Friday, February 24, 2012

Syria: Inside the anti-uprising movement in Syria

Photo: Germano Assad/IRIN. A demonstration in support of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus

Source: IRIN

EIRUT, 23 February 2012 (IRIN) - In Syria’s commercial capital, Aleppo, posters plastered across the city tell the story of a community which, until recently, has been largely voiceless in the violent events of the past year.

The posters say opposition to the Intifada, or uprising, does not mean support for the regime.

This objection resembles one in the capital Damascus last July, when Christians, who have thus far not joined the protest movement en masse, covered walls in the Bab Tuma neighbourhood with posters denouncing the “Friday celebrations” by regime loyalists, which took place while both security officers and civilians were being killed.

Since March 2011, what began as peaceful protests against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have increasingly turned into an armed rebellion.

Many Syrians, including dissidents, have opposed the nearly one-year popular uprising not because they support al-Assad, who has been accused by the UN high commissioner for human rights of possible crimes against humanity in the crackdown on protesters, but because they fear for the future of their country without him.

These people, so-called loyalists, describe the uprising as a crisis, or `azmah’ in Arabic: a challenging phase to be overcome by the government eventually.

As the international community increasingly turns against al-Assad, analysts say a consistent proportion of Syrians have maintained a detached, if not hostile, position towards the “opposition”. Their reasons range from a desire for stability, regardless of its authoritarian enforcement, to the perception that elements of the opposition are inherently violent and radical. Ethnic minorities view the uprising through a survivalist lens, fostered by the narrative of the regime and some personal accounts. This has further polarized versions of the events and reduced the possibility of any reconciliation. IRIN hears from these segments of the population whose voices have often been drowned out by the protests and the gunfire.

Another Iraq?

In its violent response to the uprising, the Syrian government has framed the situation for those Syrians abstaining from protests as a choice between stability (`istiqrar’) and chaos (`fawda’), the “unknown” ensuing from its collapse, analysts say.

“Even if the revolution was peaceful, Alawis wouldn’t accept the overthrowing of the regime, as it would bear negative consequences for all Syrians,” said Aref*, a 26-year-old artist from a village on the outskirts of the western port city of Latakia, who belongs to al-Assad’s minority Alawi sect.

Many of Syria’s Christians point to the stories of the more than one million Iraqi refugees - many of them Christians - who fled to Syria after sectarian violence in their country as an example.

“Without dialogue Syria will become a new Iraq,” the Chaldean Bishop of Aleppo said this month.

Recent reports about al-Qaeda and various Sunni jihadist groups coming from Iraq to join the armed struggle against al-Assad have further worried Syrian minorities, some of whom have already started fleeing in fear.

A mid-December poll by The Doha Debates found that 55 percent of Syrians wanted al-Assad to stay in power, in large part out of fear for the future of the country. (The poll surveyed 1,000 respondents, 46 percent of whom were from the Levant).


About 11 percent of the Syrian population, including the ruling family, follows Alawism, an offshoot of Shia Islam. The minority Alawis have ruled the majority Sunni country since 1970, when Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, took power in a coup.

Worried about its future in a post-Assad Syria, the majority of this sect has either brushed aside protests or stood against them.

“Alawis generally remember positively the days of Hafez al-Assad, as someone who brought stability to a chaotic country,” points out Fadwa*, a 27-year-old Alawi maths graduate from Salhab, near the central resistance town of Hama. Her words point to a willingness to put stability before human rights: Syrians enjoyed wider freedoms in the “unstable” 1950s, before merging with Egypt in the United Arab Republic in 1958.

Stability is also crucial to the interdenominational beneficiaries (`mustafidin’) tied to the regime, as is clear from the loyalty of the Sunni-Christian bourgeoisie in Aleppo and Damascus. Ensuring the support of urban traders has been a persistent feature of Baathist rule even under Hafez al-Assad, who managed to prevent the Damascene mercantile classes from joining the Islamist uprising in the 1980s by co-opting the head of the Damascus Chamber of Commerce, Badr al-Din al-Shallah.

But there are signs of waning support among the middle-upper classes, with the first mass demonstrations in the wealthy Damascene neighbourhood of Mezzeh on 18 February. As shortages of bread and fuel increase, private bank assets decline, tourism drops and the inflation rate doubles, Sunni and Christian urban traders are increasingly being affected.

Perception of violence

But a widespread perception of the opposition as radical and violent still has many worried.

The opposition is composed of several divergent groups with the same goal but different approaches. The so-called Local Coordination Committees of Syria are groupings of loosely affiliated activists who organize protests on the ground; the Syrian National Council is the main political opposition group outside Syria; and the Free Syrian Army is a group of defectors and other civilians who have taken up arms. While this may sound cohesive and hierarchal, analysts say much of the opposition is not. And they do not discount the possibility that outside terrorists are taking advantage of the unrest, as the government claims.

Aref, for one, believes the FSA to be a cloak for other armed groups, a concern highlighted by the International Crisis Group (ICG) in its latest report on Syria.

“Even if they shared the just demands of the revolution, Alawis got scared and confused by the bloody events,” said Anisa*, a 26-year-old Alawi from a village near Hama, who holds a master’s degree in economics.

