A Sectarian Cloud Looms Over Syria

Are Sunnis and Alawis turning against each other and is the Syrian government to blame?

As the pro-democracy protests inside Syria reach its fifth month — and as the international community continues to figure out what to do next — President Bashar al-Assad’s security services have still not found any remorse for their fellow citizens.

While the number varies according to the source, an estimated sixteen hundred Syrian protesters have been mowed down by the regime — with 28 people killed on Friday, July 17, alone. Hundreds of Syrian families have been torn apart and ruined, often with a son missing or a father killed in the line of fire. Villages that were once havens for tourism and farming are now deserted, scores of residents chased away to Turkey in a bid to escape the escalating brutality. Meanwhile, Bashar Assad has shown no signs of wavering in his stern desire to hold on to power. Common sense would suggest that the hundreds of thousands of demonstrators who hit the streets every day are tired of risking their lives in the face of a well armed and equipped army. Yet the passion that the demonstrators have grown to rely upon is only growing stronger with each killing and each rumored detention.

For months, the cycle of violence in Syria has followed a predictable pattern — Syrians chant for freedom, some are killed, funerals are held and more are killed during the funeral procession. It is a bloody, seemingly never ending cycle of anger, yet one that has given Syrians longing for freedom more fire to continue their struggle.

Nevertheless, if there has been anything positive that can be gleaned from the months long anti-regime campaign, it is the peaceful behavior that the protesters have exhibited to their fellow citizens, some of whom are not always as stringently against Assad and they would hope. This fact should not be overstated, for it contradicts an integral component of the Assad regime’s survival strategy — propagate a disastrous, if not limited, period of sectarian fear that will scare Syria’s minority communities back into Assad’s arms.

Violence and intimidation have been Damascus’ high cards, but provoking the Sunni Islamist boogeyman has long been the option of last resort for Bashar, an Alawi president who gains most of his support from Syrian Christians, Druze and Alawis who fear a Sunni takeover of the country. The men and women who pour into the streets know this full well and have been well disciplined not to retaliate against the Alawi community, even as armed Alawi militias have entered a number of cities to shoot up the demonstrators.

Yet as reports indicate that a minor sectarian clash occurred in the central Syrian city of Homs — a mixed neighborhood with Sunni and Alawi residents — one must wonder if this patience is starting to wear thin. Upon the discovery of three Alawis whose bodies were executed and mutilated (presumably by anti-regime figures), Alawi gunmen opened fire in a predominately Sunni neighborhood of the city in retaliation. Shops and small businesses owned by Sunnis were also burned and destroyed, sending a shiver down the spines of the vast majority of protesters who had hoped to sidestep the sectarian issue.

It is tempting to describe the incident as an isolated case, or as an act created by the regime to punish Homs for is spirited resistance. But those conclusions, however tempting, would also be premature, particularly in a country with a Sunni population jumping at the chance of kicking Assad’s Alawi dominated government out. While Syrians of all denominations have been victimized by the Assad dynasty over the past four decades, Sunnis have the most to complain about. A group that composes 75 percent of Syria’s population often finds itself on the outskirts of Syria’s power structure (with the exception of some Sunni generals and wealthy Sunni businessmen). Therefore, the sectarian incident in Homs could be just as much a start of things to come as a bad day better left forgotten.

If, however, sectarian infighting is increasingly on the agenda, Bashar al-Assad will have succeeded in his first step at dividing the Syrian opposition and pitting neighbors against each other. In the mind of Assad, the more violence leveled upon Alawis — regardless of who is doing the killing — the more likely Syria’s minorities will drop their opposition and gravitate toward the ruling elite.

Washington, the United Nations and Syrians should expect the sectarian line to get to thicker in the next few weeks. Failing to prepare accordingly would not only be a dangerous mistake but represent a severe case of amnesia.