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Is this a “Syrian Sunni” uprising? - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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The popular uprising that erupted in Syria 16 months ago has not been met with the same enthusiasm and support from a broad section of intellectuals and writers, both Arab and Western, compared to the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.

The reason – according to these intellectuals and writers – is that Tunisia and Egypt witnessed “peaceful revolutions”, while the uprisings in Libya and Syria morphed into civil wars. For them, the moral stance against the Ben Ali and Mubarak regimes was clear, whilst their stance towards the events in Libya and Syria is considerably more complicated. Libya witnessed external intervention from the Gulf States and European countries, through the Arab League and NATO, whilst in Syria there is an “armed revolution” led in the majority by the Sunnis, with Salafis and Islamists among the ranks.

Hence we find that Arab and Western intellectuals and writers are skeptical of the Syrian uprising, sometimes accusing it of sectarianism, fearing a civil war between different components of society, and at other times talking about how it is being dominated by fundamentalist Salafi groups or al-Qaeda, and hence warning against military support. Tariq Ali, the well-known left-wing writer, argued a few months ago that armed opposition against the al-Assad regime combined with Western intelligence would be nothing but an attempt to overthrow the regime and bring in a puppet colonial government. It is noteworthy that Tariq Ali, after all the battles that have taken place, is still calling for dialogue between the opposition and Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

It is natural for supporters of the opposition and resistance axis to support the Syrian regime, but it is interesting to see democracy activists and Western writers, including those who supported the Iraq war in 2003, warning that the fall of the Syrian regime would mean an open sectarian war between the Sunnis and the Alawites. In an interview with Vali Nasr – author of the book “The Shia Revival” – about the Syrian crisis, he warned of the growing Sunni fundamentalist dimension within the armed opposition, and that the fall of al-Assad would lead to a state of Sunni retaliation against Syrian minorities, especially the Alawite sect. Nasr said: “And now that there’s been so much bloodshed in Syria, there is palpable fear of a reprisal if the minorities ever lose power to the majorities” (What Syria’s Power Struggle Means, The Council on Foreign Relations, June 4th 2012).

But is this really a Syrian Sunni uprising? Some supporters of the Syrian revolution try to completely distance the popular uprising there from any element of sectarianism, placing the blame entirely on the Syrian regime for inciting the sectarian dimension, while others believe that sectarianism doesn’t exist in the first place, given that many key figures and symbols in the Syrian opposition, whether domestically or abroad, belong to the Alawite, Druze, Christian and Kurdish sects. This is true, but on the other hand it is hard to deny the predominance of the Sunni sect among the ranks of the opposition both domestically and abroad, despite the fact that the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood did not have a strong presence in the opposition conferences held in Istanbul and Cairo. However, this may be due to the demographic reality, whereby the Sunnis are the most populous sect, and they constitute the largest proportion in most Syrian cities and provinces.

In reality, the Syrian uprising is no different in principle from those in Tunisia, Egypt or Libya. The concerns raised by skeptics of the Syrian uprising – some of which are valid – such as the emergence of the Islamists and Salifis, can be found in most countries of the “Arab Spring”. So why should the Syrian uprising be condemned or feared because some of its fighters are “Salafis”, whilst at the same time the revolution against former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was widely praised, even though the Salafis have since come to power there in both the People’s Assembly and the Shura Council? If one wishes to make a stand against the Islamists or the Salafis in the Arab Spring uprisings, why focus on Syria and remain silent about these groups elsewhere? Take for example the Libyan uprising, where Lebanese delegates participating in a Security Council session (September 2011) were quick to propose a vote for military intervention in Libya, while Lebanon today, officially at least, is supportive of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

Individuals, as well as governments, try to present their decisions in a moral guise, and find excuses and justifications when they don’t correspond with their personal interests, or are not consistent with their ideological orientations. When it comes to states the matter is clear; we assume that a state – any state – operates according to its interests, but when it comes to intellectuals and writers the matter becomes more complex, and few of them ever admit they have made the wrong choice. Take for example the supporters of the Syrian-Iranian axis, who have accused some Arab regimes of being agents of America and the West. They rarely speak of political tyranny in Iran or Syria, but whenever it seems that a regime that does not share their interests may be overthrown, they cheer for that.

The Syrian opposition at the present time is suffering from turmoil and the same problems experienced by its counterparts in the other “Arab Spring” states. The opposition consists of honest individuals looking to defend themselves and their families, yet there are also those who have extremist orientations. Above all this it suffers from fragmentation, and the lack of a clear political vision for any transitional project to build the institutions of a modern state. As you can see, it is possible to criticize the armed and peaceful opposition for many reasons, but focusing on the Sunni element, or fearing a Salafi uprising, does not seem to be a wholly innocent endeavor, but rather a means of concealing self-interests or ideological positions.

During the four decades of the Syrian Baath Party’s dominance, the Syrian regime established close ties with Iran for strategic and sectarian motives, and likewise supported Hezbollah under the same pretext. If religious fundamentalism is the charge lodged against the Syrian uprising, then we should consider that the regime itself used to support militant fundamentalist movements such as Hamas, which it is yet to explicitly condemn what the Syrian regime has done, despite the enormous extent of human damage.

As you can see, your position towards the Syrian uprising depends on the angle which you view it from. The Syrian army, for example, was not considered a sectarian military institution until at least the early 1980s, before which most of its soldiers and officers were from the Sunni sect. However today it is experiencing a continual disintegration as a result of daily defections. What is noticeable is that the majority of defectors are from the Sunni sect, whilst the regime itself – which was formed from an Alawite alliance with minor Sunni participation – today is suffering from the defections of regime officials also from the Sunni community, either because they are personally convinced of the regime’s imminent end, or because the regime itself has become suspicious of them and placed them under house arrest.

In an article published in The Daily Telegraph entitled “What lies behind the Syrian massacres?” (July 13th), the newspaper quoted a large number of intelligence sources saying that some members of the Alawite community no longer trust the army, or the regime’s ability to protect them for the foreseeable future, and hence over the past few months they have been working to form their own militias, similar to what happened during the Lebanese civil war. Meanwhile, The Sunday Times (15th July) newspaper contends that the recent massacres were intentionally carried out by Alawite militias as a form of “sectarian cleansing” of certain towns and villages, paving the way for the creation of an Alawite state along the Syrian coast. There may be an element of exaggeration here since Syria’s modern history, despite including some sectarian conflicts, has at other times served as a model of civil coexistence and national unity.

The problem is not the rise of the Sunnis, but rather the failure of the Baathist regime, with its resistance ideology, to create a modern civil state, and because of that, the damage caused by the regime reaming at this time would be greater than if it were to leave.

Adel Al Toraifi

Adel Al Toraifi

Adel Al Toraifi is the former Editor-in-Chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper and Al-Majalla magazine. As a specialist in Middle Eastern affairs, his research focuses on Saudi–Iranian relations, foreign policy decision-making in the Gulf, and IR theories on the Middle East. Dr. Al Toraifi holds a PhD in International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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