Syrian Unrest Stirs New Fear of a Deeper Sectarian Divide
By Anthony Shadid
The New York Times
June 13, 2011
BEIRUT, Lebanon — The Syrian government’s retaking of a town this weekend that had teetered beyond its control is sharpening sectarian tensions along one of the country’s most explosive fault lines: relations between the Sunni Muslim majority and the minority Alawite sect to which the family of President Bashar al-Assad belongs, residents and officials say.
Each side offered a litany of complaints about the other, according to interviews with refugees, residents and activists, suggesting, even in a small sample, deepening animosities in a country where the fear of civil war is at once real and used as a pretext for suppressing dissent. Syria is a volatile blend of Sunnis, Alawites, Christians, Kurds and others inhabiting the same land, but with disproportionate political power vested in the Alawite elite.
Jisr al-Shoughour, where the government used tanks and helicopters to crush what it called “armed terrorist gangs,” sits in a landscape as complicated as anywhere in Syria. It is a Sunni town with an Alawite town less than a mile to the south, interspersed with Christian and more Sunni settlements.
One Sunni resident of Jisr al-Shoughour said he received a text message from an Alawite friend asking if his family was O.K. “I replied, ‘My two sisters with a baby have been killed,’ ” said the resident, who gave his name as Mohammed. Others accused Alawite neighbors of taking part in the crackdown, some coming from a town less than a mile away.
Some suggested that those same neighbors set up checkpoints on nearby roads, ostensibly to detain government opponents.
Alawites, on the other hand, shuddered at the prospect of Sunni insurgents who they believe may have helped wrestle Jisr al-Shoughour, at least momentarily, from government hands.
“I’m so worried that the country might be dragged toward a sectarian confrontation,” said Aqsam Naisi, an Alawite lawyer and human rights activist in Damascus. “Jisr al-Shoughour is one example, and I hope it will be one that passes.”
The prospect alarms outsiders as well, and has been one reason that the United States and Arab neighbors have as a whole been reluctant to push out President Assad. “The sectarian aspect, the divisions and the animosity are getting worse,” said an Obama administration official in Washington, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
“I don’t think it will go away,” the official added. “What happened in the northwest will only harden the Alawite feelings, harden them as a group, harden their animosity toward the Sunnis and vice versa. It will only harden this divide.”
The depth of sectarian divisions in Syria — a country no less diverse than Iraq and Lebanon, both neighbors that fought civil wars — remains in dispute, though they already have punctuated protests and crackdowns in towns like Baniyas, on the Mediterranean coast, and Tel Kalakh, near the Lebanese border, since the uprising erupted in March.
Syrian officials have suggested that militant Islamists have manipulated popular grievances and warned that the government’s collapse would endanger the relative security of Christians and other minorities there. Opposition activists have played down sectarian divisions, which they describe as a government ploy to sustain its four decades of rule. If anything, they say, the government has stoked tensions in a cynical bid to divide and rule.
The events in Jisr al-Shoughour are opaque — whether an armed uprising, a rebellion led by army deserters or a mixture of both.
But anger has clearly grown along with the uprising. Or, as another resident put it, “They are turning this into a sectarian battle.”
The prospect of sectarian strife underlines the very ambiguity of the Syrian protests, which erupted after the arrest and ensuing torture of 15 youths in the poor southern town of Dara’a. The demonstrations quickly spread across the country, building off everything from misery inflicted by a devastating drought in the countryside to the utter unaccountability of security forces in rural regions long neglected by Mr. Assad’s state.
While opposition activists and American officials have portrayed the protests as largely peaceful, even they acknowledge that armed elements have carried out attacks on security forces. The government says hundreds in its security forces have died, though the number pales before the opposition’s count of more than 1,300 protesters killed.
“We see the elements of an armed opposition across Syria,” the American official said. “In the northwest, we see it as having taken over. There are a lot of them.”
“We don’t really know who these armed groups are,” the official added, but noted that they are “religiously based, absolutely.”
The repercussions of the events in Jisr al-Shoughour have already reverberated across Syria’s border. By Monday, Turkey said nearly 7,000 refugees had fled across its border and, though it promised to care for them, the prospect of more displaced Syrians has alarmed officials there.
Criticism by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who considers Mr. Assad a friend, has consistently grown. Last week, Mr. Erdogan called the behavior of Maher al-Assad, Mr. Assad’s brother, who is said to have commanded the forces that retook Jisr al-Shoughour, “brutish and inhuman,” deeply angering Syrian officials.
The episode may have a more lasting impact as well.
So far, the government has relied on its support within the military and, more importantly, the intelligence services; the business elite; and the country’s religious minorities, namely Christians and Alawites. After recent events, Turkish and American officials say they believe that some of the business elite have begun to turn against the state.
Minorities, meanwhile, are said to be growing more fearful over a government that has promised to deliver stability but instead finds itself in a protracted crisis.
In the hinterland of Jisr al-Shoughour, a predominantly Sunni region once a stronghold of the Muslim Brotherhood and known for its opposition to the Assad family, criticism was directed as much at Alawite neighbors as at the Syrian leadership.
Hamza, a 28-year-old day laborer, who like most interviewed refused to provide his last name, said some neighbors from Ishtabraq had joined paramilitary forces there. Another accused the government of arming Alawite neighbors, a longstanding charge.
“People in Jisr know each other very well, and they know the villagers around us and we know these villagers are Alawites from Ishtabraq,” another resident there said.
Human rights activists cautioned that the anger was that — just anger.
“If there is no political will on the part of the opposition to turn this into civil war, how would the dirt of the regime be turned into mud?” said Wissam Tarif, head of Insan, a human rights group. “I don’t think it will turn into civil war, I just don’t see it.”
But the man who received the text message on Monday from an Alawite friend of 25 years was grimmer, in words that suggested inevitability.
“As people, we don’t want anything to happen between us,” Mohammed said by phone. “But the people in this regime are forcing us to hate Alawites.”
Hwaida Saad contributed reporting.