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Transcript: The Syrian Civil War: Alawites, Women's Rights, and the Arab Spring

[Listen to the podcast here.]

Co-hosts Leticia Wiggins and Patrick Potyondy interviewed guests Ayse Baltacioglu-Brammer and Patrick Scharfe on the the civil war in Syria, which continues to dominate headlines across the globe. As negotiations and fighting continue, Leticia and Patrick spoke with the two historians of the Middle East to explore the nation’s diversity, the role of women in the Arab Spring, intervention, and the way forward.

For more on Syria, see Origins’ two articles, “Syria's Islamic Movement and the 2011-12 Uprising” and “Alawites and the Fate of Syria.”
 

Transcript Begins Here:

Leticia Wiggins 
Welcome to History Talk produced by Origins, a project of the Public History Initiative and the Goldberg Center and the Department of History at The Ohio State University. The American philosopher John Dewey once wrote, "History, which is not brought down close to the actual scene of events leaves a gap." Our goal with Origins and History Talk is to fill that gap and help make for more engaged citizens. We hope you enjoy what you find. I'm Leticia Wiggins, one of your co-hosts and welcome to this week's History Talk. Today we're discussing Syria, which has been engulfed in a civil war since 2011. The conflict has killed more than 100,000 people and created more than 2 million refugees. Origins has run two articles on Syria -- both can be found at origins osu.edu.

Patrick Potyondy 
And this is Patrick Potyondy, your other co-host, and in this week's History Talk, we're joined by two guests, both specialists on the Middle East. First we have Ayse Baltacioglu-Brammer, a history doctoral candidate who focuses on Sunni Shia conflicts in the Middle East and author most recently of the Origins article, "Alawites and the Fate of Syria," which can be found on the origins osu.edu website. Thanks for joining us, Ayse.

Ayse Baltacioglu-Brammer 
Hi, thanks for having me.

Patrick Potyondy 
We're lucky to have not one, but two Patrick's on the show today. Our second guest is Patrick Scharfe. He's also a history doctoral candidate, and he focuses on the place of Islam in the early 19th century. Say hello, Patrick.

Patrick Scharfe 
Thank you very much.

Leticia Wiggins 
So jumping right into the questions today. We know every nation is made up of a number of ethnic groups and religious sects. So what are the key groups we need to know about to understand the political landscape of Syria?

Ayse Baltacioglu-Brammer 
It is said actually, Sunni is composed of multi-ethnic, multi-religious, and multi-multilingual groups. So in order to understand what is going on in Syria, now, we have to know what these main groups are. And to summarize, the, the Kurds living in the northern parts, and Alawites can can be understood as semi Shiite groups living in the northwestern part of the country, in the mountainous parts of parts of the country, and Sunnis who compromise the majority who usually live in urban places, and Druzes, another sub Islamic group, amd Christians who are also mainly urban population.

Patrick Scharfe 
Yeah, and I would say the key thing to keep in mind is that, while the Sunnis are a majority, as she mentioned, it's only sort of a narrow majority, something like 60% is Sunni and Arab. So they're obviously, there are ethno, ethnic groups and religious groups, ethno religious groups. The Kurds are Sunni, but as you know, at being ethnically different, they have a sort of different political identity. So, but Sunni and Arab together, that ethno religious group would constitute about 60% of the population.

Patrick Potyondy 
So tell us a little bit more about the Assad family, their relationship to the Alawites as part of the Alawite group, and Sunni Muslims in Syria and their roles in the current conflict and maybe historically, in Syria.

Ayse Baltacioglu-Brammer 
The current president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, actually is the son of Hafez al-Assad who came to power into a 1970 as the first president. And he is, he was coming from a relatively well off family, Alawite family who lived in that mountainous Northwestern part of Syria. And he joined the military, because it was one of the only, one of the few outlets for Alawites to make carriers. And he rose to the ranks of high military officer, officials. And then through several coups, he basically declared himself as the president of Syria in 1971. And as I said, the family itself is coming from an Alawite background.

Patrick Scharfe 
Obviously, he's a member of the Bath Party. The Bath Party actually first came to power in a series of cruise in the 1960s. As an Arab nationalist movement, unbiased, at least theoretically with regard to at no religious differences. But there was a tendency in this Bathist politics for sort of very conspiratorial, clique politics to arise. And this happened in both Iraq and in Syria. And in both cases, there was a sort of very narrow, ethno religious click that ended up capturing the heights of power. And in Iraq, that was obviously that of Saddam Hussein, Sunni Arabs, especially from the city of Tikrit in Syria, and essentially have a similar phenomenon that there's a narrow ethno religious clique that captures the heights of power. The Alawites, it doesn't mean that the regime is exclusively followed. But there's this tendency for this sort of specific ethno religious group to be overrepresented.

