“Pro-regime Sunni fighters in Aleppo ” Al-Monitor

"… how can we account for the very real fact that the powerful pro-regime militias that have made such significant gains were drawn from the less privileged Sunni classes? What could explain certain Sunni towns and villages in the Aleppo countryside — Jibreen, for example — being staunchly pro-regime while the majority of rural Aleppan Sunnis are vehemently allied with the opposition? It’s easy enough to understand why the villages of Nibol and Zahra are loyalist and their men volunteer to fight for the regime, as they’re predominantly Shiite, but the Nayrab Palestinian refugee camp is Sunni, and its men have formed their own militia, the Al-Quds Brigades. They fight alongside other local pro-regime militias, such as the National Defense Force, which is also mostly Sunni and drawn from loyalist villages as well as clans like the Berri — whose leader Zeno was infamously executed in a hail of bullets as rebels first stormed Aleppo summer of 2012. They have been at the vanguard pushing rebels back from the Aleppo airport into Marjeh. It is also interesting to note that just like Nibol and Zahra, the Nayrab refugee camp had also been under siege by the rebels until very recently, and that only added to the camp's fury. The most likely explanation is a complex mix of tribal and clan loyalties, as well as a deeply ingrained sense of nationalism."  Al-Monitor


This Aleppo story is, in itself, of great interest, but the larger question of the ethno-sectarian composition of government forces and militias in general is extremely important.

The propaganda of the opposition seeks to make it a "given" that only; Alawis, the Shia and Christians  fight for the government and that the government is practising ethnic cleansing against Sunni Arabs on a grand scale.

I question that.  Let us discuss this.  I want real evidence not mere propaganda.  pl   



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22 Responses to “Pro-regime Sunni fighters in Aleppo ” Al-Monitor

  1. b says:

    I doubt that Syrian Alawis, Shia and Christians would have enough personal for the Syrian Arab Army.
    The government of Syria is mostly Sunni (prime minister and cabinet). Why would the army be less Sunni?

  2. Eliot says:

    I would assume that the urban residents are little more worldly, and a little less conservative. I also suspect they’re wealthier, they’re less parochial, and they have more exposure to goverment services.

  3. Swerv21 says:

    Assad always derived a lot of support from the urban Sunna. And then there is Asma.
    I’ve got some family in the Syrian armed forces. An aunt who used to visit us in better times used to complain about Bashar taking the support of lower ranking Alawites for granted. The real patronage she would say was going to his friends in the cities (Sunni friends).
    But that’s past, back then I think opinions of the government might have split more rural/ urban than sectarian. But now ?
    Still, I can’t imagine well connected Damascenes Sunna rooting for an Isis victory. I’ve met some of those people – they’re fairly worldly.

  4. Swerv21 says:

    There are roughly 5 million Christians and alawites in Syria. Evenly split,
    That doesn’t count Druze – another 700000
    Syrian armed forces rely on conscript grunts- but most of the elite units are led by alawite officers. A notable exception was mustapha tlass- former defense minister. His son Manaf was an early defection but I think he is in Paris now, not fighting.
    Plenty of alawites willing to fight though ….

  5. Bandolero says:

    As I see it that piece from Aleppo is just putting things from the head on their feet again.
    As I see it the Syrian government and it’s forces fight for a multi-religious and multi-sectarian country of equal citizens, and, at least during this war, it always did so. The claim of the opposition and their backers that the conflict in Syria is a sectarian fights between a suppressed Sunni majority against an oppressing minority of Alawites & Shia was and is a deliberate lie. I think the calculus behind that vicious opposition propaganda is easy to see: when 70-80% of the country is Sunni, and the fight is seen as a fight of Sunni anti-government forces against Shia/Alawite government forces, the greater number of Sunnis will make the anti-government forces win. For that reason Syrian media never report sectarian backgrounds of a crime, may it be as vicious as it can, while the opposition and their backers always speak about a sectarian background of the fight.
    And, of course, it is easy to see through the sectarian lies, when one looks at top Syrian officials:
    President – Allawite
    First lady – Sunni
    Prime minister – Sunni
    Defense minister – Sunni
    Foreign minister – Sunni
    And so on… The government of Syria has lot’s of Sunni members itself, and in the inner circle of the President there are many Sunnis, too, including his wife …

