Just posted to our Web site, Margot Patterson on the threat of sectarian conflict in Syria:
With protesters calling for the downfall of the Assad regime, religious minorities are nervous of what will follow should the regime fall—and what kind of treatment they will receive in the interim.
“The regime has positioned itself as the protector of minorities. There are fears within 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-learning figures who take power; there may be score settling.”
Members of the Syrian opposition say that 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, “Great” or “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 following his father’s death in 2000, Bashar Al Assad has liberalized Syria’s command economy, a move which has led to increased corruption and a growing gap between rich and poor. Neither the opposition nor the government is talking much about what could be done to improve Syrians’ economic prospects, however, and the economic grievances fueling protests across the Middle East have received relatively little attention in the West.
Since the protests began, Assad has made some concessions to demonstrators’ demands—lifting emergency rule, for instance—and has promised more even while his government continues to respond to the protests with lethal force. In 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 outside powers that will then have their way with Syria. The choice he outlines is between Syria becoming a political football, like Iraq and Lebanon, or being an active player on the regional and international scene.
It’s an argument that still holds purchase for a lot of 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.
Read the rest here.