Josef Olmert
Last updated: 2 February, 2012

“The ethnic and religious baggage of the past is bound to resurface and be a huge impediment to a real democratic and united Syria”

Today is the 30th anniversary of Majazarat Hammah , in which the Hafiz Assad regime eliminated thousands of Sunni Muslim residents in the city of Hammah, the traditional stronghold of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.

With that action, the Alawite-dominated Ba’ath regime started a period of unprecedented domestic stability in Syria, once the ‘’sick man of the Middle East’’, lasting until March 2011 when the current Syrian uprising erupted.

Stability though is a relative matter, as during these many years there were outbursts of violent opposition to the regime, which indicated that there might have been stability, but without legitimacy. The Sunni masses, particularly in the outlying areas of Syria, in the South East , the North-West and The North-East suffered the consequences of iron-hand oppression coupled with economic discrimination, until they imploded about a year ago.

Clearly, not all of the Sunni population of Syria participate in the uprising. There are some, very few though, who threw in their lot with the ruling Ba’ath party and others, particularly members of the once thriving business communities of Aleppo and Damascus who were won over by the situation of stability which offered them lucrative opportunities. The reality of the uprising however is such that the resistance to the regime almost exclusively takes place in Sunni-dominated areas, whereas  non-Sunni regions like Salamiyya, near Homs , Jabal Druze , and Jabal Ansariyya , as well as the Christian suburbs of Aleppo and Damascus are still quiet.

It is also a fact, that the Alawite militia of the Shabiha, led by two of Bashar Assad cousins, is active in the Sunni areas in support of  Alawite  units of the Syrian armed forces, such as the Presidential Guard and the 4thDivision led by other members of the clan, brother Maher and brother-in-law Assaf Shawkat. It is also a fact that the rebel army of defectors, the Army of Free Syria, is composed of Sunni soldiers and officers. So, while the Syrian opposition, both the Syrian National Council and the Free Army, do not officially define the uprising as a Sunni one, it is clearly an uprising of Sunnis against a non-Sunni regime. Even the Muslim Brotherhood is careful not to emphasize the sectarian nature of the opposition, but let’s make no mistake about it — their publications are never weary of reminding us that the Assad clan and their cronies belong to the hated Alawite minority, a religious sect that has been regarded always as heretic and non-Muslim. It was the great Sunni Alim , Ibn-Tayimiyya who issued the famous Fatwa , in the 14th century, defining the Alawites as worse than the infidels.

With that in mind, it is safe to view the sectarian divide as being the most difficult issue with which the post-Assad regime will have to deal right after the final downfall of the current dictatorship, the one issue that will be the make or break of future Syria.

The Syrian opposition in its meeting in Antalya, Turkey in late May 2011, related in bold and unprecedented terms to the impending problem. They stated that future Syria will grant official recognition to all the ethnic groups in the country, including Turkmans, Circassians, Syriac-speakers and others, altogether 12 different groups.

Surely, a sign of goodwill on the part of the Sunnis, a dramatic departure from the no. 1 Ba’athi dogma, according to which Syria is an Arab state, where ethnic and religious loyalties belong to the past. As revolutionary as the Antalya statement was, it fell short , far short of what is needed if any peaceful transition is expected.

To start with, it related to ethnic communities, but not to religious minorities, such as the Alawites and the Druze, which comprise one fifth of Syria’s population.

These are ethnic Arabs, but throughout Syria’s history, particularly in modern times, they have maintained their religious distinctiveness as the basis of their communal identity. There already are unverified reports that the Druze community is showing signs of restiveness, and numerous reports that the Assad regime is looking at the possibility of withdrawing to the Alawite mountains around Latakiyya as a last resort. In the past, prior to independence, the Alawites and Druze were referred to as the ‘’ Compact Minorities’’ due to their territorial concentration in a particular mountainous region. These two population groups could demand self-rule in their own territories, something that could jeopardize the political-territorial integrity of the Syrian state.

Another group that has the potential of doing just that are the Kurds. The Kurds, for many years the ‘’silent minority’’, numbering about 3 million and situated in the extremely strategic and sensitive Syrian-Turkish-Iraqi borders area, are no more silent and they make it abundantly clear that their loyalty to any future government is contingent on a recognition of their national aspirations. In their case, it is difficult to envisage an actual separation from the rest of Syria, as this could trigger a sharp Turkish reaction. It is not unrealistic however to visualize an actual state of self-rule, not much different than what exists with their brethren in the Iraqi side of the border.

From all the above it is obvious that the ethnic and religious baggage of the past is bound to resurface and be a huge impediment to a real democratic and united Syria. The Syrian opposition has a mammoth task on its hands. The very existence of Syria depends on its ability to live up to the challenge.