Ayse Baltacioglu-Brammer 
And in my article, I briefly mentioned that why Alawites particularly wanted to be a part of the Syrian army and in order to understand it we need to look at the French mandate regime that governed Syria for the first half of the 20th century. And the French mandate regime established a close relationship with the minority religious and ethnic minorities in Syria, to kind of keep the majority Sudanese under control. So this mutual relationship between the mandate French mandate regime and the minorities, including the Alawites, in this case, was for their benefit, because they were enrolled into the military ranks very quickly, and relatively higher numbers compared to Sunni majority. And the reason that I also mentioned in my article is that being a part of that foreign, mandate regime, as a member of the military was kind of a negative feature for the Sunni majority who were fighting for their own independence as Arab nationalists. So they did not want to be a part of the French army, even though it was basically an army serving in Syria. But Alawites who had that relationship with the French regime did not see anything wrong with that. So they became a part of the French mandate army.

Patrick Scharfe 
That was very much a divide and rule strategy. In fact, the French had originally intended not to set up a single Syria but a Balkanized Syria, with all these different ethnic groups having their own states and that sort of thing. And this was largely out of fear of Sunni Arab nationalism, the French being colonial masters of Algeria, had lots of fear from Sunni Arab nationalism. So that sort of establishes the dynamic and of course, these colonial dynamics and take on their own lives in Syria and other Middle Eastern countries.

Leticia Wiggins 
And in some of the most recent talks about getting negotiation started, Syrian women have stepped forward to demand a place at the table. And is this unique in the Arab Spring? Have women played a prominent role across the region's events?

Patrick Scharfe 
Well, I would be more familiar with some of the other Arab Spring countries like Egypt. In Egypt, I think it really has been remarkable the way that women have stepped forward and become, of extraordinary importance as activists, symbolically significant. There are all sorts of examples that you could cite. For me, in a sense, Syria, I don't know if Syria has quite so many symbolic examples as Egypt, for example, because the situation in Syria is so militarized, and so, so much dominated by armed groups, whether it's the Syrian governments, or Islamist militant groups in Syria, that the role for women activists, I think, is narrower than in a place like Egypt, where they've been of extraordinary significance.

Ayse Baltacioglu-Brammer 
I totally agree with Patrick. I can only add that in Syrian situation, yes, we don't see that many women in the front rows, but Asma al-Assad who is wife of Bashar Al Assad was actually on TVs and newspapers for a while. So it was working in PR, in the Assad side of the story that Assad's wife, Asma al-Assad was distributing food and being involved in charity activities, and gained people's sympathy, empathy for the Assad regime. So she was involved in that moment.

Patrick Scharfe 
Yeah, these wives of the leaders play a really important role both in the regime itself and as oftentimes a very hated figure among the opposition. This was true in Tunisia, this is true in Egypt, these wives attracted a lot of negative attention on the part of the opposition. They were, within the regime, they were associated with this sort of state feminism idea where the government is promoting an official form of feminism. Ayse will be very familiar with us from Turkey, which the state feminism also has a long history there. So there's this sort of sense of these wives of dictators as being patrons of women, and protectors of the status of women. From the perspective of the Arab Spring uprisings, this was sort of a shell game, something that is not really a real form of feminism, not a genuine form of activism, but this debate over state feminism and official forms of feminism promoted by the state is one that's ongoing.

Patrick Potyondy 
Do you think that form of state feminism has been a tool that has kind of propped up authoritarian regimes in the region? Or has it done some substantial things to promote the rights of women across the region?

Ayse Baltacioglu-Brammer 
Oh, as long as you stay in the limits that are determined by the state, of course, the women gain a lot of rides, and they were given access to education or some positions that they weren't in the past. But once they started to question those limits, determined by the state, of course, there was a clash between feminists and the state in that manner.

Leticia Wiggins 
And when did this state feminism, as we term it, develop and is it, is it, has it changed in definition too?

Ayse Baltacioglu-Brammer 
If we talk about Turkey I will say 1920s, 30s, with the establishment of the Republic of Turkey under the rule of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and then his regime.

Leticia Wiggins 
That seems early. I mean, which is neat.

Ayse Baltacioglu-Brammer 
Yeah, yeah.

Patrick Scharfe 
Oh, yeah. It's, it's pretty early. And I think to answer Patrick's question more directly, I think it's done both very much. I mean, it has advanced rights for women, but it's also propped up the regime. And that is sort of the contradiction that a lot of feminists work with in the Middle East. But to what degree do we want to accept these discourses as useful or to what degree do we want to reject them as propping up old authoritarianism?

Ayse Baltacioglu-Brammer 
And in the Syrian example, they were talking about Asma al-Assad. Her religious background, also played a role, it pleased the state, the regime wanted her background to play a role. She's coming from a Sunni family. So she was on those TV, news and pictures and public broadcasting, broadcasting because Assad regime was also trying to show that the regime's leaders, own leader's wife is coming from a Sunni background and the Assad regime is not as hateful as towards Sunnis as the Sunni opposition movement tries to depict in that sense.

