Slipping into hell
Slipping into hell November 2012
The contested heart of the Syrian conflict.
By Abdulhamid Qabbani
Photo Samara Sallam
Not until 16 months after the uprising began did the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) classify the violence in Syria as a full-blown non-international conflict—in layman’s terms, a civil war. But despite this declaration and a death toll now topping 23,000, many Syrians still say their country-long unity is not yet broken by civil war. “I will never take up a weapon against any Syrian; if I do, it will only be to defend myself,” said Rami, 25, a Damascus-based activist.
On what grounds?
Analysts commonly define civil war as caused by a conflict of interests between various groups within one country, whether these interests are organised on economic, political, ethnic or religious grounds. This last factor, some claim, is one main reason behind the Syrian conflict. However, although the intensified fighting stirred sectarianism in some areas, many say the uprising’s main trigger was desire for political reform.
Less than fortnight after the uprising started on March 15 last year with protests in Dera’a demanding such reforms, Presidential Political and Media Adviser Bouthaina Shabaan declared that what was taking place was nothing but sectarian strife. Obviously, she said, the country was “the target of a project to sow sectarian strife to compromise Syria and the unique co-existence model distinguishing it,” official news agency SANA reported.
Although at that time protests were limited and there was little evidence that belonging to any particular sect was driving dissent, a fierce public campaign began following Shaaban’s speech, denouncing sectarianism and urging support for the regime’s reform programme. “I am against sectarianism and my sect is Syrian,” billboards in Damascus read, essentially boiling the uprising down to sectarian incitement.
Early on, protestors contradicted this view, stressing their unity with all Syrians by chanting: “One, one, one, the Syrian people are one.” As violence escalated, however, the regime’s claims of religion-based conflict gained some weight as rumours spread of sectarian slogans, such as “Alawites to the tomb and Christians to Beirut,” being chanted in some restive areas, particularly Homs. Opposition members, however, played them down as “regime fabrications” intended to scare minorities into supporting the government.
A sectarian dynamic did develop, however, as some opposition groups were galvanised by anti-Shi’a hatred preached by Saudi-based Syrian Sheikh Adnan al-Arour whose daily talks on Al-Wesal, a Saudi-funded religious channel, made him popular especially among radicals and some sections of the working class. An amateur video posted on YouTube on June 25 last year shows the Sunni Sheikh giving a televised speech threatening Alawites: “By Almighty God, we will mince in meat-grinders and feed to dogs anyone from this sect who is proved to be involved in fighting with the regime.”
Syria’s conscript-based army contains members of all the country’s sects, though some analysts say its officers are drawn more heavily from minority groups. However, shabbiha (pro-regime militias) believed to have committed the bloodiest massacres, such as that of Homs’ Houla, a mainly Sunni town, where according to media reports 108 people were killed, are often held to be largely from one sect loyal to the regime. But this is not always true. Online footage shot on July 31 purportedly shows Syrian rebels executing regime loyalists from Aleppo’s powerful Berri clan, a Sunni family clearly targeted by non-sect-based revenge.
Sectarian ideology has, however, translated into violence on the ground in some places, including many suburbs of Hama and Homs where anti-government militias have targeted Alawites.
But many Syrians, particularly residents of multi-sect Damascus, say the chances of a sectarian-based civil war are slim. “We have always fasted with Muslims,” said Lama, 36, a Christian resident of the Damascus suburb Jaramana, adding that she cannot envisage this coexistence ending up in “Syrian [civilians] killing one another” over religious differences.
Nevertheless, a member of the UN observer mission in Syria with experience in Iraq and the Balkans told Syria Today on condition of anonymity that “it will be a civil war in the end, between Sunni (more or less) against all others (more or less). Right now it is not, as the parties are not clearly defined.”
“Until now the conflict has been between the majority Sunni fighters and the Alawites in formal and informal regime forces,” says Peter Harling of the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based lobby group. “The involvement of other minority civilian militias could be disastrous.”
Gilbert Achcar, a professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, told London-based daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi on August 24 that the Syrian conflict was not a sectarian war but a civil, “political” one caused by late president Hafez al-Assad’s restructuring of the Syrian armed forces “on the basis of sectarianism.”
Hassan Abbas, a researcher at the French Institute of the Near East in Damascus, agreed that “the regime is responsible for sectarianism,” adding that the Syrian conflict is not sectarian, but rather a political, Spanish-style civil war “between two parts [of the country] over the mechanism of ruling.”
Some observers believe the government’s failure to establish a citizen-based society also contributed to sectarian tensions. Many cite the government’s suppression of the “Damascus Spring” which flowered in the brief easing of state political control following President Bashar al-Assad’s accession to power in July 2000. Culminating in the “Damascus Declaration for Democratic National Change”, signed in 2005 by many well- known figures of all backgrounds and sects, which aimed at building a modern state based on citizenship. The initiative was subsequently suppressed and some signatories, such as Michel Kilo, were arrested.
“The regime could have consolidated citizenship but instead it consolidated sectarianism,” said Bassam al-Kadi, director of the Syrian Women’s Observatory, referring to the alliance the government formed with certain Islamic figures, including prominent Sunni sheikhs, to win over the majority Sunnis.
Fears of division
Some analysts, however, say Syria’s political future could be partly determined by sectarian divisions. Others argue that the regime has already abandoned its north-eastern province to its mainly Kurdish inhabitants, citing the appearance of the forbidden Kurdish flag on some public buildings in Qamishli and other areas. One resident of a Kurdish area north of Aleppo who requested anonymity told Syria Today that unlike before the uprising began, Kurdish militias are largely allowed to man their own checkpoints as long as no violence results.
Fawaz Gerges, professor of Middle Eastern Politics at the London School of Economics, argued that “the Syrian Kurds...are laying the foundation for an autonomous region like their counterparts in Iraq,” the BBC news website reported on August 10.
This has sparked fears that other Syrian provinces, including eastern Deir ez-Zor and the coastal cities, could follow suit if the regime collapses. Abdel Bari Atwan, editor-in-chief of London-based daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi, warned on August 6 in the Turkish daily Star Gazete about the “current drive for fragmentation” in Syria, especially given “a general climate of sectarianism, mistrust and fear, [and] organizations and militias springing up based on narrow, local agendas”.
Dagher, however, insisted that the context of the Syrian uprising--the “Arab Spring” which entailed the ouster of many long-ruling Arab leaders—links it inseparably to these revolutions. Therefore, he argued, while the conflict might include “sectarian trespasses”, the popular peaceful uprising demanding freedom remains its heart.