Refused, confused or pleased to be sectarian in Syria?


The author interviews the FSA and ponders its relationship to sectarianism in the wider context.


Rita from Syria
6 August 2012

Samer was always to be found in the front row of the peaceful demonstrations in the city of Damascus. He was forever at the forefront leading the demonstrators with his loud, echoing chant of "peaceful, peaceful, Muslims and Christians, Sunni, Druze and Alawi." Samer had never had the chance to go to University. Yet, he became engaged in student politics in the wake of the revolution; joining an independent grassroots youth association which was promptly banned by the regime. The continual and violent repression of peaceful demonstrations over the months of the revolution combined with mass and arbitrary arrests of civil society activists (including Samer’s brother) and the prevalent and widespread use of severe torture in detention centres seems to have made Syrian opposition activists - like Samer - lose faith in the effectiveness of the strategy of non-violence.

“You can’t dent the barrel of a tank with a white rose.” That's what Samer told me when I asked him about the reason for his transformation from a peaceful revolutionary to a rebel fighter in the FSA. "I felt myself increasingly detached from reality. I was going on peaceful protests while people all around me were getting killed by heavy weapons," he added. Samer is one of the many young Syrians who have turned to taking up arms and who have joined the FSA.

It did not stop there. Samer, who has long advocated against sectarian slogans and dodged the bullets of the security forces along with other Syrian activists from all communities, has himself become increasingly sectarian. On July 22, a week into the the military assault by regime forces on Damascus, batallions of the FSA had moved into the neighbourhoods where the fighting was at its fiercest.  The battalion to which Samer belongs arrested two young 'Alawi men’ passing through a checkpoint in a civilian car. Despite the fact that the two young men were civilians and seemingly had no connection with the violence and repression carried out by the Shabīha (a high proportion of whom are from the Alawi sect), Samer was one of the voices in the batallion who called for a summary roadside execution of the young men. Their only crime: they were Alawi. “The regime is the one who made us sectarian when it killed and tortured people from our community. The Alawis and all of those who have stood by the regime must bear the consequences of the injustice that has been inflicted on us”, he told me.

Given that the FSA is not a regular army, and precisely because it has a rhizomatic structure which offers little by way of combat guidelines, the  local battalion commander is in charge. It is he who has the first and the last word on taking decisions in battle. However, in matters pertaining to ethical issues, deference is given to recognised clerics assigned to each battalion. In this case the clerics advising the battalions, based both in Damascus and abroad, ruled that there was no evidence incriminating the young men of being party to sectarian violence and as such they should be released without harm. However, during a thorough search of their vehicle a notebook was found containing defamatory remarks against the Sunni community insulting Abu Bakr as-Sadiq and Umar bin Khattab, close companions of the Prophet Muhammad and two of the greatest symbols of Sunni Islam. It was the insults attacking the honour of Prophet Muhammad's wife, Aisha, and accusing her of adultery, which provoked the greatest reaction among the battalion. Enraged, some members of the battalion took it upon themselves to overturn the decision of the clerics and shot the two young men dead.

The young Alawi men were given a roadside burial by their executioners because in spite of everything that happens amongst the living, in spite of all the humiliations the living suffer, Samer was insistent that, “the rights of the dead must always be honoured.”

In an earlier meeting I'd had with the commander of Samir's regiment we touched on the subject of sectarianism. He told me that the system of privilege sponsored by the regime denied those graduates from across all sects including the Alawi sect, who did not have regime connections, any viable career opportunities. Instead, they were left to eke out low-paid menial work on construction sites. This was more so in the case of graduates from the Sunni sect. For this batallion commander, the regime's actions since the uprising began have cemented the perception that the regime is openly sectarian against the Sunni sect. He told me: 

“The regime has managed to play the sectarian card succesfully. It has led an assault on the sanctity of mosques and the Qur'an. It has targeted the Sunni community; commiting murder and torture. For me, the persecution of my brothers is easier to handle than the persecution of my faith. That is something I cannot forgive the regime for. I can't forgive a regime that made Bashar al-Assad a God and tried to force the detainees to worship his image."
However, the regiment commander - who is studying Islamic jurisprudence -  was against the execution of the two young Alawis, because it seemed to him they were the innocent victims of a sectarian mobilization instigated by the regime. This is what we must all bear in mind. Although, events are increasingly taking a sectarian hue on the ground, the regime it must be remembered has been and continues to be an alliance between well-heeled Sunnis and Alawis.

