Those who fear change in Syria

Stephen Starr dissects the Syrian uprising and what the future might hold for Bashar al-Assad’s embattled presidency.

Dozens of pro-regime rallies across Syria have seen thousands come to proclaim their support for President Bashar al-Assad. Cranes hoist television cameras high into the sky. Massive sound systems boom out nationalistic songs praising the president and Souria al watan (the Syrian nation). The sound of helicopters reverberates around city squares; many are of the military variety. ‘The people want Bashar al-Assad,’ cry the crowds. ‘God, Syria and Bashar, only,’ goes another. An Orwellian cloud descends over the masses as men holding loudspeakers call on the crowds to denounce America, Israel, NATO and Al Jazeera. In the afternoon hours, cars stream off around city streets honking horns and waving pictures of Assad. All is well, Syria is strong.

Putting a figure on the number of Syrians still behind the regime, as it faces the greatest challenge in its forty years of rule, is impossible; but they are significant. On days of rallies they are frenzied, vocal and defiant. They are oblivious to the deadly machinations of the state’s violence against fellow Syrians in Homs, Hama and, elsewhere.

The regime continues to believe it is right and just. It thinks it has fallen victim to a foreign media campaign to slur Syria’s name, that Syria is being targeted by ‘armed gangs’ supported by ‘foreign powers.’ It forewarns, perhaps correctly, that forced political change will not just destabilise Syria, but the entire region. It says it is in the midst of a ‘comprehensive reform program’ that will address the concerns of all Syrians. The uppermost figures of the regime also believe that, despite messages sent to millions of mobile phone and internet users urging people to attend and notwithstanding the closing of state institutions and schools, the crowds that show up at pro-government rallies in Damascus, Aleppo and other cities are entirely spontaneous.

More than any other Arab country save Lebanon, Syria is home to a complex and eclectic mix of sects and religions cast like salt across the country. At around twenty-five percent of the country’s population, Kurds, Ismailis, Circassians, Shias, Druze, a litany of competing Christian denominations, and Alawites live with and among a Sunni majority.

Having been ruled by what is identified on the Syrian street as a purely Alawite establishment for over forty years, minorities are extremely fearful of the revolt sweeping the country. Christians – ten percent of the population – fear a political takeover by the exiled Muslim Brotherhood and the consequent loss of social freedoms. Minorities want the Assad regime to stay, for Alawite rule to continue. Hardcore Alawites vow to take up arms and to fight to the death in the name of Assad – as much out of parochial pride as of fear. Leading Christians and Alawites are being targeted in the restless city of Homs. Engineers and academics have been shot dead. The spectres of past cleansing in Baghdad and Beirut loom in their thoughts.

Alawites, the Twelver offshoot of Shia Islam, are among those most fearful. Descending from villages high in the mountains above the coastal cities of Latakia and Tartous, they took hold of political power in Damascus through Hafez al-Assad. Hafez then surrounded himself with people he knew could be trusted – mostly Alawites from his rural homestead.

Alawites in Syria are easily recognisable. Many drive in old Mercedes cars decorated with pictures of the president. Their women do not wear the hijab. A large number of Alawites, ten percent of the Syrian population, have done well in their lives: only Alawites serve in the higher echelons of the security and military apparatus; many staff state organs and ministries.

An Alawite Syrian working at a foreign mission in Damascus said his father has been subjected to sectarian slurs in public ‘because of his coastal accent.’ A dead giveaway is the pronunciation of the letter qaf; Syrians from the Alawite-populated coast use it, Damascenes, overwhelmingly Sunni, don’t. As a result of such comments, he and his wife left the capital last summer for their home village of Sheikh Badr in the mountains east of Tartous. ‘There was no work for them here in Damascus because there were no foreigners to teach Arabic to, but they also left because they were afraid. The people in Alawite villages are very afraid; they are arming themselves; they support the president completely,’ he said.

Today, a mostly Sunni-led revolt has split the country down the middle. The overwhelming majority of the dead, tortured and detained are Sunni. Because minorities – for the most part – have not taken to the streets out of basic clan- or religious-based loyalties, they are not getting killed. Instead, Alawites and Christians stand by as Sunnis are slaughtered.

