Like many, I’ve been glued to the internet and television watching the degeneration of the situation in Syria. Since Friday, Al-Jazeera, the BBC and Reuters et al. have reported that somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 people have been killed by the regime and its loyalists throughout Syria. This morning, there were reports that Damascus sent the army (including tanks) to Dara’a, the town on the border with Jordan where the protests began last month.
One problem those following events have faced, similar to the situation during the post-election protests in Iran, is the lack of international media access to Syria. This, as Anthony Shadid recently noted from Beirut, has allowed exiled members of the protest movement to largely shape the coverage of the events. Supporters of the regime and others on the fence have argued that this smacks of manipulation:
The unprecedented power of the long-distance activists to shape the message troubled Camille Otrakji, a Damascus-born political blogger who lives in Montreal. Where others see coordination, he sees manipulation, arguing that the activists’ mastery of image belies a revolt more sectarian than national, and deaf to the fears of minorities. “I call it deception,” said Mr. Otrakji, a somewhat lonely voice in the Internet tumult. “It’s like putting something on the wrapping of a product which has nothing to do with what’s inside. This is all being manipulated.”
This sentiment jives somewhat with the official government line that there is some sort of outside manipulation of Syrians. Although Damascus is never really explicit about who’s supposedly pulling the strings, the idea is that Saudi Arabia, Israel and Lebanon (and/or America, al-Jazeera and the BBC) are somehow involved in stoking sectarian conflict to take down the Syrian regime.
All this brings up the question of sectarianism in Syria in general and more specifically, who the protesters actually are. Many supporters of the regime, and the regime itself, insist that the protesters are “Salafis” or members of the Muslim Brotherhood, implying that the movement is neither secular nor non-violent, as many activists claim it is. One example of this thinking can be seen in an article by Michel Aoun’s spokesperson, May Akl, who heavy handedly (and without any real evidence) stokes sectarian (and Western) fears of Islamism:
In the context of these leaderless revolutions that stemmed from rightful social, economic, and political demands, the only organized and well-structured group has been the Muslim Brotherhood. For 83 years now, the aim of this widespread movement has been to instill the Quran and Sunna as the sole reference for ordering the life of the Muslim family and state. Whether it will finally succeed in doing so by claiming to embrace the hopes and dreams of the Arab youth is not to be ruled out. As such, the real beneficiaries of Arab regime changes are yet to be discovered. While this theory has yet to be proven in Tunisia, Egypt, or Yemen, it is easier to note in Syria, where the last Muslim Brotherhood uprising was brutally crushed by Hafez Assad in Hama in 1982. But the Brotherhood in Syria, under claims of demanding reforms, does aim at overthrowing the Syrian regime.
[…] Hopefully, [US policy] will also acknowledge the fact that democracy and people power can actually be used as a cover for extreme groups to access power. Indeed, extreme Islam does not always come with a turban; sometimes, it comes with a tie.
As my friend Elias has noted, this is kind of a flip-flop for Aoun.
There has been a lot written recently to frame the protest movement and the regime’s violent crackdown as a sectarian conflict between Alawites (the Assad family’s sect, which makes up around 12% of Syria’s population and dominates the military and intelligence services) and Arab Sunnis, who make up around 65% of the country’s population. There has also been a bit of talk about the situation of Christians in this situation.
May Akl’s sectarian defense of the regime in Damascus can be seen in the context of a split in Lebanese Christian sentiment. As-Safir recently ran a piece about the division of Lebanese Christians on the matter:
Lebanese Christians who had transformed freedom into a special icon that sets them apart, are now afraid of what freedom will bring to the Arab populations in general and to the Syrian populations specifically, mainly [regarding] power and the authority. They are asking difficult and complicated questions, which is increasing their confusion.
They are split into two camps. On the one hand, the March 14 Christians are following up on the Syrian events with an implicit joy that they keep hidden . On the other hand, the Christians close to Damascus are following up on the developments in a cautious manner. And after the confusion of the early days, they are now repeating slogans about the “immunity of the regime” and the “conspiracy targeting it.”
