Friday,17 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1171, (7 - 13 November 2013)
Friday,17 August, 2018
Issue 1171, (7 - 13 November 2013)

Ahram Weekly

Syria’s inferno

Foreign fighters flowing into Syria have inflamed long-dormant tensions during the country’s civil conflict, writes Bassel Oudat from Damascus

Al-Ahram Weekly

The Syrian revolutionaries could hardly have seen the present situation coming. Theirs was a movement for freedom and dignity, democracy and pluralism. But the turmoil that followed its start, fuelled by the regime’s merciless fight for sheer life, has turned political animosity into sectarian confrontation.

The conflict in Syria has now developed into a civil war pitting the ruling Shia minority against the Sunni majority with disturbing implications not only for the embattled nation but also for the entire region.

A few months after the revolution started, the regime recruited men from the Alawite clan of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad to fight against the opposition. The Alawite militias went by many names, calling themselves at times “popular committees”, or pretending to be an “army of national defence”. Sometimes the members of these militias were known more directly as shabbiha, or gangsters.

More brutal in their tactics than the regular army, these militias were let loose to kill, torture and rob the regime’s opponents. Some Alawite civilian groups, such as Al-Mortada and Al-Bostan, doubled up as backers of the militias, offering them money and arms. The Alawite militias have been deployed in the countryside to fight alongside the army and in urban areas to man roadblocks.


FOREIGNERS STEP IN: However, despite such tactics the regime was teetering on the verge of collapse, and, a year or so into the revolution, the armed opposition had gained considerable momentum, inflicting substantial damage on the regime’s regular troops, occupying extensive amounts of territory and motivating thousands of regular army troops — some observers say up to 150,000 — to defect.

In a desperate struggle for survival, the regime brought in hundreds of Iranian officers, using them to train its forces in guerrilla tactics. In an even more remarkable move, the regime also engaged the services of the battle-hardened fighters of the Shia group Hizbullah, a long-term ally of both Damascus and Iran.

Then a trickle of Yemeni and Iraqi mercenaries, lured by money and motivated by sectarian zeal, also arrived, adding more tinder to the conflagration.

In early 2012, non-Syrian Shias working for a group calling itself the Abul-Fadl Al-Abbas Brigade, suddenly declared themselves to be the protectors of the tomb of Sayeda Zeinab in Damascus, a shrine venerated by both Sunni and Shia Muslims.

Iraqi, Lebanese, Iranian, and even Pakistani fighters then joined this effort. In early 2013, Hizbullah formally admitted its participation in the fighting alongside the regime, claiming to be fighting against an “imperialist conspiracy” against Syria and pan-Arabism.

The patriotism advocated by the regime and its non-Syrian helpers soon took on a sectarian flavour. Syrian activists posted video clips on the Internet showing Hizbullah fighters executing Syrian prisoners and in the same breath promising to defend Shias against their presumed Sunni antagonists. Some even pledged to avenge the Shias for the injustices that had befallen them at the hands of their Sunni rivals 12 centuries ago.

Non-Syrian fighters also helped the regime retain its control over the southern reaches of the country. In the course of the fighting, the Syrian revolutionaries captured some of the Shia combatants, and then released them in a prisoner swap. The news that non-Syrian Arabs were involved in the fighting was also embarrassing to their countries of origin.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari admitted that Shia fighters had fought in Syria, for example, but he said that their presence was not condoned by the Iraqi government and claimed that their numbers were in the hundreds, not the thousands, as the Syrian opposition has said.

Yemeni sources also revealed that hundreds of fighters from the country’s Huthi tribes were fighting in Syria. These Yemenis are first sent to training camps run by Hizbullah in Lebanon before deploying into Syria. According to Yemeni sources, about 200 Yemeni fighters arrived in Syria within the span of one week earlier this year.

Haitham Al-Maleh, of the legal department of the Syrian National Coalition of Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (SNCROF), believes that up to 60,000 non-Syrian Shia combatants may now be fighting alongside the regime in Syria. These fighters, from Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, and Lebanon, are doing most of the face-to-face fighting, he said, whereas the regime’s regular troops were mostly involved in aerial and artillery shelling.

Fahd Al-Masri, spokesman of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the main armed opposition to the regime, said that Hizbullah had sent nearly 14,000 men to Syria, one third of them positioned in Damascus and one third in Homs.

Speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly, Al-Masri said that Hizbullah had sent well-trained snipers to Lebanon to do the kind of brutal work that Syrians were reluctant to do. Syrian snipers had used to pretend to miss their targets, but Hizbullah’s fighters have no such qualms, he said. According to Al-Masri, more than 1,000 Hizbullah members have now died fighting in Syria.

According to Syrian Muslim Brotherhood member Motie Al-Batin, Shia fighters from the city of Al-Qatif in Saudi Arabia have also arrived in Syria and joined battle alongside Hizbullah and in favour of the regime.


SUNNI HARDLINERS RESPOND: As a result of the foreign forces flowing into Syria to aid the regime, the country’s revolutionaries eventually accepted offers of help from non-Syrian fighters belonging to Salafist and jihadist groups. Nearly 10,000 non-Syrian Sunni fighters are now believed to be fighting in the ranks of the opposition as a result.

