Sunday, August 30, 2015

The current crisis in the light of Alawite history

Leon T. Goldsmith from the Sultan Qaboos Unuversity in Oman is the author of a recently published monograph on the Alawites of Syria (I've ordered already). A worth reading piece by him about the current crisis of the Alawites in the light of history can be found on the publishing house's homepage.

Is Alawite Solidarity Finally Breaking?
by Leon T. Goldsmith
On 8 August 2015 large crowds of Alawites demonstrated in Latakia in western Syria, with many demanding the execution of Suleiman Hilal al-Asad, a relative of Bashar al-Asad who murdered—mafia style—the Alawi Colonel Hassan al-Sheikh during an apparent road rage incident. While the regime ordered the arrest of Suleiman, who at the time of writing remains defiant and at large, this incident reflects rising Alawite discontentment with the narrow Asad clique which has been at the centre of Syrian and Alawi power since 1970. Alawites have paid a heavy price in lives in the struggle to preserve Asad rule, and they have become increasingly frustrated at the inability of the regime to make good on its promises to defeat so-called foreign-backed ‘terrorists’—a blanket term in regime discourse that encapsulates the moderate opposition and more extremist groups. Back in July 2012 the regime rallied its loyal forces for a mass assault on rebels in Aleppo, Syria’s commercial hub, promising that this would be ‘the last battle waged by the Syrian army to crush the terrorists and after that Syria will emerge from the crisis.’ (Al-Watan, Damascus, 26 July 2012) This promise proved hollow and the sect’s frustration was shown in Alawite protests following a brutal massacre of mainly Alawite soldiers by ISIS fighters at Taqba airbase in Raqqa province in August 2014. Alawites protested in Homs after a suicide bomber targeted a school in an Alawite neighbourhood in October 2014 killing around forty-one children.
Nonetheless, four-and-a-half years into the Syrian conflagration Alawite solidarity has largely remained intact in support of the Asad regime. Fear of majoritarian Sunni revanchism—perceived or real—has welded the community to the regime and seemingly intertwined their fates. But while many observers rarely differentiate greatly between the 1000-year-old Shi’a-derived Alawite sect and the fifty-two-year-old Ba’athist regime, the picture is not so simple. To suggest that the conflict is a zero sum game between the opposition groups and the Alawites (alongside other minorities) ignores much of historical reality. History would in fact suggest that a turning point could emerge in the near to medium term where Alawites may look to extricate their interests from those of Bashar al-Asad and his inner core. Rather than a turn to the opposition this would actually reflect a narrowing of Alawite interests and an impulse to activate longstanding pragmatic methods of communal survival. (...)
After giving a historical overview of Alawite survival strategies the author presents his main argument, namely that the Alawites might get rid of Assad to prevent further extential harm to the community.
Since 2012 Alawites have been relocating out of the cities of the Syrian interior and heading for the relative safety of the coast and mountains of north-west Syria. This retreat may prove to be only a temporary reprieve, however. If Bashar al-Asad loses control of Damascus and retreats back to Latakia or the Asad clan’s home village of Qurdaha the various opposition factions, including those extremist groups bent on extinguishing the ‘heretic’ Alawites from Syria, will bear down on the coastal region. For Alawites, their chances of finding a secure place in a new Syria could be enhanced if they sought separate accommodation with the moderate Syrian opposition—including the remaining Free Syrian Army forces in the north and the Southern Front opposition formations in the south—and distanced themselves from Bashar al-Asad similarly to the way that Alawites gave up Ismail Khayr Bey to the Ottomans in the 1850s. Many Alawites have no love for Asad and would be happy to make the transaction. The previously influential Kana’an clan from B’hamra, for example, have never forgiven him for the thinly veiled ‘suicides’ in 2005 of their patriarch Ghazi Kana’an and his brother ‘Ali—Ghazi was found dead in his interior ministry office and Ali on a railway line.
It's a valid point of view but also very optimistic regarding an alternative to Assad i.e. the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The latter has proven to be very weak compared to Islamist militias - especially in the north. In fact in many parts of the country the FSA-allied militias are hardly decisive. Even more important is the fact that so far the FSA has  failed to present itself as a credible alternative and to reach out to the Alawites.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

