Syria’s pro-democracy movement is no longer one. It has drowned in the tumultuous waters of a full-blown internecine war. Those of us born in the chaos of the 15-year Lebanese civil war now see a familiar sight in the images of bloody bodies and crumbling buildings that flash across our TV and computer screens. It is now Syria’s turn to suffer escalating violence, a failing economy and the meddling of foreign powers in its civil war.
Violence has consumed opposition strongholds and is slowly spreading to larger cities. The Syrian opposition is stifled by infighting. The US and Europe seem in no hurry to intervene, leaving the crisis to spiral further out of control.
But more profound hazards await Syria. Increasing sectarianism and the radicalization of the Muslim street are the dangers that will not be quelled with a military solution or an internationally brokered peace.
It is a monster that once awakened will not go back to sleep without a true reconciliation. Lebanon is a living example of this unfortunate reality. In Syria, members of the Druze and Christian communities, along with other minorities, may believe that the wisest course of action is waiting it out to see if the Alwaite Assad regime or the mostly-Sunni opposition gains the upper hand.
They might be fooled into thinking that backing Assad, which most minorities do, will pay off. After all, government troops have fought the opposition Free Syrian Army fighters in their impoverished strongholds. The disorganized and poorly armed rebels have been unable to hold their positions. The Syrian forces have stayed relatively united, and defections have taken place mostly among lower-ranking officers. President Assad’s repression strategy might be working for now, temporarily quelling the insurgency with brutal force. Whole neighborhoods in the various rebel-held regions have been flattened, the residents killed or made refugees.
“Why take a stand?” many minorities are thinking. The opposition and the regime will fight it out among themselves, or the international community will intervene soon enough to put an end to it.
They are wrong. Violence is spreading. Rebel tactics are slowly changing, and they are coming to rely more on guerilla warfare. Pipelines are being bombed, and targeted assassinations taking place. In spite of the army’s crackdown, the opposition is still clinging to its rural strongholds, and the fighting is reaching closer to the once-safe capital of Damascus. There was even a pitched battle a few kilometers away from President Assad’s residence last month. Human Rights Watch has documented kidnappings, detentions, torture, and the execution of civilians and members of the security forces, which it attributed to armed opposition elements.
And it is becoming more sectarian. There have been attacks targeting Alawites, the sect from which the ruling family hails. Damascus and the country’s industrial center, Aleppo, have been shaken by a series of explosions, the latest by the newly formed Jihadi group Jabhat al-Nusra. Salafist movements, which in the past were only marginal, are slowly but surely gaining support and are being egged on by radical imams and jihadi bloggers.
The longer Assad keeps on attributing the violence to “armed terrorist cells” and denying the regime’s actions, the more resentment it will foster. Every image of destroyed neighborhoods and corpses neatly tied in white shrouds sends waves of anger through the populace. As the rift deepens, the regime will draw in Syrian minorities, standing opposite the Sunni majority.
Assad is running out of time. He might still have a fragile upper hand, but his grip on the country is undoubtedly shaken. : President Assad strategy might be working for now, momentarily quelling the insurgency without being successful in dealing the massive final blow necessary to ensure the regime’s long-term survival. With the country’s coffers emptying at a startling speed, it his highly doubtful that Assad will have the means to rebuild the nation, a first step in the process of winning back the hearts of the people.
Humiliation breeds radicalism, and marginalized masses will only turn inward the longer the standstill continues.
Minorities cannot be perceived as staying on the sidelines. A nation is strong when its people share a similar interpretation of history. There can be no winners or losers. Time does not heal all wounds. Syrian minorities can’t rely on wishful thinking alone. They need to take a stand. For history, if not for their own survival.