This was first published at Foreign Policy.
From the start of the Syrian revolution, the Assad regime’s media have portrayed the overwhelmingly peaceful grassroots protest movement as a foreign-backed military assault. Its preferred catchall term to describe the tens of thousands of patriots it has kidnapped and tortured, as well as the thousands it has murdered, is “armed gangs.” Despite a series of televised “confessions,” the regime has not provided any serious proof of the supposed American-French-Qaeda-Israeli-Saudi-Qatari plot against the homeland. Nor has it explained the evident contradictions between its narrative and the thousands of YouTube videos and eyewitness accounts of security forces shooting rifles and artillery straight into unarmed crowds.
Of course it hasn’t. Yet its propaganda is taken seriously by Russian and Chinese state media, certain infantile leftists, and a vaguely prominent American academic.
Tragically, the propaganda is also taken seriously by members of Syria’s minority sects — not by all of them by any stretch, but perhaps by a majority. It’s tragic because perceived minority support for this sadistic regime will inevitably tarnish intersectarian relations in Syria in the future.
Those Sunni Syrians who are (understandably) enraged by the minorities’ siding with the dictatorship should remember first that many Alawis and Christians, as well as many more Druze and Ismailis, have joined the revolution and that many have paid the price. Second, Sunnis should remember that Alawis and Christians have good reason to fear change, if not to believe the propaganda.
Alawis have a complex, esoteric religion that throughout history has been savagely denounced, and its adherents savagely oppressed. Ultimately it’s a matter of political interpretation whether or not Alawis are to be considered Muslims. The Ottoman Empire didn’t even consider them “People of the Book,” which meant that unlike Christians, Jews, and mainstream Shiites, Alawis didn’t enjoy any legal rights. The ravings of the influential medieval scholar Ibn Taymiyya (who thought Alawis were “greater disbelievers than the Jews, Christians, and Indian idol-worshipping Brahmans”) contributed to their oppression and justified the theft of their lands around Aleppo and their forced retreat into the mountains. Until the 1920s, the Alawis were stuck in those mountains. Antakya (Antioch) was the only city where Alawis lived with Sunnis, and Antakya was gifted by France to Turkey before the independence of the modern Syrian state.
Most Alawis today are not particularly religious. Far from pushing Alawi tenets on the general populace, the Assads discouraged the study of the faith and repressed the traditional Alawi clerics. As a result, if individual Alawis do turn to religion, most tend to practice Sunni or mainstream Shiite rituals.
Of course, as far as the business of state is concerned, it should be entirely irrelevant whether or not Alawis are Muslims or even People of the Book. As Syrian citizens they should be guaranteed the same rights and the same access to political office as anyone else. It would help a great deal if revolutionary leaders and Sunni clerics were to state this as clearly and as often as possible. The blatant anti-Alawi sectarianism of Sheikh Adnan al-Arour (given prominence by Saudi Arabia) and Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi (given prominence by Al Jazeera), both supposed friends of the revolution, does not help at all. Speaking to “those [Alawis] who stood against us,” Arour recently promised, “I swear by God we will mince them in grinders and feed their flesh to the dogs.”
The one thing the regime has done intelligently in the last six months is to play on minorities’ fears. I know that prominent Alawis have been receiving threatening phone calls from unknown numbers, ostensibly from “Sunnis” but almost certainly from the mukhabarat. (How would street-level Sunnis get hold of the phone numbers, and why would they want to make such threats when the committees coordinating the protests are stressing the importance of avoiding sectarianism?)
The minorities — and not only the minorities — also fear the fate of Iraq and Lebanon. When Saddam Hussein fell in Iraq, the Sunni community as a whole was blamed for the crimes of the whiskey-quaffing dictator. The Sunnis then gave shelter to Wahhabi nihilists who bombed Shiite civilians and drove a large chunk of the Christian community into Syria. So will all Alawis be blamed for the Assads? Will they be returned to their pre-1920s status? Will Christians lose Syria, the one place in the Arab world where they have prospered and practiced their faith unmolested?
