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Syria’s Minorities and the Paradox of Neutrality

Trapped between extremist rebels and government forces, Syria’s embattled religious minorities tried various survival tactics, including attempts at remaining neutral. But in doing so, they provoked the wrath of both sides and have paid a terrible price, writes Salma Mousa.

Written by Salma Mousa Published on Read time Approx. 7 minutes

In the early days of the uprising, Christian, Druze and Alawite leaders were quick to throw their political weight behind Bashar al-Assad.

“The demonstrators are nothing but terrorists,” said Archbishop Tabé of the Syrian Catholic Church in late 2011, scarcely veiling his contempt. “In any political system, there are always 10 percent who have to be sacrificed.”

In contrast to their counterparts elsewhere in the region, religious minorities in Syria enjoyed not only de jure freedom of worship, but treatment as “full” citizens in one of the few remaining Arab countries where, as one bishop put it, a Christian could “really feel the equal of a Muslim.” Collectively comprising a quarter of Syria’s population, the support of Syria’s minorities has traditionally been seen as key to the government’s survival.

Paradoxically, Syrian “secularism” privileged non-Sunni elites. Desperate to allay skepticism of their right to rule over a Sunni majority, the Assads were only too keen to marshal the support of diverse allies under a banner of a secular national identity. Underpinned by the desire to not be limited by their minority status and mutual concern of a Sunni takeover, minorities came to view this unofficial alliance as their only hope for remaining relevant in Syrian state and society. Like many moderate Muslims, minorities preferred the devil they knew, four decades of quasi-secular autocracy, to the devil they didn’t – an Islamist winter.

Such fears were quickly substantiated. The opposition did its best to sidestep reports of protesters chanting “Christians to Beirut and Alawites to the coffin,” but the systemic abuse of Christians as early as 2012 prompted some minorities into rallying behind the government even if they had previously been skeptical of Assad. Tales of sectarian bloodshed at the hands of Muslims after the toppling of strongmen in Egypt and Iraq resonated strongly with Syria’s minorities.

As the government’s Shabeeha began to outdo itself in brutality, non-Sunni communities were forced to choose between a secular autocracy and a sectarian democracy. With their survival hanging in the balance, Christians, Druze and Alawites formed crude militias to defend their ancestral homelands, distancing themselves from both sides. Both the government and rebel forces interpreted this uneasy neutrality as defection.

The vast majority of casualties during the conflict have been Sunni Muslims but it would be unjust and incorrect to deny that non-Muslims have suffered additional humiliation, savagery and persecution on account of their religion – the same humiliation, savagery and persecution bought and paid for by the U.S. allies in an alliance with al-Qaida affiliates that was unthinkable four years ago.

Take the case of the northwestern governorate of Idlib, a once-flourishing land boasting a proud history as one of Syria’s most ancient kingdoms. After frequently switching hands between rebel and government control, Idlib became the centerpiece of Jaish al-Fatah’s allied campaign in 2015. It was then that its most powerful components, Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, besieged the town of Saidnaya – home to one of the last pockets of native Aramaic speakers in the world. The group’s ominous black flag was hoisted a few meters from a local church, in a home repurposed as a Sharia court. When the town fell, dozens of slaughtered bodies lay strewn across the streets in the shadow of smashed churches. The Red Crescent in Idlib buried 300 bodies in a mass grave on April 9, where the blood of Muslims deemed thugs mixed with that of Christians labeled enemies of Islam.

Ex-U.S. ambassador to Syria Robert Ford was an early proponent of working with these same rebels. Like many others, Ford offered repeated assurances that the armed opposition were pro-democracy moderates, dismissing those raising concerns about jihadist beneficiaries of Washington’s largesse as Assad apologists. Ford justified backing Ahrar al-Sham, a Salafist militia founded by al-Qaida members that vigorously rejects the idea of an elected post-Assad government in Syria in favor of a “divine system prescribed for [God’s] Caliph.” The same group has massacred Christians in Idlib for the “crime” of not following Sharia law. The U.S. does not designate Ahrar al-Sham as a terrorist group.

When confronted with these realities, Ford summed up the expedient position of the U.S. and its allies in Syria: “I don’t agree at all with Ahrar al-Sham’s desires to set up an Islamic State [in Syria] … but I have to admit that they accept the needs to be in a political negotiation.” A few months later, Ford took to Twitter to admit that these “moderates” were fighting alongside ISIS and al-Qaida and posed a “major problem” for the opposition.

Elsewhere in Idlib, Druze inhabitants of the Byzantine village of Qalb Lawza met the same fate. Jabhat al-Nusra forced the local Druze to renounce their faith and accept Sunni Islam, destroyed their shrines and imposed gender segregation. This gunpoint-proselytization bought the Druze a few more months of safety. Perhaps that is why, when 20 villagers were killed in a shoot-out last June, Jabhat al-Nusra deemed the incident an “unjustified error.” Importantly, the group added that it continued to defend the “blood and honor of Muslims.” Had the Druze not been forcefully converted, one would have expected a different statement parroting the fundamentalist view of Druze as apostates in the tradition of Ibn Taymiyyah.

