There are a number of falsehoods concerning Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian Government, which are perpetrated and perpetuated by ‘Western’ Governments and media by means of misleading phrases. One of those misleading statements – which in fact contains more than one misrepresentation – is the constantly repeated theme that the conflict in Syria is deeply sectarian: mostly Sunni rebels fighting against a mostly Alawite (Shiite) Government.
Perhaps one of the most glaring problems with such a statement is the fact that while the Sunni rebels may be in opposition to an Alawite as President of Syria, the people who make up the army and citizens of Syria – those whom the rebels are actually fighting – are also mostly Sunnis. You have a mostly Sunni army defending a democratically elected Government against a mostly Sunni armed rebellion!
Yes, there is sectarianism involved: the rebels are very sectarian, and can’t stand the idea that the very non-sectarian (mostly Sunni) population of Syria voted to have a man who happens to be Alawite to be their President. You see, though the Syrian Constitution requires that the President be a Muslim, it does not stipulate that he belong to a particular branch of Islam – and the Syrian people obviously aren’t overly concerned about which sect of Islam the President represents. They just want a good Muslim leader who will defend the religious liberty of all Syrian citizens, whether or not they’re even Muslims. Since, as I understand the situation, Bashar al-Assad received approximately 97% of the popular vote in both the elections in which he has run, it would actually be an understatement to say that he had the overwhelming approval of the Syrian citizenry.
But the very fact that the President of Syria is elected by popular vote just points out another very glaring misrepresentation. We are led to believe that the Syrian Presidency is a hereditary position, and is a tyrannical dictatorship in opposition to “the will of the people”.
In reality, Syria’s Government is democratically elected by direct vote of citizens 18 years of age and older. Its legislative body is called the People’s Council of Syria and is composed of 250 members elected by the people. It is ‘unicameral’ as opposed to the ‘bicameral’ legislatures of countries like the USA and the UK. That is, the USA divides its legislature into two bodies – the Senate and the House of Representatives; and the UK also has a two-chamber legislature – the House of Lords and the House of Commons. Syria just has the single body called the People’s Council.
This legislature is responsible for enacting the laws of Syria – they’re not just determined by Presidential decree. The Council is also responsible for choosing the Presidential candidate (or perhaps candidates since the new Constitution which came into effect in 2012). The Presidential candidate is then voted on by the people in a referendum – they vote either ‘yes’ or ‘no’. I’m not sure, but apparently – since the new Constitution of 2012 – there may be multiple candidates chosen in the future; in which case the vote would obviously not be a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ decision. Each candidate must have the written support from a minimum of 35 members of the People’s Council.
So Bashar al-Assad’s father (Hafez al-Assad) did not just decree that his son would succeed him as President; Bashar had first to be approved by the People’s Council, and then by direct vote of the Syrian populace. That’s ‘democracy’, not hereditary tyranny.
I have not been able, so far, to find out the composition of the People’s Council with respect to religious affiliation – how many are Sunnis, Shiites, Alawites, Druze, Christians, etc. However, I’m assuming that since the Council is elected by popular vote, and Syria is about 70% Sunni, the Council is also likely to be predominately Sunni. So it’s not very likely true that the Syrian Government is, ‘under’ Assad, an ‘Alawite Government’ even though many of the officials appointed by him may share his Alawite faith. No, the Syrian Government is no doubt ‘mostly Sunni’, just as is true of the Syrian citizenry and army.
Here are a few more facts about the Syrian Government, in case you’re interested. Prior to 2012, there was only one political party – the National Progressive Front (NPF); but it was an ‘umbrella’ party including about 10 ‘sub’ parties. Of those 10 ‘sub’ parties, the Baathist party was by law the dominant party – the law required that a minimum of 50% plus 1 of the seats on the Council were reserved for the Baathist party.
The Baathist party is Arab nationalist, socialist, and essentially secular. I read that the founder of the Baathists was actually anti-religious; but that kind of viewpoint simply wouldn’t ‘fly’ in a very religious culture. Therefore, the Syrian Baathist party required that the President be Muslim, and recognized Islam as a major influence and source of law; but it does not accept Islam (or Shariah) as the only source of law. I would say that at the very least the Baathists wanted to insure that ‘fundamentalist’ extremists would never gain control of the Government.
Many of the citizens of Syria were not satisfied with this situation (single ‘umbrella’ party legally required to be dominated by the Baathists, and single candidate Presidential elections, for instance). They thought that things could be improved. This was a ‘loyal opposition’ who were not out to overthrow the current Government – particularly by violent revolution; they wanted to work with President Assad and the People’s Council to produce changes within the existing system of Government.
President Assad and the Council agreed that certain changes would be a good idea – it was only armed insurrection that they could not accept – so they began to work toward that change. The process no doubt seemed much too slow to many citizens; but it resulted in a new Constitution and then new Council elections.
Under the new Constitution, the former prohibition of any political party operating outside of the ‘umbrella’ of the National Progressive Forum was abolished, and a second ‘umbrella’ party has been established – the Popular Front for Change and Liberation. No longer is there a legal requirement that the Baathist party be dominant. (Ironically, though, the party’s control in the Council has increased in the 2012 elections, even though the dominance is no longer required. Previously they maintained just over 50% of the seats in Government; in the last election that increased to 60% of the seats. Obviously the Baathists were not unpopular; the people just didn’t like the idea of a legal requirement that the Baathists predominate.)
Also, as previously noted, apparently the way has now been opened for multiple candidates in the popular election for President.
When this new Constitution was voted on by the citizens of Syria, 89% of those who voted approved the Constitution. Of those who voted ‘no’, it is believed that most were Christians who did not like the fact that the Constitution still required that the President be Muslim. However, there is no requirement that the members of the People’s Council be Muslims – so Christians have the legal right not only to vote, but to participate in the legislative process by being members of the People’s Council (if they can get enough support to be elected).
Just a note in closing: ‘Baathist’ is not at all equivalent to ‘Alawite’. While the Assad family – which is Baathist – is associated with the Alawites, that by no means signifies that the Baathists are an ‘Alawite party’. For instance, the late President of Iraq (Saddam Hussein) was a Sunni Baathist. Now that may perhaps not be a great recommendation for the Baathist party ( 😀 ), but it illustrates the point that the Baathist party is not affiliated with a particular ‘denomination’ of Islam. Therefore the Syrian Government is predominantly Baathist, but it is not ‘Alawite’ even though Bashar al-Assad may have appointed a good number of Alawites to non-elected positions in the Government.
The sectarian ‘fundamentalist’ Sunnis who constitute the ‘rebels’ in Syria may be bigoted against Alawites, Shiites, and Baathists (who are not ‘Islamic’ enough to suit their tastes); but the Syrian people as a whole and the Government of Syria are not sectarian and bigoted against Sunnis.