At around the same time, international efforts to apply pressure to the regime led to sanctions that virtually no one in Syria wants (even the Free Syrian Army), an ill-fated mission by Arab monitors that disappointed everyone, and now a U.N. initiative that has initially stemmed the daily round of killings, but failed to satisfy either the government or the opposition.
So what's going wrong? The problem, in my view, is that the tools of international law are a very blunt instrument with which to solve real problems of civil strife. In November, for example, I smuggled myself into Homs as the desperate opposition movement was beginning to turn to the Arab League to mediate in its conflict with an increasingly brutal regime. As the situation worsened, the daily demonstrations (I could still hear them breaking out in November along with the occasional crackle of sniper fire) were joined by armed militias that grew up to protect Sunni areas of the city. Then the geopoliticking began.
In December, the Syrian National Council seems to have made an orchestrated effort to turn Homs into a Syrian Benghazi -- the eastern Libyan city whose imminent destruction by Muammar al-Qaddafi's forces provided the catalyst that sparked the international intervention in Libya last year. The council spread stories in the international media, for example, suggesting that the Syrian Army had moved up reinforcements with which to strike the city, and that it had given the rebellious Homsies 72 hours to lay down their weapons or be killed. When I phoned a respected veteran activist in Homs, he told me that the charge simply wasn't true. Things were bad enough, he said, without having to make up scary stories. In retrospect, by leaning on precedents within international law rather than the force of its own movement, the exiled Syrian opposition seems to have aimed to exaggerate the civilian losses in the city into the claim of genocide in order to push buttons within the international community.
The United Nations bought it. Navi Pillay, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that "many voices are warning that a major assault" on Homs is about to begin, that a further military buildup had already begun. "I am not in a position to confirm those reports," she said, "but the prospect of such an attack is extremely alarming."
If there was a strategy to internationalize the conflict, however, it failed. The United Nations could do nothing, but the promise that it might may have put ordinary activists and Free Syrian Army rebels in the city at even greater risk. Many were led to believe that help was coming, when it most definitely wasn't.
The history of most humanitarian interventions in the last 15 years has been similar: By promising more safety than it can credibly deliver, the United Nations has often put the lives of those on the receiving end of its efforts in even greater danger, everywhere from Srebrenica to South Lebanon. By changing the incentives facing both parties to the conflict, the United Nations, at its worst, only makes their incentives more perverse -- and their negotiating positions even more intractable.
Much the same applies to the international media. Beginning in late December, Western journalists fanned out, under the coat-tails of Arab League observers, to find the "war story." They duly met members of the Free Syrian Army, and came back pleased as punch with pictures of masked, professional-looking soldiers wielding rocket-propelled grenades. In the short term, the result was a propaganda coup for both the journalists and the Free Syrian Army. As soon as the media departed, however, the government forces moved in to kill or capture many of these guerrilla fighters, whose implicit claim that they could control territory for any length of time turned out to be dangerously hollow.
That was then. As the situation has ground toward a temporary stalemate, everyone in the opposition now realizes that NATO has neither the mettle nor the resources for another Libya. That kind of organized military intervention is simply not going to happen. But the next phase of diplomacy is in danger of making matters substantially worse. The remaining carrots offered to Bashar Al-Assad's regime are now being matched by thinly veiled sticks whereby the international community promises to turn a blind eye to Saudi and Qatari efforts to back the military opposition with force of arms.
This internationalization of the conflict has been met by ordinary Syrians with a mixture of incredulity and opportunism. Driving around the center of Homs at the end of February (until I was picked up by the Syrian Army and sent back to Damascus), I stopped a group of old men in the center of town and asked for directions. "Are you Russian?" was their first question. Probably government supporters, and quite possibly Alawites, they knew that the only foreigners they really wanted to talk to were Russian, Moscow being the Assad regime's most outspoken defender on the international stage. 
Amid the catastrophic decline of their economic fortunes, many Syrians are rather proud to be center of this international attention; at least, they say, their country is not being ignored or forgotten about. But they're also deeply patriotic and understandably proud of their country's fragile ethnic and religious mosaic. As several Syrian teenagers pointed out to me, the same Qatari government that has been moving to protect the human rights of Syrians has been denying them visas to visit Qatar. Nor is it lost on them that Qatar and Saudi Arabia are so democratically backward as to make the Syrian government look like a hippie commune. The SNC's apparent decision to accept money from the Gulf States to pay salaries to Free Syrian Army guerrillas sounded breathtakingly arrogant, and makes for shockingly bad politics. Not only does lend credence to the conspiracy theories peddled by the government that the uprising is the handiwork of foreign agitators; it risks splitting the indigenous opposition movement and empowering exactly the kind of Sunni extremist groups who are most likely to stoke sectarian tensions.
