Article publish in March 2012
This article is the second in a three-part series exploring key questions and debates that have emerged in relation to the Syrian revolution that has been ongoing since the beginning of the uprising in March 2011. The first part, “Who is Behind the Popular Movement?”.The third part, on“Strategy, Tactics and Geopolitics,”.
Part 2: A Sectarian Movement?
Over the past year, Syria has been experiencing a popular and national uprising, bringing together all the communities encompassed by the Syrian state. Arab Sunnis are the bulk of the protesters because they are the majority of the population, but this does not mean the minorities do not play an important role in the uprising.
The activists in this movement are extremely diverse in terms of religion and ethnicity. 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.”
Alawite activists such as feminist Hanady Zahlout and long-time dissidents Habib Saleh. Samar Yazbeck, Louai Hussein and Fadwa Soleiman are figures of the opposition. An Alawite brigade was also formed recently in the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in the province of Idlib.
Kurdish activists are very present in the revolutionary process, though the press underplays their role. A number of these activists actually participated in the Kurdish intifada of 2004 in northern Syria, in which Kurdish protesters — part of a particularly disenfranchised population — were killed and imprisoned. Many Kurdish activists have been the targets of Syrian security forces during the current uprising.
And there are other groups whose members have joined the movement. Assyrians, a Christian population, are solidly participating in the Syrian revolution, joining from a deep-rooted history of activism. The cities of Salamiya and Mansaf have witnessed constant and massive protests since the beginning of the revolution, featuring predominantly secular youth from Ismailia backgrounds.
Many Palestinian refugees in Syria have participated in the revolution and suffered alongside their Syrian brothers and sisters, including refugees from Deraa, Latakia, where the refugee camp was bombed by Syrian forces, and Damascus, where rebellion is especially centered at the Yarmouk refugee camp. More than forty Palestinians have been killed by Syrian security services, while hundreds have been arrested and put in prison.
Syrian Christian revolutionaries have also been part of the uprising. Some are important figures of the opposition, including George Sabra, Michel Kilo, and lawyers such as the Bounni brothers and Michel Chammas. Recently, Officer Muteeh Ilyas Ilyas was the first Syrian Christian officer to defect from the Syrian army. Security forces killed many Syrian Christian activists. Hossam Mikhail was killed because of his links with the Free Syrian Army. Priest Basiliu Nassar was also assassinated while rescuing a victim of an army attack in the Jarajmah neighborhood in Hama. Nassar used to deliver food to areas attacked by the Syrian army, and was helping doctors out in Hama.
Syrian forces also fired a non-explosive missile at the Convent of our Lady of Saidnaya north of the capital Damascus after learning that its monks were involved in delivering medicine and supplies to bombed areas. In addition to delivering supplies to victims, several churches in Damascus and other Syrian cities have been giving lectures against the Syrian regime and its brutal repression of peaceful protestors. The Syrian regime issued instructions to all banks across the country to stop transactions with the Greek Orthodox Mariamite Church on charges of money laundering, according to a Syrian Christian activist from the southwestern governorate of Rif Dimashq.
A statement from Syrian Christian activists supporting the Revolution denounced the declaration by the Maronite Patriarch Bechara Rai last September in France that the overthrow of the Assad regime would be a threat to the Christians in Syria. They reminded 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.”
Facebook pages have appeared that reflect the diversity within the Syrian movement, such as “Alawi Coalition Against the Assad Family Regime,” “Committee of anti-Bashar Assad Alawi Youth – Homs,” “Syrian Christian Network for Supporting the Syrian Revolution,” and “News About the Involvement of Minorities in the Syrian Revolution.” There has also been a profusion of like-minded public statements, with titles like “Statement by Members of the Alawi Sect,” “Statement by Syrian Christians,” and “Statement in Favor of Citizenship.”
The Syrian coordination committees in the country also denounce sectarianism and defend the unity of the Syrian people. The Local Coordination Committees, grassroots activist networks helping to organize and document protests, also explained that the objective of Syria’s Revolution is not limited to overthrowing the regime, but also involves building 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, has also called for a peaceful revolution in order to build a democratic and socially just Syria.
The Syrian Revolution 2011 Facebook group issued a “code of ethics against sectarianism in Syria” as far back as March 2011. The naming of Friday demonstrations have been deliberately inclusive, designating for example the “Azadi” (Freedom in Kurdish) Friday, and the “Azime” (Great Friday) in honour of the Christian Friday of Easter weekend).
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 capitalist regime to divide Syrians and divert any criticism of its corruption, social inequalities, repression and absence of democracy.
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 fomenting 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, socialist and independent Syria.