  6. turcopolier says:

    It has always been thus. I used to travel to Lebanon and Syria on business a lot and it was obvious that however nasty the authoritarianism of the government was, the rule of the Baath Party was NOT based on sectarian oppression. As you say, the Syrian elites always contained a lot of Sunni Arabs. pl

  7. Charles I says:

    Palestinians hardly aspire as one to a sharia state, no matter

  8. Charles I says:

    oops meant to cancel, not post gotta go

  9. b says:

    Claim from a contact on the Syrian government side about the National Defense Forces that holding ground after the army cleaned it up:
    “140,000 NDF fighters; approximately 75,000 Sunnis, 35,000 Alawi, 25,000 Christian, 5,000 Druze”
    More Alawis that I would have thought …

  10. Haralambos says:

    My apologies for the double post. Does anyone have any information on or thoughts about the accuracy of this site?

  11. The beaver says:

    FWIW: According to Matthew Lee at ICP-UN in Turtle Bay , the US has ordered Syria to shut its Embassy in DC as well as its consulate in Houston and Troy, Michigan.

  12. Thomas says:

    On evaluating Al-Monitor, look at the biography of the author to see what organizations etc. they belong to that could cause a bias one way or another. Their articles can be informing.

  13. All – All, In my uninformed opinion the colonel’s thoughts about tribalism makes quite a lot of sense. I have learned here that family comes first, then the tribe, then faith and then self interest in the status quo. Wrongs, real or perceived against the family or tribe will take precedent as will self interest. No one will fight for any militia solely based on religion.
    I’d bet there were some Protestants that occasionally helped the mendicant Catholic orders to punish some other Protestants.

  14. Babak Makkinejad says:

    In Somalia, it is not even tribes that are fighting, it is sub-clans of the same tribe.

  15. FDixon says:

    Eliot/Swerv21 – RE: perceived rural/urban distribution of Sunni opposition/support for Assad. I believe a significant factor (of which I am sure you are aware) has not been mentioned: a massive 5 plus year drought. The attached link has stats for 2008/2009 and maps of wheat cultivation by region as percent of total wheat production. I believe that if one were to overlay ‘confession’ / ethnicity to wheat production/drought severity it would seem that, with the exception of Kurdish area (a special case), the areas of the highest wheat production and most drought impact are Sunni.
    I am unfamiliar with land holding patterns in Syria but I would expect they are similar to Lebanon: rural tenant farmers on land owned by urban dwellers of the ‘political class’. What happens to a tenant farmer without a crop? … Debt and Poverty. Perhaps that has some bearing on rural Sunni opposition to Assad. The reasons for possible urban Sunni support were well stated above by Swerv21: why waste ‘perks’ on those in your camp by necessity (Alawites); better to spend the favor on ‘urban Sunni friends’. Best and Thanks to all for intelligent and civil discussion.

  16. turcopolier says:

    You are confusing yourselves. My comment was not about tribalism although tribalism is very important in understanding human psychology in the 3rd World. Tribalism is about segmentary lineage systems whether real or imagined in tradition. I was speaking of major communal differences inspired by inter-sectarian hostility that thinks of itself as religio-political identity. Tribes and sub-tribes exist within these sectarian splits and sometimes extend across sectarian boundaries. In Iraq one Shia man whom I know escaped death when captured by Sunni militia. He escaped by convincing them that he belonged to a Shia section of their Arab tribe. I despair of convincing you all that the borders drawn for states in the modern era often meant little in terms of human self identity. pl

  17. YT says:

    RE: “I despair of convincing you all that the borders drawn for states in the modern era often meant little in terms of human self identity.”
    Col. sir,
    Many of your acquaintances & associates in the Occident fail to realize that the signees of the Peace of Westphalia did not foresee that their descendants would actually carve out plots of real estate that once belonged to other lords & eventually have them become Entities similar to theirs…
    & what intense passions ethno-religous lines still deliver to the masses outside the West.