None of this is to argue that Syrians should not take matters into their own hands. After more than a year of grueling state violence, there are very few absolute pacifists among the Syrian opposition. Just about everyone I met in Syria was caught between the terrible foreboding that things will -- must -- get substantially worse before they get better, and not wishing any violence upon their fellow countrymen. But if the Saudis and the Qataris are allowed to funnel unlimited cash and weapons through the country's traditional smuggling routes, the likely result will be to empower a crooked new class of arms-dealing middle men and the kind of fringe Salafist groups that are quite happy to turn themselves and everyone else into martyrs for the cause.
Whatever the Syrian government now says, the influence of these extremist Sunni factions is currently marginal, even inside the Free Syrian Army. Most of the military defectors are simply conservative Sunnis from farming communities. But Syria is currently exhibiting a brand new irony of our post-war-on-terror era. The secular Syrian liberals and leftist groups that have most in common in Western values don't want NATO intervention, while it's exactly the kind of people who don't much like us -- the aging remains of the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as the newer, more radical Sunni salafists -- who are begging for our help.
Who knows: If the unthinking drift toward creating neo-mujahideen in Syria and Iran (a strategy advocated by Foreign Policy's own James Traub) continues, following a decade in which radical Sunnis became America's Public Enemy No. 1, Osama bin Laden might have to be posthumously converted back into the freedom fighter America saw him as in the 1980s, marching into battle to drive out one of the last vestiges of godlessness in the Middle East.
-This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 17/04/2012
-James Harkin is an Irish, London-based writer and social analyst. His latest book is Niche: The Missing Middle and Why Businesses Need to Specialise to Survive

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Alawites For Assad: Why The Syrian Sect Backs The Regime

The Alawites stand by Assad out of a historic fear of Sunni persecution. Although some Alawites are breaking ranks, most face a dilemma: by continuing to support the regime, they may invite the very Sunni revenge that they dread.
Leon Goldsmith
A rally in downtown Damascus earlier this month. (Khaled Al Hariri / Courtesy Reuters)
Since the start of the revolt in Syria, the country’s Alawites have been instrumental in maintaining President Bashar al-Assad’s hold on power. A sect of Shia Islam, the Alawites comprise roughly 13 percent of the population and form the bulk of Syria’s key military units, intelligence services, and ultra-loyalist militias, called shabiha (“ghosts” in Arabic). As the uprising in Syria drags on, there are signs that some Alawites are beginning to move away from the regime. But most continue to fight for Assad -- largely out of fear that the Sunni community will seek revenge for past and present atrocities not only against him but also against Alawites as a group. This sense of vulnerability feeding Alawite loyalty is rooted in the sect’s history.
The Alawites split from Shia Islam in ninth-century Iraq over their belief in the divinity of the fourth Islamic caliph, Ali bin Abi Talib, a position branded as heresy by the Sunnis and extremist by most Shias. The community began as a small collection of believers, and over the following centuries it suffered almost constant discrimination and several massacres at the hands of Sunni Muslims. In 1305, for example, following a clerical fatwa, Sunni Mamluks wiped out the Alawite community of the Kisrawan (modern Lebanon). As late as the mid-nineteenth century, in retaliation for the rebellion of an Alawite sheikh, the Ottomans ruthlessly persecuted the Alawites, burning villages and farms across what little territory they held.
Despite this long-standing persecution, the Alawites fought to integrate into modern Syria. In 1936, as the French mandate waned, Alawite religious leaders convinced their anxious followers to incorporate themselves into the new, overwhelmingly Sunni, Syrian state. Over the next several decades, Alawites moved away from the mountains to pursue educational and employment opportunities in the cities. Between 1943 and 1957, Alawite migration tripled the population of Hama, and between 1957 and 1979 it quadrupled the size of Latakia.
Many Alawites also joined the military. Since Ottoman times, Sunni Arabs had largely spurned army careers, but Alawites welcomed the opportunity for stable income. By 1963, they made up 65 percent of noncommissioned officers in the Syrian army. The rise of Alawites in Syrian society throughout the 1960s was assisted by political infighting among the Sunnis and the Baath Party coup of 1963, which united working-class Alawites and Sunnis under one banner.