But these inconvenient realities do little to derail the gravy train of Saudi, Qatari and Turkish money. Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham make up 90 percent of the militants in the area. Bolstered by foreign support, the coalition captured the provincial capital on March 28, the most important development in the civil war since ISIS captured Raqqa in May 2013. Jisr al-Shughur, another strategic northern capital, fell a few weeks later.

It seemed that the Druze would rapidly go the way of Christians, caught in the crossfire between two parties that considered them either heterodox subhumans or backstabbing traitors. And yet the Qalb Lawza massacre catalyzed a farsighted Druze response that has almost certainly secured their survival, regardless of the war’s eventual outcome.

The region’s most prominent Druze leader, seasoned strategist Walid Jumblatt, continued to push for cooperation with Muslims even after the Idlib massacre. “You can’t fight the majority of Syrians who are Sunnis,” Jumblatt reasoned. The Druze managed to leverage the incident to gain two rare concessions from Damascus: The exemption of their youth from being conscripted to fight in non-Druze areas, and the influx of government forces to fortify the Druze stronghold of Sweida against encroaching rebels. The Druze defiantly distanced themselves from the government while maintaining good relations with Sunni neighbors. Not only have they secured their future in an inevitably Sunni-led state, but autonomy may even be back on the table after a 90-year hiatus. As they have done for centuries, the Druze largely managed to escape Sunni persecution and coercion by the central government.

Predictably, Alawites have not been as lucky. Two years into the crisis, at least 41,000 of the 94,000 fatalities were Alawites. Even though the Shiite offshoot counted some of Syria’s poorest among its members, their automatic affiliation with the Assad government has cost them dearly. Of course, the government’s inner core of security elites and the notorious 4th Armored Division are reserved almost exclusively for Alawites, both of which are responsible for unspeakable atrocities. But according to Monzer Makhous, an Alawite representative of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, the cracks at the heart of Alawite society are beginning to show. “The fact that Alawites have never been able to voice their anger at the government is not because they supported it but because they have been suppressed for more than 40 years,” he said. In their fiefdoms, Alawite warlords feel able to refuse orders from Damascus, while the rank-and-file feel they are tools rather than beneficiaries of the government.

But the worst may be yet to come for Alawite civilians. The Russian intervention has breathed new life into a regime that was slowly dying of structural decay and desertion. Jabhat al-Nusra’s leader Abu Mohamed al-Julani vowed to avenge the deaths of Sunni civilians caused by intensified Russian airstrikes, calling on his insurgents to “escalate the battle and to target Alawite towns and villages in Latakia … to daily hit their villages with hundreds of missiles as they do to Sunni cities and villages.”

Admittedly, mixed signals from communal leaders complicate an indiscriminate condemnation of the opposition. Jumblatt has declared that Jabhat al-Nusra is “not a terrorist group,” the Free Syrian Army includes all-Christian units and Christian militias like the Sutoro have joined the opposition. Both Christian and Alawite ideologues (notably George Sabra and Monzer Makhous) played pivotal roles in the civilian opposition, signing a petition supporting Jabhat al-Nusra even after it earned a spot on the U.S. government’s terrorist list. At the same time, other armed Christian groups have joined forces with the Syrian army to protect their neighborhoods from the likes of Jabhat al-Nusra.

The nuanced and varied viewpoints among Christians, Druze and Alawites underscore the danger of grouping members of minorities into monolithic blocs. This sort of generalization has blurred the line between enemy and civilian in ways that led to their targeting in the first place.

Regardless of the ever-shifting web of alliances in Syria, it is clear that the anti-ISIS and anti-Assad campaign has morphed into witting support for extremists. And these extremists have no patience for those who do not conform to varying narrow visions of Islamic orthodoxy. The “credible, inclusive, nonsectarian” government called for by the Vienna declaration must mollify the disturbing sectarianism alienating religious minorities and their moderate Muslim allies. And yet, it is precisely these sectarian elements – frequently overlooked by opposition-enamored Western and Arab media – that will relegate the inclusion of religious minorities to the bottom of the agenda in post-conflict Syria.

As the atrocities continue, extremists on both sides compete to empty the region of its religious diversity. Through emigration or elimination, militants in all corners are erasing Syria’s ancient minorities from the national fabric – perhaps permanently.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Syria Deeply.

Top image: Young women walk in a monastery in the village of Maaloula, north of Damascus. Syrian government forces retook the ancient Christian town of Maaloula in early 2014 after it was overrun by Syrian rebels and al-Qaida-linked militants. (Associated Press)

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