It was, perhaps, sometime last year that whoever runs the Assad regime in Damascus discovered a colonial-era manual left by the French on how to hang on to power in Syria. Reflecting the aggressive policy of President Alexandre Millerand, the manual recommends a number of stratagems for controlling the newly carved-out country against the wishes of a majority of its people.
The method used was designed to reflect the Balkanization of Greater Syria and the divide-and-rule policy based on promises of mini-states for religious minorities. The fact that Millerand was a socialist and that France was supposed to be a secular state was neither here nor there.
Two recommendations stand out in the manual. The first is that the colonial administration should focus its resources on controlling what is termed la Syrie utile, that is to say “useful Styria.” The concept excludes the large part of Syrian territory that consists of thinly populated desert. Instead, it emphasises the value of the coastal strip between Damascus and the Mediterranean plus Aleppo, the country’s most populous city, and two key roads connecting Syria to Lebanon in the south and Turkey in the northeast. Throughout the Syrian national struggle for independence, the French followed that recipe with much zeal but, in the end, failed to dictate the outcome.
Today, the Assad regime is trying to walk in the footsteps of the French colonialists.
It has retreated from large chunks of territory to concentrate its resources on “the useful Syria.” The vacuum this has created has favored the emergence of a dozen armed groups in an archipelago of jihad spanning from the southwest to the northeast.
According to best estimates, the Assad regime now controls some 40 per cent of Syrian territory. The percentage of the population that lives in this segment remains a matter for speculation, and estimates vary between 35 and 60 per cent. Part of the discrepancy is due to the fact that many Syrians registered as refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, and to some extent even Turkey, spend part of their time in or near their former homes, producing the ebb and flow effect of a human tide. Such return-ticket refugees make it hard to estimate the number of people present in a locality at any given time.
The French colonial manual included another, perhaps more important, stratagem: the recruitment of police and army personnel from among religious and ethnic minorities. To that end, a number of tricks were employed.
Though boasting of its “secular republican” identity, colonial France cast itself in the role of “protector of Christians in the Levant.” The French state financed the sending of dozens of Christian missionaries to Syria, paid for the repair of churches there and encouraged the teaching of Christianity at many schools, something forbidden in France itself.
The French courted the Nusairi community, later renamed Alawite and not to be confused with Alevis in Turkey, with the promise of a mini-state on a strip of coast along the Mediterranean. Some Nusairis, including Bashar Al-Assad’s grandfather, bought into that swindle and became ardent supporters of French rule.
The French also courted the Kurds, a major ethnic minority in the northeast, by founding an institute supposedly to study their culture and allowing free movement across the borders with the newly created Republic of Turkey and Iraq. Other minorities, including the Druze and the Turcoman, were also courted in a variety of ways, including invitations to their leaders to visit Paris and have their offspring educated in classy French schools.
All those efforts were given an overarching theme with the French warning that, unless they cooperated with colonial rule, Syrian minorities would face extermination by the Sunni Muslim majority. To make sure that the message was spread far and wide, the French bribed a number of community leaders and pretended that young men from minorities were volunteering to serve France. In practice, however, many such young men were in effect rounded up by press gangs and forced into joining the colonial police and army.
In his seminal book Occupying Syria Under The French Mandate, first published in 2012, Daniel Neep documents the violence that French colonialists used to maintain control with the help of recruits from minorities.
Today, the Assad regime is using a similar stratagem by trying to promote a “coalition of minorities” by using the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Daesh in Arabic, as a bogeyman. The fact that ISIS has killed more Sunni Muslims and destroyed many more Sunni Muslim towns and villages is conveniently forgotten. Thus, we witness a bizarre spectacle in which ISIS and Assad are partners in a deadly pas-de-deux.
Christian, Druze and Turcoman sources tell me that press gangs, sometimes including Lebanese Hezbollah gunmen and their mentors from Iran, are trying to force or tempt some young men into joining Assad’s half-broken machinery of repression, which is backed by Moscow and Tehran.
Using minorities as foot soldiers of imperial rule is nothing new. The army of Xerxes that sacked Athens included many minority recruits from across the Persian Empire. In Rome, Scipio used soldiers from Hispania and Africa in his successful campaign against Carthaginians led by Hannibal. From the reign of Emperor Augustus onwards more than half of the Roman legions consisted of recruits from minorities.
More recently, the British Empire in India depended heavily on recruits from such minorities as Muslims and Sikhs, not to mention the Nepalese “Gurkhas” (in Persian: Seekers of tombs!). The French set up the Foreign Legion to recruit all over the world, while Belgium’s King Leopold built himself an African empire with an army of mercenaries drawn from 30 different nationalities.
However, one lesson that history teaches is that even the best-trained armies, if largely made of minorities, cannot prevent the demise of a system imposed against the wishes of the majority. Though they enjoyed a monopoly of arms, the British were ultimately forced to abandon their Indian Empire. The French failed to tame Syria and, later, to retain control of Algeria despite a massive recruitment of Harkis. Assad and his backers in Tehran and Moscow are unlikely to do any better.
However, by playing the sinister game of setting different communities against one another, they could produce a new framework of suspicion and hatred that a future Syria, hopefully one free of Assad at last, might find hard to ignore, at least in the early phases of its national rebirth.
The war in Syria is not between a majority and minority communities. It is a war between all those Syrians wishing to live in freedom and dignity against a minority regime that claims to be socialist, pan-Arab, and secular, yet is playing a quintessentially colonialist game on behalf of its foreign masters.