Patrick Potyondy 
There has been a lot of debate about whether or not the United States should have intervened more directly in the Syrian conflict. In your opinion, would it have been a good idea for the US or Europe to take a more active role? Or did potential dangers outweigh any potential positives?

Ayse Baltacioglu-Brammer 
I think we need to start with a definition of "direct involvement." What do we mean by that? If we mean, soldiers on foot,

Patrick Scharfe 
Ground forces.

Ayse Baltacioglu-Brammer 
yes, I think you all know that it did not work in previous examples. But personally, I believe that there should, some measurements should be taken considering what is going on in Syria right now and how many civilians are being killed by both sides, but mainly by the Assad regime.

Patrick Scharfe 
From my perspective, again, of course, it depends on what kind of intervention would have been taken. But in a sense, regardless of what intervention had been undertaken, I don't think we can really say that we would know what would have occurred, I think anyone who claims to know that, this or that would have occurred is not not being straightforward. I don't think that that the results of US intervention would have been straightforwardly predictable. But there are different sides to this debate. You had an interesting phenomena with some Sunni commentators around the Arab world who normally would have been very skeptical of US power. They were actually calling for US intervention, specifically Yusuf al-Qaradawi, was one of the most interesting examples of this. He's sort of a global, intellectual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood living in Qatar, but he's active all over the region, especially in Egypt. He openly called for US intervention back at the, maybe the beginning of 2012. So you had this interesting paradox of different--

Ayse Baltacioglu-Brammer 
And it certainly takes place in Turkey to you see that pro-American interventionists among religious, the conservative groups who were pretty much against other US invasions in Afghanistan, or in Iraq, or even in Libya, but now they are seeking for making intervention in the the Syrian case.

Patrick Scharfe 
It really is a fascinating turn about to see that that sort of thing. It's sort of the "enemy of my enemy is my friend" sort of attitude. There would have been a couple different kinds of intervention that could have been undertaken, obviously, ground forces were a possibility, but I think less likely than an air strike. From the perspective of the Syrian opposition, an airstrike would have given them a lot of help, because what we have seen since the beginning of 2013, is a radicalization of the Syrian opposition movement. A move toward much more al-Qaeda style military groups, and this has definitely been worrying, and some people have said that the lack of US intervention has helped bring this about. I don't know if we can say that for certain. But it's, it's been a perspective that's out there.

Ayse Baltacioglu-Brammer 
I also argue something similar in my article that this transformation that precedes conflict from some type of supra-ethnic, supra-religious and linguistic opposition movement against the regime into a sectarian, under sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shiites made it even more difficult to solve or even evaluate what's going on in Syria right now. Because right now, you also have to consider international factors international player. The Assad regime, in his side, we see how Russia, and how Iran, and how Shiite Lebanon, Hezbollah, are actively financially, politically and morally, supporting the regime since it became another sectarian war in the region.

Patrick Scharfe 
Something sort of implicit in what we've been saying, which is that, unfortunately, the war in Syria seems to have devolved into a sectarian proxy war with a lot of these different countries involved, funding different groups and makes it of course, even harder to solve.

Leticia Wiggins 
You bring up these great points of how you know the actuality and kind of what we see on a daily basis in the news, and what is one thing I suppose that either the news media or policymakers need to keep in mind as they continue to address Syria?

Ayse Baltacioglu-Brammer 
I will say that we need to know how this conflict began and how it evolved into a sectarian war, because there's a big difference between seeing this and other sectarian war that started as a sectarian war and evaluating the situation by its own dynamics. And that difference will be even more important in the future, since we are talking about international involvement by other international actors.

Patrick Scharfe 
Yeah, I agree that looking at the roots of the conflict and seeing it not as something that was inherently sectarian, and had to be returned from the beginning, but rather something that became more and more sectarian over time, partly because of the intervention of other powers, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iran, these countries have, have considerably worsened than the sectarian tensions.

Patrick Potyondy 
Well, thanks again to Patrick Scharfe and Ayse Baltacioglu-Brammer for joining us today. Both specializeon the Middle East and are doctoral students at Ohio State. So thanks again to both of you.

Ayse Baltacioglu-Brammer 
Thank you for having us.

Patrick Scharfe 
Thanks, guys.

Leticia Wiggins 
This edition of the Origins podcast History Talk was brought to you by the Public History Initiative and the Goldberg Center in the History Department at The Ohio State University. Our main editors are Steve Conn and Nicholas Breyfogle. Our executive producer is David Staley. Our website manager and technical advisor is Mitchell Shelton. Our audio editors and co-hosts are Patrick Potyondy and Leticia Wiggins. Find our podcasts and more at our website origins osu.edu. Thank you for listening!