  18. Swerv21 says:

    I would echo the colonel on the importance of tribal identity. I would say that the importance of that kind of identity and Lebanon and Syria is considerably less than in other parts of the Arab world. I don’t think it’s particularly useful to conflate the way identity is constructed from one part of the Middle East to another. The differences can be significant.
    Identity in the levant isn’t about sect or tribe. These things matter very little to the average person. What matters a great deal is the ‘Beit’ – which translates to ‘House’. Now I suppose that most people take that to mean ‘clan’ in the western sense- but to me that has never made sense, because the ‘Beit’ is really more like ‘family”. To me the closest thing like is the way mafia ‘Families’ are depicted in pop culture in the U.S.
    What is useful about this is that the notion of Beit is somewhat fluid- it can be several generations old or hundred of years old depending on prominence and circumstance. For example Beit Junblatt in Lebanon have been leaders of the Druze for hundreds of years. My own Beit has been in Tripoli maybe a century or so.
    Also the construction of Beit also has very much to do with alliances across families- kind of like way the fates of Beit Tony Soprano and Beit Big Pussy Bompansero are intertwined (or were). These constellations of families and the families that serve them begin to describe what some of the scholars call ‘patronage’ networks in the levant. And these often cross sectarian lines. To me it’s quite different from the way Tribes construct their identities in places like Saudi Arabia or even Iraq. You don’t necessarily have the sheikh figure in your Beit like you have a tribal sheikh in Iraq for example.
    And these are what mean something to the average person. The rule of Syria is about Beit Al Assad and when people talk about his they are talking about the Makhloufs and at one time the Tlasses. It’s the kind of association I think of when the colonel brings up the “Bushies”- it’s a family but also a network – because Baker is implicated as is Rove and Cheney and so on. Maybe that’s why the Saudi’s loved them so much- they kind of understood how they operated.
    And even as recently a few years ago in Syria, if you brought up something like Beit Jadid it still means something. You lower your voice.
    It might sound like I’m putting too fine a point on it, but these differences mean something to people in these places.

  19. turcopolier says:

    IMO people are usually less overt about tribe and sect in the Levant than in other places in the ME, but family however extended is still the basis for primal loyalty and these families often identify with a particular sect, not because of a deep seated attachment to a mathhab or Sufi tariqa but rather as a focus for social organization. Ottoman rule after the tanzimaat tended to diminish tribal identity. the Ottomans wanted loyalty to the Porte rather than some other distraction. French rule in the Levant further accelerated the process of claiming not to be a “rimitive” person. As a result there were quite a few Sunni/Shia marriages, etc. This was also true in Iraq. THe danger now is that people are reverting to type under the pressure of sectarian focused wars. pl

  20. Swerv21 says:

    Colonel :
    Absolutely. I also think that part of this emergent or emergent sectarianism in the levant is the result of a kind of ‘call to order’ by leadership. I think one of the assads greater fears was of a splintering of alawite support early on. I believe this is why mahers units were in fact set upon some Sunni holdout villages- in order to ensure that the population was sufficiently polarized. Had sectarianism been the primary lens that people viewed the conflict in the lead up then this would not have been necessary. I also think this is why rival power centers within the leadership structure were also conveniently eliminated early on (look under shawkat, assef among others).
    I know first hand of mixed alawite – Sunni couples in Tripoli trying to flee because of death threats. Pretty unheard of in Lebanon until now. But as you say, the danger is growing http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/03/21/us-syria-crisis-lebanon-clashes-idUSBREA2K0JB20140321?feedType=RSS&feedName=topNews

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