This incident reflects the diversity of opinion and practice in the ranks of the  opposition in the Syrian street - especially among the fighters of the FSA – regarding the sectarian dimension to the conflict. A sectarianism of varying degrees and intensities which I believe is contingent on the extent of interaction between different communities. When the discussion within members of the Sunni community veers towards sectarianism, the negative reaction often centres on the Alawi community (widely seen as allied with the Syrian regime) and the Shi'i minority (widely regarded as having allegiances to the Iranian regime) without any mention of the remaining communities and minorities in Syria. In contrast, the Isma'ili community which has taken part in the revolution since its beginnings is viewed as an ally by Sunnis, as are the Druze who have resisted regular attempts by the regime to sow discord between them and their Sunni neighbors in the neighbouring city of Der'aa.

It seems that this so-called sectarian impulse which governs some Syrians is a direct consequence of a system of privileges maintained by the regime. This is a regime which has long indulged in sectarian politics to maintain its grip on power. Its obsession with curtailing the religious freedoms of some groups under the pretext of maintaining security in the country has only served to pent up past grievances. The sense I get from speaking to members of the FSA is that the trend towards sectarianism  springs from the failure of the regime to address legitmiate grievances rather than any inherent hostility against different communities based on ideological grounds. This is what marks it in distinction to al-Qaeda inspired groups who declare anyone holding an opinion and doctrine contary to theirs a non-believer. Instead, what we see happening in Syria is completely different. It is not the presence of Salafi-Jihadists among Syrians which has produced sectarianism, but sectarianism has emerged for political reasons, and in particular the unqualified support of large numbers of the Alawi and Shi'i communities for the regime.

And what of the Alawis? Any mention of regime corruption or cronyism or talk of usurped civil and political rights with an Alawi supporter of the regime, and the discussion immediately veers off at a sectarian tangent with the regime supporter proclaiming: “anything is more palatable than Sunni rule”. Buried in this one sentence is an admission of regime corruption and its usurpation of the rights of ordinary Syrians as well as a defence of the status quo. For an Alawi supporter of the regime, this is a battle for survival and any potential change will likely marginalise the Alawis and hand power over to the Sunni sect. In their view, this won't lead simply to the loss of privileges and control over state institutions. Nor will it simply neutralise the influence of the Alawi sect socially and politically, but what is at stake is the threat of being exposed to a massacre or even worse on the basis of their Alawi identity.

So the Syrian regime - which includes stakeholders from all sects - has been able to establish a bond between it and the Alawi sect, thereby creating social fractures between the many different sects which make up Syrian society. By doing so, the Allawi community has misconceived the regime's efforts at control and the setting of a sectarian agenda as being legitimate for their own protection.

Some of the Alawi villages in the coastal mountains, which are the traditional heartland of the Alawi community, to this day live by the light of kerosene lamps without any access to electricity. This is perhaps the most striking example of regime neglect. It provides the greatest evidence of the illusion of the sectarian bond between the Alawi community and the regime and reminds us instead of its political roots.

Sectarian tensions long simmering under the surface have boiled over. Today in Syria we find people talking about sectarianism openly in public. The tensions have been exacerbated by the fact that the sense of injustice has languished in the hearts of people for many long years. The causes of sectarianism in Syria are old rather than new; cumulative rather than sudden. What has changed now is that those inclined to do so openly admit their sectarianism without any sense of guilt. Each one looking to blame the other without seeking to bridge this widening chasm – a chasm which may end up consuming us all.

Thousand thanks to Tahir Zaman for translating this article.

This is the weekly-featured-column in This Week's Window on the Middle East; to stay up to date with our columnists, bookmark our You Tell Us page and follow the columnists on twitter.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData