Thursday, March 15, 2007

Syrian Succession

By 1998, Hafez el-Assad’s reign was secure. He had seen off many challenges; he had risen to the top of the Syrian Hierarchy.

The Bygone Days

Gone were the days where Ali Suleiman, a leading member of the Kalbiyya Alawite clan from Qardaha, signed that petition on June 15th, 1936, with another 5 Alawite notables. The petition was addressed to the French Prime Minister Léon Blum, and requested that the Sanjak of Lattakia remain independent, or at the very least be joined to the new state of Lebanon, because “Alawite people were different from the Sunni Muslims”, and “refused to be annexed to Muslim Syria because the official religion of the Syrian state is Islam, and according to Islam, the Alawites are considered infidels”.

Gone were the days of struggle when Ali Suleiman’s son, the brilliant Hafez, had become an Arab Nationalist, and grew up in the ranks of the Syrian military to become Hafez el-Assad, thanks to his exceptional mind.

Gone was March 8th, 1963, when the “Baath revolution” terminated the Union with Egypt, and removed the shackles of Nasser’s unbearable secret services… That “revolution” was carried out by the “Military Committee”, an alliance between Assad and fellow Alawites from the Haddadin and Khayyatin Alawite clans; Salah Jadid, Muhammad Umran, as well as two Druze, Abd-el-Karim el-Jundi and Ahmad el-Mirr, Between 1963 and 1966, the Baath party of Michel Aflak and Salah Bitar provided useful “cover”, hence the name of this "revolution". A Sunni president, Nureddin el-Atasi, would remain till 1970…

Incidentally, the Assad's tried, on another March 8th in Lebanon, in 2005, a counter revolution directed against the Cedar Revoltion, an event well spun by a complacent Western Media. This date fetish served them poorly; then March 14th came along, and all was good untill the stupid electoral deal and the "ittifaq ruba3i"; a fine example of snatching defeat from the Jaws of Victory... Anyway, I digress...

The Rise of the Lion

Thanks to his exceptional mind, the cautious Hafez was able to see off the other members of the “committee”. The Druze were sidelined first, with Salim Hatum, the head of the Golan sector, running off to Jordan, then lured back and executed… Umran’s turn came in 1965, and he was later dispatched on March 4th, 1972, in Tripoli where he was hiding… Jadid was out on November 16th, 1970, and remained in Jail till his death on July 18th, 1993…

Once in power, Assad secured his rule by consolidating the control of his Alawite powerbase over the levers of power. They were in competing “Security” services; Adnan Badr Hasan (Political), Ibrahim Huwayji (Air Force), Ali Duba (Military). There were in key ministries; Muhammad Hirba (Interior), Muhammad Salman (Information), Ahmad Dighram… And his own brother Rifaat in charge of elite military units…

It almost all came down crashing in the 1980’s with the Sunni-extremist challenge, and with Rifaat attempted putsch against Hafez. With the extremists gone (together with many more innocents), with Rifaat exiled into retirement, the reign appeared secure.

His son, Bassel, was being groomed for succession, and Lebanon’s riches were well in his grasp. He had dispatched Lebanese challenges effectively; Kamal Joumblat, Bashir Gemayel, Hassan Khaled, Rachid Karameh… And now, thank to his involvement in the First Gulf War, the Americans and the French granted him control over Lebanon, and the Israelis were not too sad to see such a pragmatic in charge…

Bump on the Road

It almost all came down crashing (litterally) again on January 21st, 1994, when Bassel was killed in an “automobile accident”. Hafez then had to groom his other son Bashar in short order; old age was setting in…

Bachar’s rise to power was assured after he gained control of the lucrative “Lebanese dossier”, but he had to contend with powerful interests that had risen there. The Christian clan leaders did not understand the rules of the new game, and had all been sidelined… The leaders of the other communities, Hariri, Joumblat, and Berri, were able to play by the new rules, and got a share of the pie.