Although Sunnis initially tolerated the growing clout of the Alawite community, resentment resurfaced when Hafez al-Assad, an Alawite and the father of the current president, seized power in 1970. When he proposed a new constitution three years later that mandated a secular state and allowed the presidency to be awarded to a non-Muslim, Sunnis protested across the country. In early 1976, with religious tensions flaring, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood launched its uprising against what it called the “heretic” Alawite regime. The Alawites, harboring their long-standing fear of rejection and persecution by the Sunni community, rallied around Assad. The two sides hardened for battle, and over the next six years Assad relied on his sect to beat back the Brotherhood revolt.
In February 1982, the struggle reached its climax in Sunni-dominated Hama. Seeking to end the rebellion, Assad massacred the Sunni population of the city, killing as many as 20,000 residents. Alawites blamed the Muslim Brotherhood for the disaster, largely convinced that Sunnis had and would always reject their efforts to integrate. Even liberal Alawites, who criticized Assad’s aggressiveness at the outset of the revolt, remained silent in the aftermath of the Hama massacre. They had been transformed from victims into perpetrators.
Since the Hama slaughter of 1982, the Alawites have consolidated their control of the country. According to the Syria scholar Radwan Ziadeh, they comprise the vast majority of Syria’s roughly 700,000 security and intelligence personnel and military officer core. In fact, they constitute so much of the country’s security apparatus that Syrians are said to often put on an Alawite accent when apprehended by intelligence officers in the hope of receiving better treatment.
The Alawites’ loyalty to Assad today is hardly assured, however. Despite popular notions of a rich, privileged Alawite class dominating Syria, the country’s current regime provides little tangible benefit to most Alawite citizens. Rural Alawites have struggled as a result of cuts in fuel subsidies and new laws restricting the sale of tobacco -- their primary crop for centuries. Indeed, since the provision of basic services by the first Assad in the 1970s and 1980s, most Alawite villages -- with the exception of Qardaha, the home of Assad’s tribe, the Kalbiyya -- have developed little. Donkeys remain a common form of transport for many, and motor vehicles are scarce, with dilapidated minibuses offering the only way to commute to the cities for work.
Some Alawites are explicitly breaking ranks. Last September, for example, three prominent Alawite sheikhs, Mohib Nisafi, Yassin Hussein, and Mussa Mansour, issued a joint statement declaring their “innocence from these atrocities carried out by Bashar al-Assad and his aides, who belong to all religious sects.” According to Monzer Makhouz, an Alawite member of the Syrian National Council, a leading opposition group, Alawites are joining protests in the coastal cities of the Alawite territory. And in recent weeks, evidence has emerged of defections of Alawite soldiers and intelligence officers, seemingly from less privileged Alawite tribes, who have described themselves as “Free Alawites” and called for other Alawites to join them.
The fall of Assad presents several possible scenarios for the Alawites. It could launch a comprehensive reconciliation process, drive them back to their mountain refuge in northwestern Syria, or lead to open conflict with the Sunnis. No matter what, the Alawites face a dilemma. If Assad collapses, the community will have to fend off the criticisms of supporting the regime for this long. Sticking with Assad may increase the odds of an unforgiving Sunni retribution, but it at least keeps the sectarian conflict at bay -- that is, as long as Assad remains.
-This commentary was published in Foreign Affairs on 16/04/2012

The New Islamists

How the most extreme adherents of radical Islam are getting with the times.
The longstanding debate over whether Islam and democracy can coexist has reached a stunning turning point. Since the Arab uprisings began in late 2010, political Islam and democracy have become increasingly interdependent. The debate over whether they are compatible is now virtually obsolete. Neither can now survive without the other.
In Middle Eastern countries undergoing political transitions, the only way for Islamists to maintain their legitimacy is through elections. Their own political culture may still not be democratic, but they are now defined by the new political landscape and forced in turn to redefine themselves -- much as the Roman Catholic Church ended up accepting democratic institutions even as its own practices remained oligarchic.
At the same time, democracy will not set down roots in Arab countries in transition without including mainstream Islamist groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Ennahda in Tunisia, or Islah in Yemen. The so-called Arab Spring cleared the way for the Islamists. And even if many Islamists do not share the democratic culture of the demonstrators, the Islamists have to take into account the new playing field the demonstrations created.
The debate over Islam and democracy used to be a chicken-and-egg issue: Which came first?  Democracy has certainly not been at the core of Islamist ideology. Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood has historically been strictly centralized and obedient to a supreme guide, who rules for life. And Islam has certainly not been factored into promotion of secular democracy. Indeed, skeptics long argued that the two forces were even anathema to each other.
But the outside world wrongly assumed that Islam would first have to experience a religious reformation before its followers could embark on political democratization -- replicating the Christian experience when the Protestant Reformation gave birth to the Enlightenment and then modern democracy. In fact, however, liberal Muslim intellectuals had little impact in either inspiring or directing the Arab uprisings. The original protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square referred to democracy as a universal concept, not to any sort of Islamic democracy.
