Foreign Policy Blogs

Sectarian Strife Strikes Syria

This week the Syrian Uprising has taken on a newly sectarian character, a disturbing development, and one that could spell a much more violent and unpredictable future for the unstable nation.

On Sunday, Homs, Syria’s third largest city, saw the first openly sectarian violence of the now almost five month old unrest. It appears that clashes erupted between members of the Sunni and Alawite communities after the mutilated bodies of three regime supporters (translation: Alawite supporters) were returned to their families, after having been kidnapped during the week. Government security forces have now reasserted control over the town, and an exact death toll remains unclear.

Sectarian Strife Strikes Syria

Thousands take to the streets in Homs, Syria's third largest city and site of significant sectarian strife throughout the week.

Homs lies along the traditional fault line which separates the Alawite and Sunni communities in central Syria. There are other places where the two communities come into contact, but Homs is the place where they have always been in contact, and which both groups consider home. This is certainly not the first time Homs has seen inter-communal violence, but the current round is much more alarming due to the unsettled situation. The combination of such long standing communal friction with the volatile present only increases the chances that sectarian violence will spread.

The great fear is that Syria could fall into some of the same kinds of sectarian brutality that have ravaged its neighbors; Lebanon and Iraq. The Syrian populace has a long memory, and has not forgotten the tragedy of the Lebanese Civil War. They also have somewhere close to a million Iraqi refugees to remind them of Iraq’s sectarian problems.

The issue of Sectarianism will also continue to play a vital role in the ongoing battle for hearts and minds raging between the Regime and the Opposition. A key component of the Regime’s supporting narrative is that it is the only force within Syria capable of maintaining stability, and preserving peaceful coexistence between the many sectarian communities within Syria. The Opposition for its part has been trying to present a unified and diverse front, in an effort to calm fears of future sectarian issues, ala Lebanon and Iraq, if a change were to take place.

It is highly likely that the Regime had some hand in this most recent round of conflict, as there is some clear evidence that the President and his men have been playing the religion card for sometime. The three unfortunate regime supporters who met with an untimely demise were most likely acting on the orders of someone in the government, responding to a hotbed of opposition sentiment in force.

The Opposition as a whole has done an absolutely terrible job of dealing with this issue. One might recall the Antalya Conference some six weeks ago which had the stated goal of unifying the movement. Another conference was just held, this time in Istanbul, which accomplished about as much as the first: namely, nothing.

The Assad regime is still standing because the majority of Syrians are still unwilling to take action against it. If the Opposition plans on being more than a historical footnote it has to be able to build bridges across sectarian lines, assure minorities of its peaceful intentions, and stop dismembering people. And two out of three won’t cut it.

Sectarian Strife Strikes Syria

Amid protests in Deir al-Zour, home of Syrian oil production, protestors hold symbols of sectarian unity and signs asking as to the whereabouts of oil wealth.

Going forward the sectarian issue is going to be REALLY important. There is no way the country can remain anything like stable if blood feuds are popping off every which way. It would also be next to impossible for the minority groups to be peeled away from the Regime if they feel the least bit nervous about what the future might hold. This could get pretty bloody if all sides don’t collectively step away from the sectarian ledge, something that is exceedingly difficult to do.

Many Syrians have long argued a kind of Syrian Exceptionalism when it came to sectarian issues, suggesting that Syria was immune to Lebanese and Iraqi style violence because of strong national unity, and deeply embedded secular principles. That opinion will be put to the test as the next round of friday protests begin.



Walter Raubeson

Walter spent the last two years living and working in Damascus, reporting on the Syrian social, political, and cultural scene. Recently returned to the US, Walter continues to monitor Middle Eastern events with verve, and also gusto.

Having graduated from New York University's Masters Program in Political Science- International Relations-in September 2008, Walter's MA thesis analyzed the Lebanese political system; focusing on the impact of foreign intervention within Lebanon, particularly the roles of Iran, Israel, Syria, and the US.