Except for Berri, they were proving too adept at this game; the Syrians Ghazi Kanaan, Hekmat Shehabi, and even Abdel-Halim Khaddam. As Bashar secured his rise to power, he had to dispatch those pesky challengers.

Bashar’s Rise

The first to go was the Prime Minister, Mahmud Zoghbi, who “committed suicide” by “shooting himself in the head twice”. Such commitment has since only been seen with Abou Nidal… Hikmat Shehabi was out of Syria, in retirement in France.

Abdel-Halim Khaddam would follow him, but his allies had to be dealt with first; compounding his close alliance with Lebanese politicians was his closeness to some rising stars in Iraq. Bachar had little choice but to carry out two fateful policies to see off that powerful foe.

1- Support for the Iraqi insurgency. Not as stupid a move as it appears; in the wake of Saddam’s ouster, an often overlooked factor is the rising power in Iraq of those who were sidelined in 1979. Between July 15th and August 8th of that year, Saddam carried out a purge of all those Iraqi Baath members who were too close to the Syrian Baath… One student at the time, known for ratting on his fellow classmates, was rewarded with a scholarship to England. His name? Iyad Allawi.

2- The Hariri Assassination. Regardless of his personal merits, and he had a few, Bashar could not tolerate to allow Rafic Hariri to survive if Syria was forced out of Lebanon. Such a powerful and intelligent Sunni politician would threaten Alawite rule in Syria, and even an orderly retreat to a (potentially) revived Sanjak of Lattaquieh. He was already making things harder for Bashar by making it easier for Iyad Allawi in Beirut. With King Fahd ill, Hariri’s main supporter in Saudi Arabia, they could have hoped they could get away with assassination. They may still be hoping

Lâchez du Lest!

At worse, they would have been forced out of Lebanon, without a powerful Hariri to contend with. It may appear as a series of mistakes, and in the perspective of Syria, it is.

But in the perspective of ensuring a Alawite succession, the regime is only circling the wagons. The only Alawite challenger, Ghazi Kanaan had already been sidelined, he later “committed suicide”, though it is not clear whether he managed to shoot himself twice.

All those with short memories or limited intellect are bound to misunderstand this struggle (with deadly consequences); if Syria is not allowed back inLebanon, the Syrian regime is, as we say in Lebanon, “spending its bullets”.

And it still has a lot of Ammo, and a lot more useful idiots at his disposal.

Never underestimate a cornered dictator


Blacksmith Jade said...

Excellent piece Jeha. Unfortunately for us those with limited intellect will always rely on their favourite weapon of first resort, sectarian fear-mongering, ammo for which will never run out of.

Blacksmith Jade said...

Oh and I'd like to add something I get quizzed about pretty often. It wasn't only the Alawites in Syria that were asking to be joined to Lebanon, many Greek Orthodox in Lebanon also sought a joining of territories in Northern Syria to Lebanon.

Indeed, as some accounts go, that was the original map carved out by the French when it came down to dividing up their mandate into independent nations. Maronite objections led to today's borders and that is why you find that an overwhelming majority of leftist groups founded in Lebanon, with ties to Syria (chief among them are the SSNP) were ones founded by Greek Orthodox politicians, intellectuals, and historians.

Ehhh...I've been talking sectarian for a while and I hate it...but either we fool ourselves into believing that the country (indeed the region as a whole) is run in any other way, or we try and tackle the issue at its heart.

That is what your post is doing and I commend you for that.

ghassan karam said...

Blacksmith Jade,
I am not questioning the veracity of your post but simply wondering about what areas in Northern Syria are /were inhabited by Greek Orthodox?

BTW, It is good that the French had the sense not to carve out Lattakia and make it an integral part of Lebanon. If what we have currently can you imagine the monstrosity that could have been created had the Allawites been part of Lebanon?

Anonymous said...


is that a sectarian vein i sense?

Jeha said...

