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The Agony of Syria

The government’s early charges that rebels were Sunni Muslim fanatics or al-Qaeda agents were equally spurious, but they have become similarly self- fulfilling. Syria’s intelligence services had a firm hold on the jihadist subculture before the uprising, having themselves sponsored jihadist radicals in Iraq, then later unleashed them to stir trouble in neighboring Lebanon. In the cynical world of the regime, the bearded radicals were simply another card for Syria to play, and so it has during the uprising. The state has worked overtime to sustain the notion that it faces an Islamist sectarian threat. Damascenes have often noted with wonder, for instance, that whereas ordinary antigovernment protests tend to be quickly and ruthlessly dispersed, demonstrators chanting such baldly sectarian slogans as “Christians to Beirut and Alawites to the tabout”—meaning “to the grave”—march unmolested. Opposition activists suspect that at least some bomb blasts attributed to jihadist cells have been instigated by the intelligence services themselves.

Curious about an incident over Christmas that had reinforced loyalty to the regime among Christians, I drove in February to Our Lady of Sednaya, a Greek Orthodox convent dating from the sixth century that stands like a fortress atop a crag in the mountains north of Damascus. Having repeatedly blessed President Assad and described the numerous miraculous cures bestowed on Muslim supplicants at the Virgin’s incense-clouded shrine, the mother superior told me that divine intervention had saved her sisters when a terrorist bomb struck during Sunday mass. I asked to see the site of the impact. A young nun led me by a series of outside staircases through driving snow to the uppermost floor. I was surprised to find little damage aside from a basketball-sized hole in the wall of an empty storage room, and some cracked floor tiles inside.

Explaining that soldiers had arrived speedily to remove the dangerous “bomb,” the nun showed me a cell phone photo she had taken of it before they came. The object was a large artillery shell, and it had not exploded for a very good reason. The detonator cap had clearly been unscrewed before it was fired. The type of ordnance, accuracy, timing, and trajectory of the shot all made plain that only the Syrian army itself could have targeted the convent.

Samar Yazbek, a Syrian writer and filmmaker, documents far more disturbing examples of the regime’s fear-mongering in her impassioned and harrowing memoir of the early revolt, A Woman in the Crossfire. Herself an Alawite and now shunned by pro-regime coreligionists as a traitor, she is particularly outraged by the government’s manipulation of the minority, which makes up some 12 percent of the population. Playing upon terrors that Alawites may again be persecuted as heretics as they often were in the past, the Assad regime has encouraged a sort of Masada complex, goading loyalists toward extreme violence as if the sole alternative were annihilation. The effect of this, perhaps intended, has been to implicate Alawites as a whole in the regime’s crimes. In Yazbek’s words, they are being used as human shields.

Sadly, every day that passes brings Syria’s sectarian fears closer to fruition. This is not due to the arrival of hordes of al-Qaeda-minded jihadists, as some Western commentaries have implied. By no current estimate does the number of foreign fighters in Syria—young men who mostly see themselves as part of a Spanish Civil War–style international brigade rather than as terrorist ninjas—surpass a thousand, out of at least 50,000 armed men on the rebel side. Nor is the demon of sectarianism a product of indoctrination by more mainstream Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood. The regime’s persecution of the Brotherhood has been so extreme—membership became punishable by death in the 1970s—that the Syrian branch lacks organizational depth.

Communal feeling among Syria’s 70 percent Sunni Arab majority (that is, excluding Kurds, who are also mostly Sunni) had been growing in recent years very much in line with regional trends toward greater religious conservatism, and toward increased tension between Sunnis and Shias. But it is the passions aroused by Syria’s extreme violence, which has very largely come from the government side, that has begun to generate a real and disturbing Sunni chauvinism.