Fadwa, the maths graduate, said she has friends who began as dissidents, but switched sides out of fear of an Islamist uprising.

While the regime has tried to demonize its peaceful opponents since the protests began, analysts say the opposition movement’s initial attempt to portray itself as wholly peaceful - despite a clear resort to violence among some elements - has also tarnished its credibility.

Even the most liberal Alawis say they are increasingly alarmed by the recent escalation of attacks against government forces, and fear a descent into sectarian conflict.

“The FSA should limit its operations to protect protesters and refrain from attacking the army, as this could lead to a split in the army along sectarian lines,” said Fadwa.

Sectarian split

The majority of conscripts in the Syrian Army are Sunnis who do not necessarily trust the ruling elite, who make up much of the security apparatus.

Ibrahim al-Hajj ‘Ali, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood from Aleppo, and an officer who defected from the army to coordinate armed insurgents, said he was more likely to encourage defections among trusted Sunni soldiers than “members of the Syrian ruling sect”.

The ICG says the FSA has captured Syrian security officers and forced them to confess to using violence against protesters or to being ordered to shoot anything that moves.

"The Free Army's posting of forced confessions by captured security officers, who, in at least one instance, show evident signs of torture - stands as a first cautionary tale", it said.

The FSA insists that soldiers who refuse to fire on unarmed protesters defect of their own volition.

But Bushra*, a 28-year-old bank employee from Mahrusah, a village near Hama, said she knew of a case in which insurgents killed a security officer after forcing him to announce his defection from the army on video. While her story is difficult to verify, it mirrors many others told amid loyalist circles.

Existential threat

These stories and others have led to a perception of the opposition as deeply sectarian.

“If there’s a civil war, they’re not going to differentiate between loyalist and dissident Alawis,” Bushra said. “The word of the regime is the only one able to protect us.”

According to Aref, the opposition has demonized the Alawi community, portraying it as an entity indivisible from the regime, a unique gang of `shabiha’ (loyalist thugs): “They have forgotten our contribution to Syrian history, the numerous progressive Alawi thinkers.”

The Alawis top the list of religious minorities who have come to link their survival with the permanence of the regime, regardless of their historical presence in Syria centuries before the Assads came to power.

As early as April 2011, checkpoints had sprung up in the Sitta wa Thamaneen neighbourhood of Damascus, an Alawi stronghold, home to many lower class members of the security services, and by summer, Alawi families in some urban centres started migrating to their original rural areas, fearing for their safety.

“Some Alawis are convinced that they will eventually be besieged by fundamentalist Sunnis,” said Aref, “and they’re getting ready to face this threat by arming themselves”.

This, despite the fact that the status quo they are willing to fight for granted privileges only to a “restricted circle”, noted Anisa, the economics graduate. “Those in the security forces and the army are at the bottom of society, as those who benefited from the regime can afford to send their sons to work or study abroad.”

In the event of a successful revolution, Alawis who were involved in the repression of Sunnis may flee en masse to their mountainous homeland, the ICG said. This could lead to retaliatory attacks by Sunnis, not only on them, but also on communities that had no role in the repression, deepening the risk of sectarian conflict, it added.

Different languages

By demonizing each other, analysts say the opposition and loyalists have started speaking two diametrically opposed languages.

Perhaps to escape what they see as a frightening reality, many Alawis have become overtly confident that the regime will prevail.

“The government will survive; Alawis have no doubt about it… and it will overcome the crisis stronger than before,” said Bushra.

“Most Alawis believe that Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiyya satellite channels are making the revolution bigger than it is,” Fadwa added. But observers say many loyalists, particularly Alawis, lack an objective view of the opposition and are overly swayed by the regime’s propaganda.

Nevertheless, the increasingly polarized narratives have deepened cleavages in the way the various communities reconstruct history.

Aref remembered the Hama massacre of 1982 - in which the government is said to have killed at least 10,000 people at once to crush an Islamist revolt - as the result of a political confrontation with the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, resolved in favour of the government, thanks to the support of both Alawis and Sunnis. Al-Hajj, the Muslim Brotherhood defector, recalled the events of Hama as the beginning of an ongoing struggle against the regime, with the only difference that in those times there were no cameras to record the crimes of the regime.

Still, the loyalists interviewed for this report have played no role in the current repression and have taken steps to distance themselves from the regime. Some of them accept democratic elections in the near future as a way of out the conflict.

“Fundamentalists need to be marginalized in fair elections,” Aref said.

But while they are ready to conceive of a Syria without al-Assad, loyalists remain worried about an abrupt overthrow of the government, insisting on more guarantees of stability from the opposition and greater transparency of its armed operations.

Raja’a*, a 26-year-old Christian from Damascus who half-heartedly sympathizes with the opposition, complained the Syrian National Council was focused on overthrowing the regime without giving any sort of guarantees about the future of minorities.

"There are many doubts (about the SNC)... Their declarations are limited to the departure of the regime, whereas after... no one knows what will happen.”

Asked what it would take to get the so-called loyalists to come around, she answered: “Unfortunately, it is difficult to change their position... because it is war of existence.”

*Not a real name