I guess we all understand that this post is meant to describe a sectarian reality, not to endorse it. I feel that such an understanding is vital today, as an increasing number of pseudo-scholars are coming to the fore, discussing a region they know nothing about.

The region BlacksmithJade is describing must be Wadi Al-Nassarah, one of the last places where people still speak Aramaic in day-to-day conversation... However, while the real map of Lebanon took maronite interests into account, it was mainly meant to take French advantage in consideration. In the tricky negotiations among British, French, and Zionist interests, the maronites were a useful excuse to France who was not willing to cede more than it already did. It had "lost" Mosul to British oil interests, and South Anatolia to revived Turkish forces.

ghassan karam said...

I have not been to Homs in a long , long time. My recollection though is that the Wadi Al Nasarah is a small areajust outside Homs.I am just attempting to understand the historical context in which the concerns of such a small area with a small population would be taken into consideration. Maybe it is larger than what I seem to recall.

You can rest assured that there were no sectarian innuendos in my original post. As time goes on people within a political boundary might be able to develop a shared idenity but in Lebanon the experiment has not worked yet although it is based on the need to meld three differentgroups. Adding a fourth group would not have made things any easier.

Blacksmith Jade said...

Syria actually has a very rich Orthodox Christian history, with one of the patriarchies (Syriac Orthodox) of that religion based there (in Damascus after having to leave Antioch). They are spread across the western end of Syria with the largest concentration around Aleppo (Halab), and smaller ones around Homs, and in Damascus. The region involved, as far as I know, would have comprised an area north of Homs, to Aleppo, and then to the coast of Lattakia.

ghassan karam said...

Blacksmith Jade,
I do not doubt the possibility that some Greek Orthodox might have requested the French to consider enlarging the area that they were planning to demarcate as Lebanon. I am still at a loss about what that might have implied in practice. The Wadi Al Nassarah that I know is a sliver to the west of Homs. It is not large enough or contiguous with the planned border of the Lebanon and so I find it difficult to take such a request if it ever took place seriously. The suggestion regarding the area from Homs to Aleppo all the way to the sea is huge and I find that even more difficult to accept. I think that the area in question would have been larger than the current day Lebanon!!!

I would appreciate any references that you mighjt run across regarding this matter.

Blacksmith Jade said...

"I would appreciate any references that you mighjt run across regarding this matter."

Me too :)

In any case here are a couple of maps that we can use for reference:


The area is considerable (and follows the mountains north towards Turkey) but Lebanon's borders weren't yet set and did not include such areas such as the south and Zahleh.

The account I heard was that these areas were later added to Lebanon in order to bolster the Maronite population, at the expense of the larger Sunni and Greek Orthodox populations that would've been incorporated into Lebanon's borders had the other plan been implemented. The Maronites did not consider the Shiites in the South to be a demographical threat due to their subjugated status throughout the Middle East.

Again, that is a version I heard (from a respected source, I should mention) but have not verified myself.

Blacksmith Jade said...

Speaking of maps, I put this one up a while something of a joke...but it got emotions flaring!

Click Me!

ghassan karam said...

If political identity is to be determined almost totally by sectarian affiliation , geographic location and maybe language then the suggested map for the ME is more rational than the existing one. Definitely the Kurds, as homogenous as any of the other groups in the area have been deprived of a homeland only because 'kurdistan" has been divided and incorporated into four countries. I think that the Kurdish question is far from being resolved. It will stay with us for a long time to come. Thanks for sharing the info that you have.

Jeha said...

BlacksmithJade, GhassanKaram,

There is some very good work done that gives a good economic description of the territories in Lebanon and Syria; by Fabrice Blanche, it is called "Syrie–Liban: intégration régionale ou dilution?". It has some excellent maps that describe the economic interaction and administrative divisions of Syria and Lebanon. It actually demonstrates that French "divisions" of Syria were nothin of the sort, just the conitinuation of Ottoman administrative regions.