I'm cited in the leading French daily Le Monde about the situation in Suweida:

Le dilemme de la minorité druze de Syrie
Par Laure Stephan et Piotr Smolar
Mais pour le journaliste et opposant Fadi Dahouk, réfugié à Beyrouth, cet alignement sur le régime pourrait changer, avec l’essor des Cheikhs de la dignité, une autre milice, formée en 2014 par un religieux druze, cheikh Ouadih Al-Bal’ous. « Nous sommes contre tous ceux qui nous attaquent. (…) Si l’Etat nous attaque, il sera notre ennemi », affirme le cheikh, qui a pourtant combattu aux côtés du pouvoir. A Soueida, il a obtenu le retrait de points de contrôle militaires. Il a aussi réclamé le retour de prisonniers. « Le fait qu’il ait eu gain de cause et qu’il puisse ouvertement critiquer la corruption ou les services de renseignements indique qu’il a acquis une certaine notoriété, et que le régime ne veut pas se mettre à dos les forces druzes », analyse le politologue Tobias Lang, basé en Autriche.(...)

RIP Wladimir Glasman alias Leverrier Ignace

Wladimir Glasman, one of France's leading Syria-experts passend away. A former diplomat born in Rabat, he was a devoted and outspoken researcher with a strong passion for the Syrian people. Over the last year he occasionally used to sent me links of videos via Twitter, which I later featured on this blog. To a wider audiance he was propably best known for his great Syria blog on Le Monde using the alias of Leverrier Ignace. May he rest in peace. 

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

I'm cited in a report about the Druze in the Israeli occupied Golan Heights featured on, the great online magazine run by Germany's international broadcaster.

Squeezed between occupation and civil war 
Ylenia Gostoli,
(...)Apart from the protest mentioned above, however, most Golanese Druze have distanced themselves from the position of their co-religionists inside Israel.
"Over the last decades, the relationships between the Druze in Israel and those in the Golan has been very cold and distant," said Tobias Lang, a political scientist who wrote a book about the Druze minority (...) "The majority of the Druze in Israel serve in the army and accepted a particularistic Israeli-Druze identity, whilst Golani Druze stayed loyal to the motherland."
"We don't share most of their demands," said Salman Fakhr Edeen, a resident and researcher at a local human rights NGO. "I myself am against the war. To increase killing on the other side, that's not a peaceful position. We are talking about our families, our people."
"It's cynical to talk about economic issues when you compare it to the lives lost," adds Fakhr Edeen, "but it's true that we [in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights] had a lot of benefits from Syrian government, and the regime is losing its influence."
For many years, 400 to 500 young people from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights would cross into Syria to attend university there, encouraged by the fact that there were no fees and that the Syrian government even provided a small monthly stipend. Security concerns have now left students with two choices: enrolling at universities in Israel or going abroad.(...)

Friday, August 7, 2015

Supplement to the 2015 Knesset election

The Knesset election took place already five month ago, but the traditional paper about the Arab voting behaviour from Tel Aviv University's Konrad Adenauer Center is a welcome opportunity for a supplement. The great thing about the paper is, that you don't have to compile the data of Arab villages from the election commission yourself (not fun at all if you are not literate in Hebrew).

Bayan-The Arabs in Israel Issue no. 5, June 2015 (ed. by Itamar Radai & Arik Rudnizky)

Let me just highlight a few numbers:

The Joint (Arab) List led by Aymen Odeh reached 82.4% in the whole so called Arab sector (i.e. Arab villages and towns including Druze and Circassians - mixed cities with Jewish majority like Haifa or Akko not counted). If we add the 0.8% of the minor Arab parties who were not part of the Joint List, the Arab parties achieved 83.2% in the Arab sector. This is a rise of 5% compared to the 2013 election. If we have a comparative look at the 2009 election, when the Arab parties had gained 82.1%, it becomes clear that the 2015 election was hardly a historical triumph for the Arab parties - but rather a good, commendable result.


