Syria’s Assad exploits minority fears

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“It’s like the arsonist posing as the firefighter”
Gareth Browne
An army jacket, a picture of the Virgin Mary and a Syrian flag with Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad are seen in a room in Damascus, Syria April 22, 2018. REUTERS/Ali Hashisho
An army jacket, a picture of the Virgin Mary and a Syrian flag with Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad are seen in a room in Damascus, Syria April 22, 2018. REUTERS/Ali Hashisho

Largely untouched by a war that elsewhere has killed hundreds of thousands, there is a calmness in Bab Tuma, the Christian district of Damascus’s Old City. The Syriac St George Cathedral is swept, tidy and untouched by the artillery and air strikes that have pounded other parts of the capital.

The scene is indicative of a wider regime message that has grown loud in recent years – only in government-held areas do the Christians have a future.

Although it is not just the Christians. The Damascus government is adamant that only under its rule can minorities survive. It is a message that has become integral to its existence domestically and internationally.

In his Damascus office, Minister for Religious Affairs, Mohammed Abdul Sattar boasts: “There is no religion or sect on the national ID card”.

The regime itself is a minority composite, the presidential family is largely Alawite, a Shia off-shoot that comprised about 10 per cent of the pre-war population. Hammouda Sabbagh, speaker of the parliament, is the first Syriac Orthodox Christian to hold the post.

They play a prominent role in the military apparatus too – commander of the elite Tiger Forces, Brig Suheil Al Hassan, is an Alawite.

Since the onset of the war, a plethora of minorities have become increasingly close to the regime, Christian militias have fought in battlefronts from Aleppo to the eastern desert of Deir Ezzor, while Armenian and Circassian businessmen have also cast their lot in with the Al Assad regime.

Armenian MP Nora Arissian is in no doubt the government is the true defender of Syria’s Armenian community. “In Syria we live in a multicultural and harmonious society, so we do not have minority and majority. The rights of the Armenians are reserved through the constitution of the Syrian Arab Republic, and the government is acting upon the constitution.

“As long as opposition groups believe in extremism and terrorism, we believe that our lives would be in danger”, she told The National.

Syria’s Druze have been one of the few groups to sit jadedly in a grey zone during a war that has violently polarised most other communities in the country. While not fully embracing the regime, their hesitancy to embrace the armed opposition has often been cultivated by the government to demonstrate this supposed loyalty of minorities.

Nour Radawan, director of Suwayda 24, a news site based in the Druze-dominated southern city of Suwayda, suggests to The National that the relationship is far more precarious than the regime makes out.

“People here say they don’t support the regime, but we can’t fight ISIS, Nusra and the barrel bombs at the same time. We’re not that strong, that’s why it appears we support the government. We don’t trust the regime to defend Suwayda if ISIS or Nusra come for us, that’s why we have set up our own militias.

“ISIS was on Suwayda’s border for almost three years and the regime did nothing. Many here think the regime is just using ISIS against us – that’s why we have set up our own militias”.

Dr Leon Goldsmith, author of Cycle of Fear: Syria’s Alawites in War and Peace, says the importance of this government line cannot be underplayed.

“This narrative – the very superficial dualism between secular regime and Islamist opposition – has been one of the key factors in the whole crisis. It has been accepted, both among lay people and reasonable thinkers.”

He says that various minority groups’ sidling up to the regime has fostered a deepened distrust and hatred among those who sided with the opposition, noting a point of no return, especially for Alawites, in 2011, when the government began its brutal clampdown on protests.

“From that point on they were doomed to be conflated with the state’s repression, I don’t know how that can be restored.

“The regime has really destroyed the long-term prospects for their future and any long-term stability or sustainability without the regime in power.

“The thing that has created the danger for the minority groups is also now their only hope for protection in absence of international action.

“It’s like the arsonist posing as the firefighter.”