On another note, this same review has some excellent work on "Les territoires du vote au Liban", in which the real demographic impact of each community is well described. Embedded in this, you see the weight of the Syrian population which was naturalized to skew the demographic make-up of Lebanon, by no other than Michel Murr, that stalwart of Aoun; Figure 6, "La carte des naturalisés", shows the real impact.

R said...

I tried looking up some history on the wheeling and dealing that should have taken place around 1918-1920 and the formation of the more or less modern borders of Lebanon. I didn't find anything indicating a more northernly frontier than nahr-el-kebir but the first option down south seems to have been to the litany (or kasmieh). Of course, when the Lebanese sent their delegation(s) to Versailles that might already have been after their agreement among themselves (within each faction at least). I wonder if there is anything on record...

Jeha said...


Any northern expansion was proposed by some of the inhabitants of those regions themselves. The letters would be filed at the French Diplomatic archives in Nantes. Worth visiting if you happen to be in France, but bring a digital camera, as some archives cannot be photocopied.

As you state, the reset is more "published", but not well understood because of all the propaganda. Lebanon's Southern borders were under intense lobbying from the "World Zionist Organization", with their formal territorial demands formulated at the Paris Peace conference in 1919. Those demands reached as far north as Sidon to Include the Litani, as shown on this map. However, the French need to keep the road from Tyre and Sidon to Damascus under their control. The other road, from Dahr el-Baydar, would be closed during winter.

It should be noted that the ports of Syrian cities were historically Lebanese. Tripoli was the main port for Homs, Alep, and Hama, and Beirut were the main ports for Damascus, with some overflow going to Sidon and Tyre. The French needed to maintain those lines of communications. Lebanese Lobbying (not exclusively maronite), benefited from this ecnomic consideration. And so did Syria in this respect.

On one hand, the borders of Lebanon with Syria were largely defined by the Litani, Hasbani and Assi watersheds; there were some technical studies carried out by AUB and USJ that had established the technical outlines.

On the other hand, this obviated the agreement between Weizman and Emir Feisal bin Hussein, who agreed with Zionist demands on southern Lebanon in exchange for their support for "Arab demands" (maybe I should post the agreement at some point). The French had insisted that part of the northern Israel was defined by the road from Tyre to Damascus, the Golan was kept in Syria. The Galilee was included in Israel because large tracks of its land had been purchased a while back by Zionist settlers... Incidentally, many large owners of land in that region were prominent Sunni Lebanese merchants and Shiite Feudals; Marjeyoun and Bint Jbeil were the economic centres for the region, until the partition and the establishment of Kyriat Shmona ("the northern village")...

The French prevailed because they had already ceded their claim over Mosul in exchange for a portion of the oil and all German property in the region, including shares of the Turkish Petroleum Company (later IPC)... The British, still wanted to expand their Palestine, but could not ask for more; as long as they had Haifa, they were happy. The French dominion over the Sanjaks of Damascus and Jabal Druze was delimited by the IPC pipeline to Haifa, and became Syria's borders in 1936...

ghassan karam said...

What I Have read over the years about the history of the birth of the "Greater Lebanon" has led me to conclude that the French did not play the role of the planner or instigator , they simply acceded to the Maronite demands who lobbied their case very effectively. I believe that Kamal Salibi , i his "The House of many Mansions" has alluded to the ease of creating borders for a state but the difficulty ofcreating a sense of nationalism within these borders.

What I have find to be ironic is the near total derision reserved for the British and French powers that came up with the original plan but yet the total failure to come up with suggestions to improve on these demarcations. Actually many have paid the ultimate price in order to protect them. How likely is it for the passage of time to create a sense of nationalism within what started as artificial demarcations done to serve the interests of the mandate powers? Against all odds, I think that the system will survive practically intact not because the original planners were so prescient but because the idea of nationalism will become less potent. Cosmopolitanism will make inroads even in the Middle East.