Bashar al-Assad’s Sectarian Strategy for the War

The Syrian president exploits the sectarian divide that defines the conflict in his country.

A young man holds up a portrait of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, August 21 2010
A young man holds up a portrait of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, August 21 2010 (Beshr Abdulhadi)

Another day in Syria, another brutal massacre reported. The carnage inside of the Middle Eastern country is quickly evolving into a predicable cycle of abuse and counterabuse by all sides in the conflict, with an even greater number of civilians being killed in a systematically gruesome way.

The government of President Bashar al-Assad has ignored the United Nations-sponsored peace deal orchestrated by former secretary general Kofi Annan, degrading the arrangement into nothing more than a piece of paper that is fast bordering on the irrelevant.

A horrific spate of killings conducted by what are presumed to be pro-government militiamen in a small farming hamlet in the central part of Syria has further exposed the Annan plan for what it is — a cover for a United Nations Security Council unable to agree on anything other than the gravity of the violence inside of Syria.

International monitors, responsible for observing the ceasefire that has been constantly violated since it was agreed to last April, arrived at the scene of the latest act of butchery this past Friday, traveling to the small village of al-Qubair, northeast of Hama, the city at the center of the anti-government uprising. What the monitors discovered during their visit can only be described as hell on earth.

A BBC reporter who accompanied the monitors on their investigation wrote of homes gutted from the inside out, some of which were purposely burned by government security forces and allied Shabiha militia. Blood soaked the floor of one house, so much so that someone who was trying to clean up the crime scene quit because there was simply too much of it. Reporters smelled burning flesh in the air, 48 hours after the attack occurred.

As has been common throughout Syria’s fifteen month uprising, the opposition and the Assad regime have both issued divergent and contradictory accounts of what happened in this tiny village. Syrian government media once again blamed the violence on terrorists motivated by a foreign agenda, only to be beaten back by security forces. But virtually no one (with perhaps the exception of the Iranians and the Russians) take the Syrian regime’s claims seriously. Statements from the Syrian opposition, activists inside the country and human rights advocates are far more credible at this stage of the conflict although much of the reporting out of Syria cannot be verified due to government restrictions on independent journalists.

If the activists’ claims are true, the violence that terrified the population in this farming town is all too similar to the horrid scene that occurred in Houla only a week prior where a total of 108 civilians (forty of whom were children) were executed with guns and knives by regime forces.

As of today, men thought to be deeply wedded to Assad’s regime murdered 80 of al-Qubair’s residents. All of the victims were Sunni Muslims, the majority demographic in Syria that composes most of the uprising against President Assad. The men who perpetrated the crime, at least from initial UN reports, were Alawites from neighboring villages, the same sectarian grouping that the Syrian regime depends on for cohesion within its inner ranks.

What the massacres in Houla and al-Qubair reveal, besides the inhumanity that war can cause, is that Bashar al-Assad is knowingly driving the conflict into just the type of sectarian onslaught that ruined its Iraqi neighbor five years earlier.

Alawite on Sunni violence holds the potential to not only aggravate relations between the two communities in the short term but provides a dangerous rationale for Syria’s Sunni population to issue reprisals once the Assad regime collapses. Such a response makes the possibility of rebuilding Syria after the regime leaves all the more difficult.

It also puts a solid obstacle in front of the international community as it attempts to forge a political opposition that serves as both a promising alternative to Assad and a safety valve for Syria’s minorities who have thus far stuck by the government, some of whom may wish to ditch the president for fear as the violence has escalated.

This could all be part of Assad’s plan. By using his Shabiha militia allies and allowing them to kill any Sunni that they find, including children, he elicits a forceful response from Sunnis who may feel the need to avenge the deaths of their family members. With the threat of fear hanging over their heads, it is increasingly unlikely that the Alawites whom Assad counts on will drift toward the opposition’s side.

Sectarian conflict is an ugly and primordial thing. But for Assad, it provides himself, his family and his government with more time to stave off the collapse of his regime which most of the world has been working for.

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