The National Catholic Review
Margot Patterson
As protests continue, the specter of sectarian strife looms.
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Six months after the Syrian uprising began, the protesters and the regime of President Bashar al-Assad remain locked in a protracted struggle. The regime has not been able to suppress the protests, and the protesters have not been able to topple the regime. The outcome is still uncertain, but time is not on the side of the government. The economy is crumbling, and the regime is increasingly isolated by the international community.

A French member of a religious order who has lived in Syria for many years describes this fraught period in the country’s history: “Information is very contradictory, and each person recounts what he has seen and heard and has a tendency to generalize: an incident or attack is presented as if it is like that everywhere. There is nothing clear, either in the news or in its interpretation. Who shot first? Who responded? Who is aiding the conflict from outside?”

If people in Syria find it hard to discern what is going on, observers outside the country are at an even greater disadvantage. Western news media have focused on the courageous defiance by the protesters and the violence of the government crackdown but have paid less attention to the context in which the protests are taking place and to their effect on a country that has prided itself on its secular government and its tolerant, pluralistic society. Inside and outside of Syria, some wonder if it will remain so.

Fawaz Gerges, the director of the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics, visited Syria recently and reports that many Syrians are “terrified of the morning after.”

“The silent majority, more than 50 percent, remain on the sidelines,” he says. “The silent majority worries about descending into all-out war, like neighboring Iraq and Lebanon. That’s what the Assad regime is capitalizing on...that the silent majority will not only remain passive but basically support the existing power structure.”

Assad and Religious Minorities

Syria is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious society; it includes Arabs, Kurds, Circassians, Armenians and a variety of faiths and sects. Concerns about the future are particularly keen among religious minorities, who, together with a prosperous Sunni merchant class, have supported the Assad regime since it came to power in 1970. The Assad family is Alawite, a historically poor and disenfranchised minority in Syria comprising about 12 percent of the population. Another 10 percent of the population are Christian, who range from Greek and Syrian Orthodox to Melkite Catholics, Armenian Catholics, Assyrian Catholics, Maronite Catholics, members of the Armenian Apostolic Church and a smattering of Protestants. Druze account for about 3 percent of the population, with smaller numbers of Shiites and Yazidis. About 74 percent of the population are Sunni Muslims.

With protesters calling for an end to the Assad regime, religious minorities are nervous about what would follow should the regime fall.

“The regime has positioned itself as the protector of minorities. There are fears among Christians, Druze, Alawites that if the regime falls, there may be vengeance,” says Mohamad Bazzi, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. “There may be Islamists or Islamist-leaning figures who take power; there may be score-settling.”

Members of the Syrian opposition say such fears are unfounded. They point to the fact that the opposition draws from all sects, including Christians and Alawites. They emphasize Syria’s long tradition of religious pluralism and speak of the spirit of unity prevailing among the demonstrators. The Friday protests have been given different names to express the inclusivity of the protesters and the diversity of their backgrounds. Thus, Azadi Friday was named for the Kurds, after the Kurdish word for freedom. The Friday protest on Easter weekend was called Azime Friday, Good Friday, in honor of Christians. Protest organizers have been quick to suppress signs of sectarianism among the demonstrators. At one point the Facebook group The Syrian Revolution 2011, which has more than 200,000 followers and has played an important role in the uprising, listed a code of ethics against sectarianism.

Like other Arab countries roiled by protests this year, Syria has a young population and high unemployment. Since coming to office after his father’s death in 2000, President Bashar al-Assad has liberalized Syria’s socialist economy, a move that has led to increased corruption and a growing gap between rich and poor.

Since the protests began, Mr. Assad has made some concessions to demonstrators’ demands, like lifting emergency rule, and has promised more, even as his government continues to respond to the protests with lethal force. When addressing Syrians, he emphasizes unity, security and stability, warning that if Syrians divide along sectarian lines, they will fall prey to Saudi fundamentalists or to the “Zionist agenda,” to civil war and to manipulation by outside powers. The choice he outlines is between Syria becoming a political football kicked around by others, like Iraq and Lebanon, or remaining an independent player on the regional and international scene. It is an argument that still holds sway with many Syrians.

In response, members of the opposition accuse the government of promoting the very sectarianism it condemns. “The regime is playing on sectarian fears, especially among the Alawite community,” says Radwan Ziadeh, the founder in Syria of the Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies and the executive director of the Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Concerns in Washington, D.C.

Mr. Ziadeh says the diversity and unity of the protesters guarantee that Syria will not fall into sectarian conflict after the Assad regime falls: “The uprising in Syria is across the sects. Christians have been killed in the uprising. Alawites have been killed. This is why it is clear there will not be any religious clashes.”

But fears of sectarian strife remain. While members of the opposition play down this possibility, many observers do not.

“I think the risk is real, particularly for the Alawites, in terms of vendettas and retribution for the crackdown in recent months and for past actions,” says David Lesch, the author of The New Lion of Damascus: Bashar al-Asad and Modern Syria. “It could be potentially dangerous for other minorities, Christian minorities and Druze, who have tended to side with the regime and whom the regime has courted over the years and co-opted into supporting the government.”

The Fate of Christians

Those who work with Christian communities in Syria report that Christians are anxious. Vivian Manneh, the emergency regional manager for Catholic Relief Services, works with churches in Syria to provide assistance to Iraqi refugees living there.

“It’s very sensitive, the whole situation for Christians,” she says. “They feel that minorities are protected under the current regime. They are worried about what is happening and how this is going to affect them. A lot of people I talked to were saying the demonstrators are not coming with a clear agenda of what they want. If they want to change the regime, O.K. Who is the alternative? What is the request?”

