Inside Syria’s sectarian divide

Refugees fleeing into Lebanon mirror the broader divisions of Syrian society between the government and opposition.

syria refugees
Even middle class residents of the capital are now fleeing Syria as the uprising descends into civil war [Reuters]
Thousands of Syrians made their way into Lebanon over recent days escaping the unprecedented fighting in the capital, Damascus. The firepower unleashed by government forces in some districts of Damascus following Wednesday’s blast that killed top security officials is what forced them to leave.

Many of them are from the middle and upper classes of society – it was clear from their luxury cars and the fact that many went to hotels for accommodation.

These Syrians were very different from the refugees who have sought haven in Lebanon over the past months. Many of those used illegal border crossings to get in – they were either opposition fighters, activists, or supporters escaping captivity as well as the siege laid on their towns and villages by the security forces

Crossing the Masnaa border in eastern Lebanon means passing through the checkpoints that have been set up in and around Damascus as well as the tightly controlled Syria border post.

These people have long been in the “silent majority” – not joining the rebellion for a number of reasons. Some too scared – after all Damascus is the centre of power for the government and its stronghold.

‘Chaos and sectarianism’

Explanations also ranged from monitory groups which are worried about their place in a “new Syria” to those who believe the regime’s narrative that it is fighting an international conspiracy led by the United States and Saudi Arabia.

Others continue to support the government because they are scared of the alternative and have no faith in the opposition.

In depth: Syria’s sectarian divide

Syria’s total population is about 22.5m

 Sunni Muslims account for 74 per cent 
 Alawites represent about 12 per cent 
 Christians constitute about 10 per cent
 Other groups make up the remainder
 Alawites control most key political positions

“Why has the world ignored the internal opposition in Syria who have been trying to being about reforms through dialogue? These men are people we trust not the [Free Syrian Army] FSA and not the [Syrian National Council] SNC,” a Syrian girl from Damascus who prefers to remain anonymous told me. She is active on twitter and occasionally argues with opposition supporters accusing them of supporting extremist groups. “If these men take over power, there will be more chaos and sectarianism in Syria.”

This girl claims that the opposition is not interested in a democratic transition. “How many months have the people asked for dialogue but the opposition in Turkey refuses to speak to Syrian government. How can you refuse to speak to this government when they still have support of the people of Syria?” she asked.

Among those who crossed the Masnaa border were supporters of Bashar al-Assad. One man from Suweida – a region where mainly Druze live chanted “God, Syria and Bashar!” a classic regime slogan. 

Another man, Ramsey, told me: “The Syria army has all the right to attack. If someone is shooting at them, they should shoot back… Those armed men are staging a coup.”

An opposition supporter, Saeed, overheard him and immediately called him a member of the Shabiha – an armed group loyal to the state. “Don’t talk to him. He is a Shabiha. We will kill them all… Those child killers,” he told me.

A nation divided

Clearly the uprising divided the Syrian people. What started as a peaceful rebellion that was violently suppressed is now an armed conflict with sectarian dimensions.

At least this is how residents of the mainly Sunni town of Telkalah on Lebanon’s northern borders feel.

Omar described the situation as sectarian war. “They are targeting mosques. The Alawites are shelling us from the hills. We can’t leave the town because we are surrounded by Alawite villages and they will kill us,” he said in a videotaped message sent to us.

People in the town say Shabiha militiamen control Telkalah’s entrances.

But in Telkalah itself, the opposition is in control. An armed man said on tape: “We took up arms to protect civilians from the villages loyal to regime. We are surrounded by 72 Alawite villages and we are afraid they will attack us.”

Although they are a minority, the Alawites have dominated the country since President Bashar al-Assad’s father took power some 40 years ago.

Women in the town complain that aid distributed by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent is only reaching Alawite villages.

It is hard for us to independently confirm that. But what has become clear is that there are those in the mainly Sunni opposition who believe it is the Alawites in the security forces and the Alawite Shabiha gangs who are doing the killings on behalf of the state.

Some blame the authorities for pushing for a civil war as a way to retain the support from minority communities. 

Others have dismissed fears of an all-out Alawite-Sunni conflict saying sectarianism has been deliberately provoked by Assad’s elite. “There is no sign that Alawites as a group are backing the state. And the opposition is working very hard to avoid a sectarian backlash once they get rid of the regime,” Rami Khoury, a Middle East analyst, said.

The Alawites and other minorities may need assurances, however, because the possibility of sectarian retribution cannot be ignored

Undoubtedly they fear they may come under attack if the government falls.

That is why there is a clear need to avoid a power vacuum in the event of the regime falling. An orderly transition may be the only way to prevent what could become an all-out sectarian war.

Source: Al Jazeera