The revolution, counter-revolutions and wars in Syria are terribly misunderstood, particularly in the English-speaking West, by policy makers and publics alike. There are many shining exceptions, but in general poor media coverage, ideological blinkers and orientalist assumptions have produced a discourse which focuses on symptoms rather than causes, and which is usually unencumbered by grassroots Syrian voices or any information at all on Syrian political and cultural achievements under fire.
The consequent incomprehension is disastrous for two reasons – one negative, one positive.
First, the exponentially escalating crisis in Syria is a danger to everybody – Syrians and their neighbours first, but Europe immediately after. Russia’s terror-bombing is creating hundreds of thousands of new refugees. Meanwhile there’s good reason to believe President Putin is funding far-right anti-immigrant parties across Europe. It is very possible that this year’s flood of refugees will re-establish Europe’s internal borders, destroying the ‘Schengen’ free movement area, seen by some as Europe’s key political achievement since World War Two. With eleven million homeless, traumatised people on the eastern Mediterranean, terrorism is sure to increase. And the long-term geopolitical consequences of allowing, even facilitating, Russia, Iran and Assad to crush the last hopes of democracy and self-determination in Syria will create a still more dangerous world for our children. Yet European heads are being buried in the sand. Some still imagine a peace process is underfoot.
And the positive reason. Amidst the depravities of war, Syrians are organising themselves in brave and creative ways. The country now boasts over 400 local councils, most democratically elected, as well as tens of free newspapers, radio stations, women’s centres, and an explosion in artistic production. We shouldn’t just be feeling sorry for Syrians, but learning from them too. Their democratic experiments are currently under full-scale international military assault. They may be stamped out before most non-Syrians have even heard of them.
These factors spurred me, a British-Syrian novelist, and Leila al-Shami, a British-Syrian activist, to write our book “Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War”.
In place of innacurate grand narratives we have amplified the voices of Syrian revolutionaries. Instead of sensationalism we have tried to provide context (for without context all we are left with is ideology and assumptions). This means that we also seek to explain the perspectives of those we disagree with – the different varieties of Islamist, for instance, or pro-regime Alawis, who are often reluctantly driven to loyalty by fear and a lack of alternative leadership.
The following extract is taken from our chapter called ‘Scorched Earth: The Rise of the Islamisms’:
“We used to laugh at the regime propaganda about Salafist gangs and Islamic emirates. Then the regime created the conditions to make it happen.” Monzer al-Sallal
Tormented, bereaved and dispossessed, the Syrian people turned more intensely to religion. This doesn’t mean they became advocates of public beheadings and compulsory veiling; almost all were horrified by the appearance of these phenomena and most still expressed the desire for a civil rather than an Islamic state. A minority, disgusted by the uses to which religion had been put, questioned it more intensely than before. But in general religious emotions were enflamed, religious references were reinforced.
The first cause was the same one which powered militarisation – the brute fact of extreme violence. In most cultures the proximity of death will focus minds on the transcendent – there are no atheists in foxholes, as the saying goes – and moreso in an already religious society like Syria’s. Faith is intensified by death and the threat of death, and by the pain and humiliation of torture. And when the nation is splintering, sub-national identities are reinforced. In death’s presence, people want to feel like we, not like I, because I is small and easily erased.
The sung slogan ‘Ya Allah Malna Ghairak Ya Allah’ (O God We Have Nothing But You) became ubiquitous amongst protestors facing bullets. An intense relationship with God became a survival framework for the detained. Religious slogans became cosmic rallying calls for the fighters. In the Syrian context, radicalisation is better named traumatisation.
Islamism – in both moderate and extreme forms – flourished. The trend was more pronounced amongst the fighting formations than among the people in their committees, liberated towns and villages, and refugee camps – and there were concrete reasons for this, to do with arms supply, funding and discipline. The most serious consequence for the course of the revolution was the hardening of divisions between the Sunni Arab majority and the rest, and foremost amongst them the Alawis. By 2014 battlefield events (and certainly media reports) were often dominated by the acts of the most extreme Sunni Islamist militias – either the al-Qaida-linked Jabhat al-Nusra or the even more extreme Daesh. But at first these organisations were by no means the most important Islamist actors.
The persistence of sectarian resentment in secular, even unbelieving countries such as Ireland or Scotland reinforces an obvious point – these conflicts aren’t about theology but concern group fears and resentments, and their exploitation by power. Communal tensions, in other words, are the result not of ancient enmities but of contemporary political machinations. Communities engaged at one moment in seemingly unforgettable strife are, at another, busily engaging in intermarriage or political alliance. In Lebanon, for instance, the main civil war cleavage was Christian-Muslim, but now tends to divide Sunni-Shia, with Christian groups allied to both sides. And in Iraq, before the 2003 invasion, a third of marriages were cross-sect Sunni-Shia.
There was nothing fated about the sectarian breakdown in Syria. It was deliberately provoked and manipulated, by a host of secondary actors but primarily by the regime.
Why would the regime provoke first armed resistance and then a fierce sectarian backlash? Because Assadist policy under father and son, at home and abroad, is to present itself as the essential solution to problems it has itself manufactured – a case of the arsonist dressing up as a fireman. The double aim of the counter-revolutionary strategy was to frighten secularists and religious minorities into loyalty, and the West into tolerance of the dictatorship’s violence. The first goal has been partially achieved, the second – at the time of writing – moreso.