The development of both political Islam and democracy now appears to go hand-in-hand, albeit not at the same pace. The new political scene is transforming the Islamists as much as the Islamists are transforming the political scene.
Today, the question of Islam's compatibility with democracy does not center on theological issues, but rather on the concrete way believers recast their faith in a rapidly changing political environment. Liberal or fundamentalist, the new forms of religiosity are individualistic and more in tune with the democratic ethos.
The Evolution
When Islamism gained ground during the 1970s and 1980s, it was initially dominated by revolutionary movements and radical tactics. Over the next 30 years, however, the religious revival in Arab societies diversified, and social shifts reined in radicalism. The toll of death and destruction that radical Islamism left in its wake also diverted interest in militancy.
Even the proliferation of media free from overbearing state control played a role. In the mid-1990s, Al-Jazeera became the first independent satellite television station in the Arab world. Within a generation, there were more than 500 such stations. Many offered a wide range of religious programming -- from traditional sheikhs to liberal Muslim thinkers -- which in turn introduced the idea of diversity. Suddenly, there was no single truth in a religion that has preached one path to God for 14 centuries.
Islamists also changed both through victory and defeat -- or a combination. Shiite Islamists won a political victory in Iran's 1979 revolution, when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini rose to power. But three decades later, the world's only modern theocracy was increasingly ostracized by the world, leading many Islamists to ask, "What went wrong?"
In Algeria, Sunni Islamists were pushed aside in a military coup on the eve of an election victory in 1992. The party was banned, its leaders imprisoned. A more militant faction then took on the military, and more than 100,000 people were killed in a decade-long civil war. The bloody aftermath of the Arab world's first democratic election had a ripple effect on the calculations of Islamist groups across the region.
As a result of their experience with the power of government repression, Islamists increasingly compromised to get in, or stay in, the political game. In Egypt, the Muslim Brothers ran for parliament whenever allowed, often making tactical alliances with secular parties. In Kuwait and Morocco, Islamists abided by the political rules whenever they ran for parliament, even when it meant embracing those countries' monarchies. Morocco's Justice and Development Party recognized the sacred dimension of the king in order to participate in elections, while Jordan's Muslim Brotherhood publicly supports the king despite growing discontent among the Arab Bedouin tribes.
A generation of Islamic activists forced into exile also played a major role in redirecting their movements. Most leaders or members ended up spending more time in Western countries rather than Islamic nations, where they  came into contact with other secular and liberal dissidents as well as non-government organizations such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Freedom House. These new connections facilitated the flow of ideas, and their movements' evolution.
In the 1990s, exiled activists increasingly framed their agendas in terms of democracy and human rights. They acknowledged that simplistic slogans like "Islam is the solution" were not enough to build programs or coalitions capable of removing dictators. Rachid Ghannouchi, co-founder of Tunisia's Ennahda Party, concluded almost 20 years before the Arab uprisings that democracy was a better tool to fight dictatorships than the call for either jihad or sharia.
The Social Revolution
Islamists have changed because society has changed too. The rise of Islamists has reflected the social and cultural revolutions within Muslim societies as much as a political revolution.
A new generation has entered the political space, especially in the major cities. It is the generation of Tahrir Square, the epicenter of Egypt's uprising against Hosni Mubarak. When the uprisings began, two-thirds of the Arab world's 300 million people were under the age of 30. They are better educated and more connected with the outside world than any previous generation. Many speak or understand a foreign language. The females are often as ambitious as their male counterparts. Both genders eagerly question and debate. Most are able to identify and even shrug off propaganda.
The shift does not necessarily mean the baby-boom generation is more liberal or more secular than their parents. Many Arab baby boomers are attracted by new forms of religiosity that stress individual choice, direct relations with God, self-realization, and self-esteem. But even when they join Islamic movements, they bring along their critical approach and reluctance to blindly follow an aging leadership.
The transformation is visible even among young Egyptian Salafis, followers of a puritanical strain of Islam that emphasizes a return to early Islamic practices. They may wear baggy trousers and long white shirts in imitation of the Prophet Mohammed. But they also often wear shiny sunglasses and sport shoes. They are part of a global culture.
For decades, the Salafis opposed participation in politics. But after the uprisings, they completely reversed course. They jumped into politics, hastily registering as political parties. At universities, clubs of young Salafis -- including females -- have joined public debate forums.
The influence of the current baby-boom generation will be enduring. Their numbers are likely to dominate for much of their lives -- potentially another 30 to 40 years -- because the fertility rate has plummeted almost everywhere in the Arab world since their birth.