In the face of the grisly horrors Syrians endure daily, a resort to the vocabulary of religion is scarcely surprising. Most of the dozens of local branches of the Free Syrian Army have adopted names redolent of Sunni triumphalism and have consciously cultivated the mujahideen style, replete with beards, bandanas, and chants of Allahu Akbar punctuating their propaganda videos. And given that many of the worst massacres to date have been committed by armed Alawite thugs against unarmed or captive Sunnis, a sectarian backlash is to be expected. As in other civil wars, the words “they” and “them’’ have taken on ominous meanings. It does not help either that the regime’s only ally happens to be Shia Iran, a generous supplier of arms, cash, and, according to some reports, Revolutionary Guards to suppress the revolt.

Mike King

The increasingly exclusive Sunni tone of the revolution worries not just non-Muslims, but also much of the urban Sunni middle class, which in Syria has traditionally taken its faith lightly. Yet Syria’s opposition remains multisectarian. Prominent Alawites such as Yazbek have joined the revolt, as have a larger number of Christians. Salamiya, a town in central Syria that is a center for the Ismaili faith, a branch of Shia Islam, was one of the earliest to declare itself liberated from the Assad regime. Syria’s Kurdish and Druze minorities, as well as its 500,000 Palestinians, whose refugee camps have suffered indiscriminate shelling too, also tend to sympathize with the rebels. Their leaders have simply calculated that it has been better to hold back for the time being.

The main reason that Syria’s agony has gone on so long is not because large numbers actively or enthusiastically back the government. The Assads do have supporters beyond their Alawite core, but such outsiders are mostly seekers after spoils, such as Bedouin tribes that have gained some special favor, or business clans that won lucrative concessions from the Assads. Their numbers have dwindled rapidly in recent months, ironically, again, largely because the government’s own brutality has made it increasingly clear that the regime is untenable as is, and incapable of reform.

Abu Tony, a Christian activist in Damascus, says with a shrug that the influx since the spring of thousands of desperate refugees into the capital has made it plain, even to the well-insulated wealthy or to those who took comfort in blocking their ears to anything but state propaganda, that this is a criminal regime. The increased pace of defections does not surprise him. “The inner circle think they have a Samson option, to threaten to destroy the whole country,” he says. “But they will find there is nobody left to carry it out.”

What has so far made many Syrians reluctant to sacrifice for the revolution is not loyalty to the state but fear of chaos. They have seen neighboring Iraq and Lebanon descend into years of sectarian warfare. They know that forty years of the Assads’ ostensible secularism have not succeeded in burying Syria’s own confessional resentments. Quite realistically, they expect that even after the regime falls, there may be worse to come.

Just what that might be, no one can predict with confidence. Even more than in other dictatorships, Syria’s long years of tyranny have left a lingering pathology of mistrust. Much of Syria’s elite is tainted by association with the regime. The organized opposition is fragmented. Its meetings have the tenor of an Afghan Loya Jirga, where impressive-looking people turn out to represent themselves and a few cousins, and most energy is exerted undermining other factions.

Recent writing on Syria does not provide much in the way of clues for the future, either. David Lesch, a professor at Trinity University, usefully subtitles his new book The Fall of the House of Assad. But most of its text is a bloodless, workmanlike account of recent Syrian history, spiced with mea culpas regarding his previous book on Syria, which, embarrassingly, enthused about Bashar Assad’s reformist tendencies. A broader view might have been expected from Fouad Ajami, a distinguished Lebanese-American academic best known for his brilliant analysis of the failure of Arab states, The Arab Predicament. But his new book, The Syrian Rebellion, is essentially an erudite trawl through press clippings and blog posts, with occasional anecdotes and profiles of prominent Syrians.

Ajami does, at least, provide a relatively cheerful if brief prognosis. He does not share the fears, most often expressed by Western commentators unfamiliar with the subject, that Syria is destined to become an Islamist dystopia. “I never doubted the ability of the Syrian people to create a more humane order than this dreaded regime,” he writes. That hopeful judgment seems sound. If the Syrians win their freedom, it will have been won at a higher price than that paid by any other Arab nation. It will have been won by Syrians themselves, with little help from anyone else. After such sacrifice, there would be no shortage of Syrians determined to safeguard it.

—August 29, 2012

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