The Syrian government has been accused of purposefully stroking sectarian tensions in an effort to increase the risk of overthrowing the regime. It is true that Syria is a sectarian society with around 66% Sunni, 15% Alawite (which is considered an offshoot of Shi’ism), 10% Christian and a mix of others, including traditional Shi’ites. The protests certainly do have a sectarian shade to them as the political and military leaders of the country are nearly all Alawites (although traditionally the Assad regime, dating back to the elder, has attempted to downplay the sectarian card). Moreover, the two largest cities – Aleppo and Damascus – have generally refrained from protesting due to a mix of fear of reprisals (both are dominated by those sympathetic to the regime) and a large population of Sunni businessmen who have profited from Assad’s economic reforms. In other words, Assad has been able to stay in power by placating the Sunni majority with targeted economic liberalization.
Yet with the concerns of sectarian civil war looming large, despite the organization displayed by the various sects and tribes that gathered in Turkey last week. In any event the government has much to gain from creating a sense – real or simply perceived – of impending sectarian violence. Domestically, the prospect of sectarian warfare may be enough to damper the protest movement (in addition to a healthy dose of fear). Internationally, the idea of sectarian war runs hand in hand with the fear that a post-Assad leader could move farther away from the west and further threaten the security of Israel. It is, though, impossible to say that sectarianism is not an issue in Syria. From Pulse Media editor Robin Yassin-Kassab:
There are two poles of Syrian existence and you can’t ignore either one of them. One of them is the sectarianism which is bad, it exists. We can’t pretend it doesn’t exist and among some people it exists quite strongly. On the other hand, there is this ancient, thousands of years old, before Islam and Christianity really, this ancient tradition in Syria of different groups living together in peace and coexisting. And Syrian history kind of oscillates between poles.
Although there certainly seems to be every indication that the country is slowly but surely moving towards a civil war, it is far from certain that the existing sectarianism in Syria is or will play a major role in the future of the conflict. The exiled Syrian community that met in Antalya in Turkey last week certainly was a prime example of the unity between traditionally feuding sects, as nearly representatives from nearly every sect and tribe throughout Syria came together. Furthermore, while the potential civil war might be presented as a sectarian affair by the government, the opposition to the Assad government clearly extends throughout every part of Syrian society.
For now, it seems sectarian violence is rather unlikely as the protests have evolved with a strict dichotomy of government vs. opposition, more or less regardless of sect or tribe. While a majority of Alawites and urban, upper-class Sunnis still support the government, the opposition is a mix of all Syria’s various sects. If the Assad government were to fall quickly and completely, however, the resulting power vacuum could certainly present the opportunity for old tribal feuds to reignite or for minority tribes to seek protection from discrimination by seizing power. Indeed, any type of immediate transition that dismantles all of the the existing Syrian state infrastructure should be avoided as it would simply increase the likelihood of post-revolutionary conflict. In this way, the government’s predictions of sectarian violence could come to fruition if the entire government is brought down. However, if the opposition were able to allow a peaceful, democratic and – perhaps more importantly – gradual transition of power, sectarian strife would be avoided.
Photo from MidEast Posts