But the two teams are brought closer together, based on different calculations and backgrounds, by a major concern and fear . The March 14 Christians believe that “any change in Syria will reflect positively on the Lebanese reality. The Damascus Spring must reflect on the Lebanese Spring and the change of the regime in Syria will allow for the independence of Lebanon and for the establishment of a state in it .”
An official figure from the Free Patriotic Movement wondered if “the Damascus Spring aims at achieving the demand for the return of the Niqab-wearing women to the classroom .” But apart from sarcasm, this Christian group considers that “the Syrian regime is not the best. It does have its drawbacks. However, we cannot deny the fact that it is working hard to be secular and the situation of the Christians in Syria is very good . A large number of Syrian intellectuals who have always objected [to the policies of the regime] do not want to overthrow it but rather to modernize and improve it .” This group also notes “a major concern in case some Lebanese have been reckless enough to contribute, one way or another, to the ongoing events in Damascus as this will negatively reflect on Lebanon in general and not just one side” (initial English translation by MidEast Wire).
As for the situation of Christians in Syria, the Washington Post recently reported that many Syrian Christians are eying the protests with suspicion:
Christians, who make up about 10 percent of Syria’s population, have largely stayed out of the anti-government protests, fearing what change could bring. Many are wealthy and could have much to lose if the uprising succeeds. Christians also occupy a disproportionately high percentage of senior positions within the government and tend to work in the educated professions as doctors, dentists and engineers.
As protests have spread by demonstrators demanding Assad’s ouster and a chance for Syrians to choose their leader after decades of autocratic rule by Assad and his father, the government has claimed that it is being challenged by Islamic radicals. The demonstrators deny that, but many Christians appear to believe it.
Dozens of planned weddings in Christian villages across Damascus have been canceled for fear of attack by extremists. Christians are withdrawing funds from banks, keeping their children home from school and not venturing out to socialize.
[…]Many Christians interviewed said their biggest fear was the growth of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is banned in Syria. About half as many worshipers as usual attended Good Friday church services this year because people are afraid to leave their homes.
That said, the plural of anecdotes is not data, so it’s unclear how widespread this sentiment is within the Syrian Christian community.
Again, this raises the question, then, of who the protesters are and how sectarian their movement actually is. There have been recent claims that the person behind the “Syrian Revolution 2011″ Facebook group is a Syrian member of the Muslim Brotherhood living in Sweden. Others have claimed that some protesters’ slogans have had a distinctly sectarian ring to them: “Alawiyye bi eltabout…w masi7iey 3a Beirut” (Alawites in a coffin and Christians to Beirut).
Not being in Syria and lacking media coverage of the events there, it would be an understatement to say that our understanding of what is happening is incomplete. That said, I do find a certain irony in the fact that regime and its supports are using the Islamist threat to attack the protesters, since Syrian foreign policy is largely organized around an alliance with Islamists (be they Sunni or Shi’a) in Lebanon, Iran, Palestine and Iraq. Many of those stirring up fear of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood were quick to point out Washington’s hypocrisy when democracy promotion took a back seat after the success of Hamas (the Palestinian franchise of the Muslim Brotherhood) in Palestinian elections. So assuming that the protesters are all Islamist (which clearly isn’t the case), would that mean that they would be ineligible to participate in a democratic system? If so, isn’t that a mirror image of the right-wing American rhetoric that supporters of Assad dislike so much?
Furthermore, even if the Syrian Ba’ath regime is ostensibly secular, doesn’t the fact that the security apparatus and military are dominated by Alawites mean that the regime is far from blameless in any subsequent sectarianism? Just as the Bahraini government has had a hand in fueling sectarian resentment there, isn’t the Assad regime guilty of doing the same thing in Syria?
Hanna Batatu once wrote of the Alawite tendency “in their political actions to adhere to or cooperate more markedly with kinsmen or members of their own clan or people from their own sect or region” as the resulting “logic of their fundamental structural situation” of a previously disadvantaged (and in this case, rural) group. Is it surprising, then, that this sectarian “narrow cliquishness,” as Batatu put it, might be met with an equally sectarian reaction?