Unable to resist the temptation of joining a regional war with a jihadist edge, Al-Qaeda has also sent operatives to Syria, thus offering the regime a chance to claim that it is fighting terrorism. However, despite the regime’s claims, there have been no confirmed reports of massacres committed by the Sunnis against the Shias or Alawites in Syria.

Syria’s Sunni community has also been shocked by the arrival of the non-Syrian fighters. The country’s Sunnis are critical of the jihadist groups, dislike their harsh interpretation of Islam, and don’t want them to settle in the country. Nevertheless, some Salafi preachers who had been thought to have maintained a peaceful stand have started to embrace a more militant interpretation of the faith since the conflict started.

Rivalry between the Alawite minority in Syria, making up some 10 per cent of the population, and the country’s Sunni majority, making up some 70 per cent, preceded the conflict in the country. It has existed over the past four decades of Alawite rule, but it has recently become more pronounced, perhaps as a result of the present conflict. 

When Hafez Al-Assad, the father of the current president, took power in Syria in a military coup in 1971, he allowed his Alawite clan to take control of the country’s security and intelligence services and the army. Non-Alawite civilian officials, including those in the cabinet and parliament, saw their power dwindle away as time went on.

According to Syrian opposition sources, more than 70 per cent of the country’s top civilian officials have been Alawite over recent decades, and nearly 90 per cent of academic grants have gone to Alawite students. Although the regime has done everything it can to help boost Shia communities in Syria, including those close to Iran, it has been much stricter with Sunni ones.

Punishment for membership of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood is death, for example, and other Sunni groups are allowed to operate, but only under strict security surveillance. The Alawites have had unfettered access to power and money, and they have won the lion’s share of government contracts, rented tourist facilities from the government at nominal prices, and bought land at cheap prices.

One of the Syrian president’s nephews now owns a string of companies said to be worth billions of dollars, for example. The massacres committed by the regime have also been meant to deepen the sectarian divide in Syria and make it hard for the Shias to live in peace with the Sunnis.

THE NEGLECTED MAJORITY: According to Syrian opposition sources, most of those who have been displaced in the conflict or have been made into refugees are Sunnis. By contrast, most Alawite villages and cities still remain relatively calm. In general, those towns and cities that have joined the revolution have a Sunni majority.

Syrian writer and researcher Fayez Sara said that since the Syrian Baath Party, the ruling party in Syria, acceded to power in 1963, sectarianism has become a recurrent issue. Speaking to the Weekly, Sara said that “instead of carrying out comprehensive reforms, the authorities have used political and police repression to tackle the problems the country faces. They are the ones who instigated the conflict between the Sunnis and the Alawites. The Syrian people, with their shared legacy and national awareness, are refusing to be drawn into a sectarian feud that could rip the country apart.”

Marawan Habash, a former Syrian government minister who has now joined the opposition, said that the heavy-handedness of the regime had been what had sent the country down the path of civil war. “A large proportion of the revolutionary brigades are careful not to use weapons for sectarian reasons, and thus far all attempts to push the armed resistance into sectarian war have failed. Those who demand freedom in Syria belong to all the country’s sects and creeds,” Habash said.

When the revolution started, many of the country’s Alawites voiced their fears of change and demanded guarantees from the opposition, perhaps another way of saying that they wished to retain their privileged status. Meanwhile, the revolutionaries themselves made it clear that the Syrian Alawites were part of the Syrian nation and therefore needed no particular set of guarantees.

Not all the country’s Alawites are supporters of the regime, and nor do they all benefit from its hold on power. Some Alawites, especially the intellectuals, view the regime’s policies with disapproval. Alawite activists have also claimed that the regime is using the Alawite community as cannon fodder for its war against the people, and they have urged their community to pledge loyalty to the nation rather than to their sect.

Several anti-regime Alawites have been arrested over the past few months, and Shia scholars abroad have been divided over the conflict in Syria. Ali Al-Sistani, Iraq’s most influential Shia scholar, has told Iraqis not to fight in support of the Syrian regime, for example. However, Tehran-based scholars have issued an opposing edict telling Shias that fighting in Syria is a religious duty.


RAMIFICATIONS OF THE CONFLICT: Although the regime has been attempting to give what is in essence a political conflict a sectarian gloss, many Syrians are determined to dispel the regime’s claims.

Syrian political activist Wael Al-Sawwah said that “the regime cannot rely even on the support of its own clan. Some Alawites support the regime, but hundreds of thousands of patriots in the Alawite community do not want to see their nation divided.” However, some hardline Sunni groups have been fuelling the sectarian strife in Syria through their tendency to view the regime and the Alawites as one and the same thing.

For Syrian opposition member Fawwaz Tallo the only way forward is to defeat the regime in battle. Speaking to the Weekly, Tallo said the entire Alawite community needed to be disarmed. Justice, he said, should apply to all Syrians, Alawite or otherwise.

Opposition members believe that the only way forward is for the Alawites now to disown the regime and to pledge allegiance to a truly civil state, one in which all citizens would be treated equally, regardless of sect or creed. The Syrian conflict will not continue forever, and the real challenge facing the country is whether its different communities will be able to put aside their sectarian mistrust once the guns fall silent.

Nearly 120,000 lives have been lost in the inferno of the past two years. This is a heavy legacy to carry into the future, and one that may make it harder for the communities in Syria to find reconciliation. The Syrian people not only need to win their battle for freedom against tyranny. They also need to be victorious in their war against prejudice and fanaticism.

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