The Three Camps
During the centuries-old debate about Islam and democracy, Muslim religious scholars and intellectuals fell into three broad camps.
The first camp rejects both democracy and secularism as Western concepts that are not even worth refuting. In this fundamentalist view, participating even in everyday politics, such as joining a political party or voting, is haram, or religiously forbidden. This has been the position of the Wahhabi clerics in Saudi Arabia, the Taliban in Afghanistan and, for decades, the various Salafi schools across the Arab world.
The second camp claims that returning to the "true tenets" of Islam will create the best kind of democracy. In this conservative view, the faithful may deliberate to understand the true path, but the idea that religion is the ultimate truth is not negotiable. These Islamists invoke the concept of tawhid, or the oneness, uniqueness and sovereignty of God, which can never be replaced by the will of the people.
The second camp also invokes Muslim practices to claim modern political ideology meets the basic requirements of democracy. For example, it often points to the shura or advisory council, where ideas were debated before submitting proposals to the leader --as the equivalent of a parliament.
The third camp advocates ijtihad, or reinterpreting Islam to make it compatible with the universal concept of democracy. This position is more common among lay intellectuals than among clerics. But the opening up the doors of ijtihad, which conservative scholars had believed were closed in the Middle Ages, has already produced its own spectrum of ideas, not all in agreement.
The Islamist reformers often have a larger audience in the West than in their own countries -- and not just because of censorship and harassment. Some are deemed to be too intellectual, too abstract, or tied to an artificial theology. Their philosophical approach is disconnected from popular religious practices and the teachings at most madrasas, or religious schools.
The Future
The new Islamist brand will increasingly mix technocratic modernism and conservative values. The movements that have entered the political mainstream cannot now afford to turn their backs on multiparty politics for fear of alienating a significant portion of the electorate that wants stability and peace, not revolution.
But in countries undergoing transitions, the Islamists will face a tough balancing act. In Egypt, for example, the Muslim Brotherhood cannot cede its conviction that Islam is all-encompassing. Yet it risks losing popular support unless it can also reconcile Islam with good governance and human rights.
To do that, the Muslim Brothers may have to translate Islamic norms into more universal conservative values -- such as limiting the sale of alcohol in a manner more similar to Utah's rules than to Saudi laws, and promoting "family values" instead of imposing sharia norms on women.
Many Islamist movements still do not share the democratic culture of the uprisings. But given their own demographics and the wider constituency they seek, they will increasingly have to take into account the new political playing field created by the demonstrations -- even within their own movements.
The exercise of power can actually have a debilitating effect on ideological parties. And for all their recent political success, Islamists also face a set of constraints: They do not control the armed forces. Their societies are more educated and sophisticated in their worldviews, and more willing to actively express their opinions than in years past. Women are increasingly prominent players, a fact reflected in their growing numbers in universities.
Ironically, elected Islamists may face opposition from the clergy. Among Sunnis, Islamists usually do not control the religious institutions. Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood does not control Al Azhar University, the Islamic world's oldest educational institution dating back more than a millennium. The Brothers may have won a plurality in parliament, but none of them is authorized to say what is or is not Islamic without being challenged by a wide range of other religious actors, from clerics to university scholars.
The biggest constraint on Islamists, however, may be economic realities. Focusing simply on sharia will not spawn economic development, and could easily deter foreign investment and tourism. The labor force is outspoken and does not want to be forgotten, but economic globalization requires sensitivity to international pressures too. The newly elected Islamists face political rejection if they do not deliver the economic goods.
Israel is still unpopular and anti-Western xenophobia has visibly grown, but Islamist movements will need more than these old issuesto sustain their rise to power.  The Arab uprisings have shifted the battle lines in the Middle East, and Islamists will find it harder to play on the Arab-Israeli conflict or tensions with the international community.
At the moment, the most dangerous divide is persistent tensions between Sunnis and Shiites. The differences are symbolized by deepening political fault lines between the Sunni religious monarchy in Saudi Arabia and Iran's Shiite theocracy, but they ripple across the region -- from the tiny archipelago of Bahrain to strategically located Syria.
Just as Islamism is redefining the region's politics, Islamic politics and sectarian differences are redefining its conflicts.
-This article was published in Foreign policy on 16/04/2012. It is an excerpt from the book The Islamists Are Coming: Who They Really Are,  which will be released on April 18 by the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
-Olivier Roy, a professor at the European University Institute in Florence, is the author of Globalized Islam (2004) and Holy Ignorance (2010). He heads the ReligioWest Research project at the European University Institute