These fears are understandable but misplaced. The French established Lebanon as a sectarian state with a sectarian constitution. In the Lebanese context, therefore, sectarian identity immediately and inevitably slides into political identity. And a massive influx of Palestinian refugees was the catalyst for its last civil war. In Iraq, where a third of marriages before 2003 were cross-sect, the catalyst was American occupation. The different communities responded differently to the U.S. presence and then regarded each other as traitors. Worse, the Americans sent Shiite and Kurdish militias to pacify restive Sunni areas, which brought a predictable response. In Syria, it’s the regime that plays the American role, arming Alawi villagers to attack Sunni cities.
Those Christians and Alawis who still support Assad should have more faith in the Syrian people and Syria’s future. They should recognize that this regime is finished, sooner or later, now that Europe, the Arabs, and Turkey are against it, now that even schoolchildren are rising. The one sure way to ensure minority rights is for minorities to enter the revolution and fight for their vision of the future. It is not dignified to support, actively or passively, a regime that commits massive and repeated atrocities — such as the recent dismemberment of Zainab al-Hosni, a wanted activist’s 18-year-old sister. It is possible to join the revolution, or at least to desist from slandering it, and at the same time express legitimate fears of what the future may hold.
Beyond fear, some oppose the revolution out of crude Islamophobia. It’s a mistake to assume that only the majority community is guilty of prejudice. A medical student I know once rented a room from Christians in Aleppo — until they discovered she was a Muslim. “We like you very much,” they told her, “but what would the neighbors say?” Too many Syrians, like too many Westerners, assume a murderous agenda lurks behind every beard and headscarf. These people should get out of their privileged neighborhoods more often and talk to a wider circle.
Syrian sectarianism is not inevitable. The other pole of Syrian life is almost universal pride in the country’s diversity and the ancient, urbane cosmopolitanism that is far more deeply rooted than current Salafi fashions. Alawis and Christians reached prominent positions long before anyone had ever heard of the Assads. And why have Arabs become so much more tribally religious in recent decades? One reason must be the general social stagnation and failure born of dictatorship. The revolution, so far at least, has set a different discourse in motion. The protesters chant, “The Syrian People Are One.” At the demonstrations, religious Sunnis, secularists, Alawis, and leftists recognize themselves in each other’s eyes. This is a new phenomenon, and one to be encouraged.
The two scenarios that most terrify the minorities (and almost everyone else) are, first, the rise of intolerant Islamism, and, second, sectarian civil war. Unfortunately, both scenarios become more likely with every moment the regime remains in power. The experience of being shot at, besieged, and tortured will inevitably drive some toward Islamist despair. In addition, the military units slaughtering the people are overwhelmingly Alawi and commanded by Alawis. The regime’s shabiha militias in Hama, Homs, and Latakia are Alawis recruited from the surrounding villages. These are the people torturing Sunni women and children to death, burning shops and cars, beating and humiliating old men. Their actions will have consequences. If the regime falls soon, the consequences will be legal and targeted solely at the guilty. If the regime doesn’t fall soon, the consequences may be violent, generalized vigilante “justice.” Then Iraq and Lebanon will become Syria’s models.
Syria is now a pre-civil war environment. More defectors are joining the Free Syrian Army, which has announced several engagements with regime forces in defense of unarmed civilians. Armed groups like the Khaled bin al-Walid Battalion and the Ali bin Abi Taleb Battalion have declared their existence. These forces are relatively strong in Idlib province’s Jabal al-Zawiya and in the towns around Homs.
The Syrian National Council, the Local Coordination Committees, and like-minded protest organizers are sticking to their nonviolent line. Their argument is logical: Violent resistance would offer the regime an excuse for greater massacres, and the opposition would be vastly outgunned. Yet after six months of suffering, the weaponization of the revolution begins to look unstoppable. Many have realized that the regime will refuse to abdicate unless it is physically forced to do so, even at the cost of destroying the country. In this context it seems wisest for principled democrats to cooperate with the Free Syrian Army to ensure that all armed men are under central, nonsectarian command. Otherwise the regime’s “armed gangs” propaganda may become a self-fulfilling prophecy.