Syria’s Christians lay claim to this land more than any other. Residents in the town of Maaloula, an hour’s drive north of Damascus, still speak Aramaic – the language of Jesus Christ. Today, Maaloula, Saidnaya and other predominantly Christian towns have remained silent as the unrest swamped hundreds of areas around the country. Their silence, however, should not be interpreted as apathy.

Last July rumours were rampant among the capital’s Christian community that an independent Islamic emirate – a Muslim state – had been proclaimed in the town of Qatana, 22 kilometres west of Damascus. ‘They will make us wear the hijab and red shoes (to show we are not Muslims),’ said a Christian woman who works as a hotel manager in the Bab Touma district of the capital.

In working class Qatana, at the foothills of mountains dividing Syria and Lebanon, a tense standoff has emerged between the majority Sunni population and the Christian, Alawite and Druze communities. Driving through a checkpoint at the main entrance to the town thirty minutes after worshipers left two local mosques on a recent Friday, dozens of government-sanctioned armed men could be seen on the streets. They sat around the town centre next to large green buses; they were dressed in olive green and were holding machine guns. They were there to intimidate the Sunnis as they left the mosques after prayers.

At about four o’clock the same afternoon bursts of machine-gun fire rang out in the air. Shortly after, I was told a group of men were captured attempting to smuggle weapons into the town. ‘They caught three, thank God,’ said a Christian man in his sixties whose brother gives whiskey and food to the Alawite security forces manning the town’s checkpoints.

The fear of change is also a sentiment that dominates the thoughts and actions of millions in Syria’s two largest cities, Aleppo and Damascus. For many, the adage that western powers, through Israel, want to take Syria apart rings true.

‘I hate the regime,’ said a Kurdish architect from Damascus. ‘But Europe wants to take control of Syria. Every Syrian will join together to fight foreigners if NATO attempts to attack Syria. We must give them [the regime] time or we will bring war on ourselves.’

‘If America attacks Syria the government can do something very easily that will unite all twenty-two million Syrians: declare war on Israel and attack it through the Golan,’ said Ali, a Shia shopkeeper and Hezbollah supporter from Bab Touma, a Christian quarter in the capital’s Old City. Mounting an armed campaign against Israel may be the regime’s final card and can in no way be discounted given the desperate lengths it has gone to thus far in its attempts to quell the popular uprising.

At a Spartan cafe inside the faculty of dentistry at Damascus University, Marwan (not his real name) sits wearing green medical scrubs, his long back bent over a plastic table. Marwan’s opinions represent what many minorities fear.

‘Syria is an Islamic country – women should not show their arms or legs. Couples who are not married should not walk in the street together. This regime has allowed these things in our country, they are responsible for these moral failings,’ he says. Marwan’s colleague, a Christian, tells me how Sunnis – among them Marwan’s friends – attacked a military post in Souran, a village close to Hama, and killed a number of Alawite officers. ‘He [Marwan] said they bashed one man’s head with a piece of tile. When he told me this story he boasted about it,’ said the Christian man.

The city dwellers – the ‘silent majority’ – are unlikely to take to the streets against the regime in a unified manner. ‘We have nothing to pay for military intervention in Syria. Libya has oil and they can pay back NATO with this, but we have nothing; that is why I think there will be no foreign intervention here,’ a leading Damascene businessman declared over coffee at the towering Four Seasons hotel recently.

But to say the urban elite supports the regime because they fear losing value in their often-million-dollar homes is simplistic. A different form of fear remains the underlying motive. After forty years, trepidation of the all-reaching security forces is more evident than ever.

The complications of foreign intervention in Syria are also compounded by sectarian- and nationalist-based loyalties. The country remains technically at war with Israel. Some posit the Syrian regime may have been behind the recent upsurge of attacks by Kurdish militants against Turkey. And there are its crucial links to Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas. Moreover, Bashar al-Assad stands up to American and other western countries’ meddling in the region, and this wins him much domestic support.

Divisions between Syrians are growing increasingly pronounced and civil war threatens on the horizon. The international community – especially the United States – is largely powerless to act. As deep-rooted fears ingrained in the minds of Syria’s minorities grow, the road to conflict widens.

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