Jihadist Influx Exacerbates Sectarian Tension in Syria

The presence of foreign Islamist fighters is likely to heighten minority apprehension.

A Free Syrian Army checkpoint, March 4
A Free Syrian Army checkpoint, March 4 (Freedom House)

Foreign Islamists fighters have swollen the ranks of Syrian rebels fighting to topple President Bashar al-Assad, a French surgeon told the Reuters news agency last week. Medecins Sans Frontieres‘s Jacques Beres said that at least half of the militants he had treated were non-Syrians.

It’s really something strange to see. They are directly saying that they aren’t interested in Bashar al-Assad’s fall but are thinking about how to take power afterward and set up an Islamic state with sharia law to become part of the world emirate.

Assad himself has maintained since the start of the uprising some eighteen months ago that the opposition is one of “foreign backed terrorists.” Russian president Vladimir Putin, who resists Western efforts to facilitate regime change in Damascus, told RT television last week that the Syrian militants who are backed by the United States and their Arab Gulf state allies include members of Al Qaeda “or some other organizations with equally radical views to achieve their goals in Syria.”

The influx of Sunni jihadists is likely to exacerbate the fault lines between Syria’s majority population and Alawites, Christians and Druze who have stood warily on the sidelines of the revolt for months, fearing that an Islamist Sunni regime will inhibit their religious freedoms and privileges.

Reuters also reports that in the capital, neighborhood vigilante groups have begun arming themselves in minority neighborhoods to fend off Sunni “terrorism.” Sectarian kidnappings have become common and sometimes end with mutilated bodies being dumped in the street.

In the northwest, a concentrated effort appears to have been made by Shabiha militias earlier this year to purge Sunni towns in the An-Nusayriyah Mountains which separate the Alawite heartland from the rest of the country. Assad and virtually all members of his inner circle are Alawites, a minority Shia sect.

Daniel D. DePetris wrote at the Atlantic Sentinel in July that Assad may have deliberately stoked the sectarian strife in his country.

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.

If this was Assad’s strategy, he has at least succeeded in fueling widespread apprehension about Syria’s future. With sectarian tension mounting, it will be extremely difficult for whatever government succeeds Assad’s, if he falls at all, to keep the country together.

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