Syria: is this a sectarian conflict?

Article publish September 2011

After several months of struggle against the Assad regime, the death toll in Syria is now over 2600 people, while the fate of more than 3000 protesters is unknown. 473 protesters were killed during the holy month of Ramadan.

Syrian security forces have arrested more than 70,000 people in their crackdown since mid-March and reportedly 15,000 remain in detention. Schools and football stadiums have been transformed into detention and torture centers.

Yet the objective of the Syrian popular movement remains the same: “We will continue until we bring down the regime”.

Many analysts of the region have explained the movement, its dynamics or its failures, through the sectarian prism, very often using the history of Syria as proof of a divided country. Many of them describe the Assad regime as an Alawis rule; others say minorities support this regime because they were protected and lived peacefully under it.

Other analyses concentrate on the sectarian composition of the opposition mainly composed of Sunni Muslim. Some say the solution is in the need to give minority groups, including Alawis, the assurance of protection in a possible post-Assad era in order for them to join Syria’s uprising.

This is all quite far from the reality of the Syrian popular movement, while the history of the country is distorted. Most of the commentators describe the history of Syria as a struggle between sects, some going as far as saying “Syrian minorities were constantly insecure and frequently subjected to prosecution” or “for minorities, Assad is security”.

The Assad regime has always portrayed itself as the protector of the minorities against a so called Islamic extremist threat. This argument is deployed by the authoritarian regime to divide Syrians and divert any criticism of its corruption and repression. But minorities and Syrians in general – secular or religious – don’t need the protection of a dictatorship to live peacefully and participate actively in the future of Syria.

Fares el Khoury, a Syrian-born Christian, was Prime Minister of Syria twice following the Second World War. Mustapha Sibai, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, argued in his book “Socialism of Islam” that Islam teaches a unique type of socialism conforming with human nature based on five natural rights: life, freedom, knowledge, dignity, and ownership.

The Baath was co-founded by Michel Aflak, a Syrian Christian, and was one of the most popular political parties in the region before it became an authoritarian and repressive party in the hands of Hafez Al Assad and Saddam Hussein, in Syria and Iraq respectively. Edmont Rabbath, a Syrian Christian, was the first Syrian Ambassador to the UN.

The Syrian Revolution of 1925 against the French occupier was led by the Druze leader Sultan Al Attrash, with the assistance of others from various backgrounds such as Ibrahim Hananu from Kurdish origin, while all the regions, including all the different sects of Syria, revolted against the division of the country made by the French mandate. Many Alawis personalities and intellectuals have been prominent figures in Syria’s history such as the late Saadallah Wannous, Syrian playwright and activist.

The Muslim Brotherhood was not the only force struggling against the Assad regime in the ’80s; the repression was not limited to it. In fact it extended to all the political forces of the left, who suffered successive waves of arrest until exhaustion set in. Thousands of activists were killed, tortured or imprisoned without trial, thanks to the emergency law in force for very long periods. Others were exiled.

The Syrian popular movement has been a peaceful and national movement demanding dignity, freedom, social justice, economic opportunities, and political reform. The protesters’ main slogans are “one, one, one, the Syrian people are one” and “Silmiya, silmiya” (Peaceful, peaceful), as well as “the people want to overthrow the regime”.

The Syrian opposition has continuously presented a united front against the threat of national and sectarian civil war. The slogans of the demonstrators such as “We are all Syrians, we are united” are repeated constantly. In many demonstrations we have seen banners saying “no to sectarianism”.

This is a popular and national uprising, bringing together all the communities of Syria. In the city of Qamishly, demonstrators were chanting for freedom and change in Arabic, Kurdish and Assyrian. They released balloons carrying the word freedom written in different languages. There were also banners in Arabic saying “Arabs, Kurds, Assyrian, Syriac, we are all Syrian”. In Banyas, more than 1,000 women marched following the speech of Bashar Al Assad and chanted “Not Sunni, not Alawite. Freedom is what we all want”.

A recent statement from Syrian Christian activists supporting the Revolution denounced the declarations made by the Maronite Patriarch Bechara Rai in France saying that the overthrow of the Assad regime would be a threat to the Christians in Syria. They remind Patriarch Rai that Christians have lived for “hundreds of years along with their Syrian brothers without fear and nobody, absolutely nobody, has any merit at this level: Christians are an indivisible part of this country”.

The Alawis community, too, have been visible in the revolutionary process through their intellectuals, youth alliances, websites and, of course, as participants in the protests. They have repeatedly put the blame for any sectarian strife on the regime’s violent repression. Many activists from minority sects have become martyrs in this revolution, while some have been and are being tortured and are still in prison.

Repression has hit all protesters regardless of background. Is this the so called protection and security given by the Assad regime to the minority as defended by some analysts?

The Syrian opposition, in exile and inside the country, are denouncing sectarianism and defending the unity of the Syrian people. The Local Coordination Committees, grassroots activist networks helping organize and document protests (including through a daily newsletter for the international and Arabic media), recently made a statement against foreign intervention and the militarization of the revolution. They also explained that the objective of Syria’s Revolution is not limited to overthrowing the regime, but also seeks to build a democratic system and national infrastructure that safeguards the freedom and dignity of the Syrian people.

The Syrian Revolution General Commission, which now boasts nearly 120 local committees, also called for a peaceful revolution far from sectarianism and foreign military intervention, in order to build a democratic, social and equal Syria.

The Syrian Revolution 2011 facebook group actually issued a “code of ethics against sectarianism in Syria” as far back as March. The names of the Friday demonstrations have been decided in order to be inclusive, designating for example the “Azadi” ( Freedom in Kurdish) Friday, while on the Easter weekend they announced the “Azime” (Great) Friday (Christians in Syria call the Friday before Easter the Great Friday).

The regime has fostered sectarian division. It built the army according to sectarian criteria to maintain loyalty. While the majority of the conscript soldiers are Sunni according to their population share, the officers’ corps is predominately Alawis.

Nevertheless, this regime is above all a clientelist regime, which finds support – alongside the security service apparatus – among the predominantly Sunni and Christian bourgeoisie in Aleppo and Damascus, which benefited from the neoliberal policies of recent years. The regime has built a network of loyalties through various ties, mainly economic, with individuals from different communities. The policies of the regime have benefited a small oligarchy and a few of its clients.

The ruling Baath party was popular 30 years ago when it offered social advancement in rural areas and among religious minorities, while now the Baath Party is an empty shell. The uprisings in Deraa as well as other rural areas, historic bastions of the Baath Party which had not taken part in the insurrections of the 1980s, show this failure.

The movement has united people, just as Egyptians and Tunisians united during their revolutions. No unity is possible under a dictatorship, which has developed a strategy of fear between sects. The popular movement in Syria is struggling for social solidarity that transcends sectarian and ethnic divisions. The only assurance and security the Syrians need is the victory of the Revolution in order to build a new democratic, social and independent Syria.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pTM2XPrlLQA&feature=player_embedded

Video: This is Dayr Sharqi, a tiny village in Idleb province, and this is their response to attempts to use Syria’s religious diversity in order to spread fear and insecurity – both inside and outside Syria. Maybe these villagers lack the power, wealth and connections of the regime’s supporters among the “holy men” like Patriarch Bashara Rai and Dr. Ramadan Buti, but they do not lack wisdom. The security of ALL Syrians – of whatever beliefs – is better protected by a society based on respect and equality than a regime based on violence and corruption.

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