The relationship between the Druze in Israel and their Sunni or Christian neighbors has reached an all time low last year, however this is not reflected in the voting pattern. The share of the Joint List nearly remained the same compared to the combined result of the Arab parties in 2013. In fact the share of the Arab parties rose insignificantly to 19.1%, which indicates that their support base in the villages remains stable (even though among the Druze it might be below 19.1% because a share of this voters comes from the Christian and Muslim minorities in some of the villages).

The results of the Druze majority villages:

Zionist Camp 21.8%
Joint List 18.8%
Kulanu 17.9 %
Yisrael Beitenu 16.6%
Shas 7.5%
Likud 6.6%
Yesh Atid 3.6%
Meretz 2.2%
Jewish Home 0.8%.
  • First and foremost this is a disaster for Likud-MK Ayoob Kara, who quite impressively forced himself into the cabinet after the elections. In 2013 the joint Likud-Beitenu ticked had reached 23.2% in the Druze majority villages. It really seems like that even though he is the Druze link to the ruling party and a former cabinet member, he has no pulling power in his own community. Why? We can only speculate at this point. As far as I understand, Kara is often accused of not using his position enough on behalf of his fellow Druze regarding economic issues or disputes with the authorities.
  • The second remarkable fact, is the comeback of Labor which ran jointly with Hatnua as the Zionist Camp. In 2013 Labor had reached an all time low in the Druze villages of 8.2%, even weaker than Hatnua (8.8%). While in 2013 then Labor chairwoman Shelly Yachaimovic had abolished the slot reserved for a Druze candidate, this time a Druze was likely to be elected (he never made it though). Since there was no Druze on a Hatnua ticket on the list and former vice minister Majali Wahabe was also not supported by Livni, I assume that the result of the Zionist Camp has more to do with Labor than with Hatnua.
  • The formidable result of Kulanu isn't a huge surprise, since the party was represented among the Dzuze by ex-MK Akram Hasun. Hasun is the former mayor of Daliat al-Karmal (biggest Druze town in Israel) and for a brief period was also the last head of the Kadima party. In 2013 Kadima had gained 17% among the Druze, so nothing has really changed here apart from the party's name (in 2013 Kadima was only able to re-enter the Knesset due its strong results in some Druze villages).
  • Yisrael Beitenu with Druze MK Hamad 'Amar, who is quite popular with his "less talk more action image", showed clearly that they - and not the Likud - are the preferred Druze choice on the right.
  • Sephardi-Orthodox Shas (2013 at increadible 12.2%) lost nearly half of its share among the Druze but still is a local player in the Druze sector and stronger than the Likud.

Over the last two years the efforts to recruit the Arab-Christian community into military service have been increased by the former government and "Aramean" as a new national category separate from "Arab" was introduced. In Christian villages we see a trend of decline for the Arab parties. While in 2009 their share had been at roughly 78%, it dropped to 72.2% in 2013 and 70.1% this year.

Here are the results for the four (mainly) Christian villages:

Joint List 69.7%
Zionist Camp 10.3%
Meretz 9.7%
Yisrael Baytenu 2.9%
Shas 2.4%
Kulanu 2.1%
Likud 1.3%
  • We have to keep in mind, that this result only represents the voters of four villages which are entirely Christian or have a Christian majority. The vast majority of the Christians in Israels lives nevertheless in mixed Arab villages or cities. Therefore this result might not be a representative sample of the Christian Arab voter.
  • Is the trend of the decline of Arab parties among the Christians connected to the new government policies? This question is hard to answer but I would assume NO. First, this is a trend which was already occurring in 2013 before the de-Arabization of the Christians got steam. Second, the Zionist parties which gained the most votes among the Christians are the Zionist Union and Meretz. Both are not associated in any way to the latest de-Arabization campaign. The result of the Likud, which was the driving force behind the conscription efforts and the introduction of the Aramean nationality, is extremely low (only 1.3%) and even slightly behind the average of the whole Arab sector.
  • The voting rate (66.0%) of the Christian villages is again the highest among all groups in the Arab sector, we can assume this is connected to the relatively high level of education.
See here for the 2013 results.