Syria’s Minorities Are Afraid – After Assad, They Shouldn’t Be

Residents of the hillside town of Saidnaya 25 miles north of Damascus are a close, united community. They pray together at several of the town’s churches that cater for hundreds of Greek Orthodox, Syriac Catholic and Syriac Orthodox families. Their sons and daughters regularly take part in church-organised scout and band activities. Their Christian faith features strongly in their daily activities – and political stances.

Syria’s Christians, like other minorities, have voiced serious unease with the nature and makeup of the current uprising. Church leaders continue to back the regime which in turn tells minorities it will protect them from extremist Islamic elements.

When a shell passed through a monastery wall last January but failed to explode, locals blamed ‘armed terrorist groups’ in nearby towns and thanked god no major damage was caused. When a Christian soldier is killed in action, his family and community are afforded space, time and peace for his funeral, something activists inside the country can only dream of.

Counting for around 25% of Syria’s population, most minorities do not want the minority Assad regime to fall. Communal ties between Christians and Alawites, the two largest minority religions, are close. Alawites regularly nightclub with Christians. In the mountains of southwest Syria Christians, Druze and Alawite families regularly lunch at restaurants that serve beer and araq, an alcoholic drink.

Alawites in Syria are tied to the regime out of fear and because many hold jobs of consequence across the Syrian economy. Christians readily identify with the Russian Orthodox Church, which has publically opposed foreign intervention in Syria. Syria’s Shia population look to Hezbollah, still a staunch supporter of the Assad regime, for guidance. All these factors work to push minorities closer to the Syrian authorities. On top of this is the state’s media campaign tells minorities what they want to hear – that the regime is a bastion of stability.

But Syria’s minorities should not fear a government born out of revolt.

My experience of Syria over almost five years is a country far more liberal than neighbouring Jordan or Iraq. In Latakia on Syria’s Mediterranean coast, young girls have waited on restaurant tables for years. Wealthy hijab-wearing teenagers (generally Sunni) in Damascus I have met are more likely to quote from the American television series Gossip Girl than the Quran; they are Syria’s future.

In the seats of power – Damascus and Aleppo – radical Islam is a very side-lined ideal indeed. People want security, functioning schools and jobs, and they will not stand for an Islamist regime taking the place of one (Assad’s) they have watched kill thousands.

And there are historical precedents that point to tolerance of those who have sided with forces opposing Syria’s Sunni majority. When French colonial forces upped sticks and left Syria in the late 1940s, Syria’s Alawites and Christians pleaded with them to stay – they feared a backlash from Syrian Sunnis because of the privilege extracted through close ties to the French regime. The French duly left but no reprisals took place. Many Sunni activists I have spoken to point to the fact that Fares al-Khoury, a Christian, was twice prime minister of Syria before the Assad regime took over. “The Assad family shames the Alawite people,” they say.

In any case, with Assad and his mafia gone, what will remain for his security forces to fight for? It is possible, likely even, that for a time some Alawites may retreat to their home villages in the mountains along the Syrian coast. But they will not wish to bring violence into their own villages. Once Assad is gone they will know that nothing remains to fight for.

Certainly, reprisals against the overwhelmingly Alawite shabiha and security forces are possible, but not on the scale that will lead to a concentrated targeting of the entire Alawite sect and of other minorities.

There are zero good options for anyone living in Syria at the moment – Sunni or minority. But the regime’s brutality has ensured this revolt will overcome. The question for Syria’s minorities today remains this: when will they grab hold of reality and begin to shape their own futures?