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How Syria Descended Into Sectarian Hell (Part I)

Guest contributor Irfan Chowdhury on the sectarian nature of the ongoing conflict in Syria. This article is the first of a two-part series.

On March 6, 2011, as popular uprisings were spreading throughout the Arab world, several schoolboys in the Syrian city of Daraa inscribed anti-government graffiti on a wall and nearby grain silo. They were subsequently arrested by security forces and tortured. When news of their treatment spread, people in Daraa were outraged; torture was common in Syria, but torture of children was unheard of. On March 18, the city’s residents organised peaceful demonstrations to demand the children be released and that the governor of Daraa be sacked. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad reacted by sending the army into the streets of Daraa; five protesters were killed over the next three days.

After this initial bloodletting, the government agreed to the protesters’ demands; the children detained on March 6 were released, and the governor of Daraa was sacked. However, this did not calm the situation, as the people of Daraa were infuriated by the killings; as one resident put it: “We were asking in a peaceful way to release the children but their reply to us was bullets”.

Thus, the demonstrations continued, and the list of demands grew to include the release of all political prisoners and an end to the decades-old state of emergency in the region. While the government agreed to set up a committee to investigate the deaths of the protesters between March 18 and 20, several more protesters in Daraa were subsequently killed by the security forces on March 23. These killings outraged Syrians in other parts of the country. Demonstrations against the government broke out in Damascus and Homs; the security forces responded to these demonstrations with the same lethal force they had used against the ones in Daraa, which in turn caused more demonstrations to break out throughout the country. Within weeks, the protesters were no longer calling for reforms, but for Assad to step down.

The uprising was predominantly Sunni from the beginning – Syria was 75% Sunni in 2011 – though members of all sects participated. While Assad enacted reforms in an effort to appease the protesters, the regular massacres that were being carried out by the security forces destroyed any possibility of dialogue between the two sides. Torture of protesters – including children – was systematic; perhaps the most notorious case was that of Hamza al-Khateeb, a 13-year-old boy who was arrested by security forces while attending a demonstration and was tortured to death.

By October 2011, around 3,000 people had been killed by the security forces, including at least 187 children. Meanwhile, dozens of soldiers had been killed by armed opposition groups, separate from the peaceful demonstrations. Some Sunnis continued to support the government, particularly in Damascus and Aleppo, while others didn’t give their full backing to either side. A Qatari-run poll in December 2011 found that 55% of Syrians were against Assad stepping down because they feared that a civil war would ensue, although half of those who had that opinion believed he would enact free and fair elections in the near future.

Christians make up around 10% of the Syrian population at the time. Although some Christians did participate in the uprising, the majority who did not flee the country backed the government, as they feared that they would be subject to Islamist persecution if it fell. The same is true of Alawites, who also make up around 10% of the population; most backed the government, not because they receive special privileges for the most part – the poorest areas in Syria are Alawite areas – but because prior to Hafez al-Assad’s seizure of power in 1970, they were severely persecuted due to their religious beliefs, which Sunni fundamentalists regard as heretical.

Under the secular regime the Assads installed, Alawites have not been discriminated against and have been empowered to integrate into Syrian society; many of them strongly identify with the state, and some adhere to the cult of personality that Bashar al-Assad has created for himself. Many Alawites feared that if the predominantly Sunni uprising succeeded in toppling Assad, they would once again be marginalised and repressed. Nir Rosen wrote in 2011: “An Alawite friend told me he was outraged after seeing Sunni demonstrators in Latakia on television, chanting that they would send President Bashar ‘back to the farm’. To him it meant that Sunnis wanted Alawites to go back to their villages”.

This paranoia led some Alawites to join the Shabiha – paramilitaries loyal to the government who attempted to terrorise rebellious areas into submission. In May 2012, an Alawite Shabiha unit massacred over a hundred Sunni civilians in the town of Houla. As Rosen has noted, the government itself is not sectarian – Sunnis are well represented in its security institutions and hold prominent leadership positions; the majority of soldiers in the Syrian Army are Sunni, and there are Sunni Shabiha units – but the Alawite Shabiha units often committed atrocities on a sectarian basis.

Likewise, the general loyalty of Alawites to the government created sectarian sentiment among elements within the Sunni opposition; in July 2011, three Alawites were killed and their bodies mutilated in Homs. In November 2011, in the same city, dozens of Alawite civilians were massacred by members of the armed opposition (apparently as revenge for attacks on Sunni civilians by Alawite Shabiha units). After this massacre, a local activist named Mohammed Saleh commented: “The killing is sectarian, and it is being perpetuated by revenge without moral limits or rules… The situation is out of hand, and there is nothing that can hold it in check”. There were also reports of Alawite families being expelled from Sunni villages elsewhere in the country.

The Free Syrian Army (FSA) was initially the dominant group within the armed opposition. It was formed in July 2011, and the vast majority of its fighters were regular civilians who decided to take up arms in order to defend themselves from security forces and the Shabiha, although some were also defectors from the Syrian Army. By late 2011, the FSA was carrying out guerrilla warfare against the security forces and the Shabiha, with the intention of overthrowing the government and establishing a democratic state. According to Charles Glass, the majority of protesters initially wanted the uprising to remain peaceful, as they recognised that the government was not used to dealing with mass nonviolent civil disobedience, whereas it was very adept at dealing with violence; for example, Hafez al-Assad successfully crushed an armed revolt by the Muslim Brotherhood in 1982. Nevertheless, some within the protest movement opted for armed resistance, and this was encouraged by foreign powers – America, Britain, France, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey – which stepped in to provide arms. By 2012, the peaceful demonstrations had been largely displaced by the armed resistance.

America began transferring Libyan weapons and fighters to the FSA in late 2011, while Britain and France trained FSA fighters. Throughout 2012, the FSA continued to receive weapons from Libya with the assistance of America and Britain; Britain continued to train FSA fighters and began providing them with logistical support, while France provided them financial aid. Turkey also provided them with training. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and Qatar gave weapons to Salafist groups with the assistance of Turkey – this happened with tacit American authorisation. Although the FSA officially advocated democracy, it often carried out military operations in cooperation with the Salafist groups, which advocated the establishment of a non-democratic Islamic state. On the other side of the conflict, Russia and Iran provided weapons to the government in order to prevent its collapse (while simultaneously trying to foster a political solution). According to former Finnish President and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Martti Ahtisaari, Russia proposed a diplomatic settlement for the conflict in February 2012 in which Assad would gradually cede power during a process of dialogue between the government and the opposition; however, this proposal was ignored by America, Britain, and France, whose leaders were convinced that Assad was on the verge of being overthrown.

This turned out to be a tragically misguided assessment of the situation, and the resultant decision by America, Britain, and France to pursue a military solution over a political solution has been morally and strategically catastrophic; the conflict is still ongoing after nine years, and hundreds of thousands of Syrians have been killed, while millions more have been forced to flee the country and become refugees. In Part II of this article, I discuss how the conflict became a predominantly sectarian one as the violence on both sides escalated, and how the Salafist groups ultimately came to dominate the armed opposition.

Irfan Chowdhury


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