Christians cannot help but be troubled by the example of neighboring Iraq, says Michel Constantin, director of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association’s programs for Christians in Lebanon, Egypt and Syria. In Iraq, Christians were protected by Saddam Hussein, he notes. When his regime was toppled, Iraqi Christians were viewed as collaborators and targeted accordingly.

An old saying in Syria, that the Christians run between the legs of the Sunnis and the Alawites, describes the cautious behavior Christians usually have adopted in steering their path through Syrian society. But the middle road is not necessarily a safe one in revolutionary times. That some Christian bishops and clerics in Syria have expressed public support for the Assad regime has already evoked criticisms from some Syrians, warning that the Sunni majority will remember Christian support for Assad’s “misrule.”

The Muslim Brotherhood and other political parties are banned in Syria. How Sunnis would treat Christians in a post-Assad Syria is an open question.

“On the surface, we say there are excellent relations between all Christians and Muslim groups, but if the regime is not there anymore, would that be sustainable?” asks Mr. Constantin. “We don’t really know the feeling of the Sunnis toward the Christians. We know relations between Christians in general and Alawites will sustain because they are both minorities.”

On both sides of the conflict, views have hardened. Six months ago, Bashar al-Assad was seen as a young, popular leader whose country was unlikely to see the kind of turmoil that is affecting Egypt and Tunisia. The initial demands of the protesters were for reform, not revolution. But the many killings and arrests by the government have radicalized the demonstrators. The ongoing turmoil has had a similar effect on regime supporters.

Radical Divide

Polarization along sectarian lines is growing in Syria. “The rhetoric is growing really nasty,” says Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. The opposition accuses the government of using Alawites to kill Sunnis, a charge that is incendiary but not without truth, as the Alawites hold key positions in the military and security forces and the regime has often used predominantly Alawite forces to confront the protesters. With Iran and Hezbollah supporting the government, the opposition has turned against both and burned the flag of Hezbollah as well as the Russian flag—an attempt by the opposition to demonstrate it rejects the entire foreign policy of Syria.

Particularly alarming to Christians and Alawites was a chant heard among protesters on the outskirts of Damascus: “Christians to Beirut and Alawites to the grave,” a slogan that could not fail to send a shiver of apprehension through both communities.

In fact both the opposition and the regime, though they decry sectarianism, seem at times to be playing to sectarian undercurrents. As a minority regime, the government cannot risk offending the Sunni Muslim majority; but in a move that seems aimed at scaring secular Sunnis and religious minorities, the government has highlighted the presence of extremist Islamists among the protesters. The opposition, for its part, sometimes makes use of freighted language that plays on anti-Alawite or anti-Shiite sentiment, thus capitalizing on Sunni-Shiite hostility that has worsened throughout the Middle East since the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

As hopeful signs, Syrians can point to both the remarkable discipline and unity the protesters have shown so far and to Syria’s history as a welcoming community to many different sects and faiths. A large Armenian Christian community lives in Syria, the descendants of refugees forced out of the Ottoman Empire during the Armenian genocide a century ago. Since the U.S. invasion of Iraq, about one million Iraqi refugees have found safe haven in Syria, including most of the Iraqi Christians forced to flee. Syrians point out that Syria’s first post-colonial prime minister was a Christian.

“Syria does not have any history of sectarian violence or religious conflict,” Mr. Ziadeh says. While true, Joshua Landis notes that sectarianism is never buried too far below any political question in Syria. While Syrians may wish to see themselves as superior to their Iraqi and Lebanese neighbors, whose political conflicts have spun into sectarian civil war, the same sectarian divisions threaten to tear at the communal fabric.

Why is sectarianism on the rise now? Syria has always been one of the most nationalist and least religious societies in the Middle East, Mr. Gerges notes. But in moments of tension, people fall back on familiar affiliations, whether with the church or the mosque. The sectarian divide in Syria is real but masks the greater fault lines that are economic and political—divides that in the last six or seven years have become particularly pronounced.

“One of the major blunders of the current regime is that it has allowed a tiny business minority to suck the blood out of the veins of the Syrian economy. This has fueled the current tensions,” Mr. Gerges says. “The sectarian tensions are also fueled by the economic and social tensions. There are many poor Alawites, but most of the poor tend to be Sunnis.”

A Missed Chance

Is a dialogue between the protesters and the regime still possible? Opposition members say a prerequisite for dialogue is an end to violence against protesters. Some opposition leaders say it is too late for dialogue; too much blood has been spilled by the government. Between an emboldened opposition and a government that has acted brutally and clumsily, prospects for dialogue seem tenuous.

“At this stage, I really doubt that there is anything the Assad regime can do to satisfy the appetites of the opposition. The more he offers, the greater the appetite of the opposition, because the opposition now is no longer interested in tinkering with the system. They want to overhaul the system,” Mr. Gerges says.

Reports of arms flowing into Syria from Iraq and Lebanon raise concerns that violence could escalate. Sectarian killings in July are a disturbing sign of where the conflict could go. On both sides, there is fear. Demonstrators believe that if they stop their demonstrations, the regime will crack down even harder on them, tracking them down and punishing them.

The supporters of the regime have their own fears, from worry about political and economic uncertainty to fears of social upheaval, economic collapse, ethnic cleansing and war.

Can Syria escape the worst of these fates? Opposition members say it can. Revolutions are unpredictable, and the end game is still not in sight, but they may have the chance to prove their case.

Margot Patterson is a freelance journalist who visited Syria in March. A longer version of this article is available at americamagazine.org.