How did the regime undertake its project? To start with, it targetted Sunni areas for collective punishment and sectarian provocation, as Marcell Shehwaro saw: “The sensation of Sunni identity is based on something real – I can’t pretend that the regime isn’t sectarian, that there haven’t been sectarian massacres. Look, there were stages on the way. When they started killing Sunni civilians randomly as opposed to just those protesting – this increased it. People asked ‘Why are they killing my children when none were carrying arms, and while they’re sending provisions to the nearby Shia village?’ When they played Shia songs at the checkpoints in all-Sunni neighbourhoods. Then my atheist friends began asserting their Sunnism, which is now more of a social than a religious identity.”
Add to this a symbolic assault against Sunni sacred sites. Regime forces fired anti-aircraft guns at minarets until they crumbled. The Umawi mosque in Aleppo burnt, its thousand-year-old minaret fallen, and the minaret of Deraa’s Omari mosque, erected in the seventh Century by Caliph Omar ibn al-Khattab. The Khalid ibn al-Waleed mosque in Homs, built around the mausoleum of the famous Muslim general and companion of the Prophet, was shelled and burnt. In the regime’s cells, meanwhile, in a parody of the Muslim profession of faith, detainees were forced to swear that there was no god but Bashaar. Writer Samar Yazbek describes the provocation: “When the uprising began, they attacked or destroyed symbols of the Sunni religion. In Kafranbel in August 2013, every day for 20 days, when people broke their fast during Ramadan, the Assad forces used to shell them at that moment, when they were about to eat, when they were saying their prayers. They used to hear the people in the planes on the telephones saying to each other, ‘We want to make them eat death. We want to make them break their fast with death.’ And they did. This is where extremism comes from – from violence and brutality. I am sorry, but anybody who has had ten of their children die is going to become an extremist.”
Then the drowning tyranny threw its arms around the neck of the Alawi community, advertising its complicity in its crimes and making it a potential target for revenge. The Zahra neighbourhood of Homs, for instance, was a visible affront to the besieged and shelled areas surrounding it. An Alawi community overbrimming now with soldiers, with rocket launchers set up in the square, the whole area was lit up while the rest of the city was dark. There were goods in Zahra’s shops, and very cheap furniture, clothes and electronics on sale in the ‘Sunni market’ – all looted from opposition homes. Alawi women too were encouraged to join in the repression of their neighbours – eliciting a predictable response. “They come into people’s houses and take money if they find more than a little,” complained one Sunni woman. “They steal mobile phones. They kick and punch. And what have we done to deserve this? Is it because we’re Muslims? Because we say there is no god but God? Is that why we lost our youth and our homes?”
Collective punishment for Sunnis; the collective tarring of Alawis. The most crucial of all mass-implications, and another bloody turning point in the conflict, was the series of state-directed sectarian massacres on the central plain between Homs and Hama through summer 2012. On May 25th, 108 people were murdered at Houleh, a Sunni population surrounded by Alawi and Shia villages. The victims – almost half of them children – had their throats cut, their skulls split open, and were riddled with bullets. On June 6th, between 78 and 100 were similarly murdered at al-Qubeir, again a Sunni farming area surrounded by Alawi villages. On July 10th, between 68 and 150 – both civilians and rebel fighters – were killed at Tremseh.
In these and many smaller incidents, it was the shabeeha accompanying the army who did most of the killing. In Aleppo and Damascus the shabeeha militias are manned by thugs of all backgrounds, but in the Homs, Hama and Lattakia regions they are exclusively Alawi and Shia. Using locally-recruited gangs as death squads transforms neighbouring communities into bitter enemies. The strategy is coldly intelligent; it incites the victim community with a generalised thirst for revenge, while exploiting the spectre of this revenge to frighten even dissenting members of the ‘perpetrator community’ into redoubled allegiance.
Next, the entry of Lebanon’s Hizbullah and other Iranian-backed militias gave the conflict a Sunni-Shia flavour and fitted it into a regional struggle which had flared since the American occupation of Iraq. The Shia were by no means a natural target for Syrian Sunni enmity – they constituted only one percent of the population, and before the revolution were not particularly associated with the regime. When Hizbullah was perceived as an anti-Zionist resistance force, it was wildly popular amongst Syrians, Sunnis as much as everyone else, and in 2006, when hundreds of thousands of southern Lebanese – most of them Shia – fled Israeli bombs for Syria, they were housed in private homes. Several thousand were welcomed in the border town of Qusayr.
In any case, orthodox Shia like orthodox Sunnis tend to consider the Alawis heretics. The alliance between Assadist Syria and Shia-theocratic Iran is political, not religious – but that’s not the way it felt on the ground. By word and action, Iran and its clients seemed to confirm the discourse of the wildest anti-Shia propagandists. Hizbullah’s role in Assad’s recapture of Qusayr was followed by the regime burning the Homs land registry, and then reports that Alawi families were being invited to take over Sunni homes. Sunnis feared an agenda linking Alawi tyranny and ethnic cleansing to Shia regional expansionism. The results soon began to emerge. Hizbullah secured Qusayr on June 5th 2013; and on June 11th there was a savagely sectarian response at Hatla in Deir al-Zor, where 60 Shia – some shabeeha but at least 30 civilians – were murdered.
(end of extract)
With ISIS building a totalitarian ‘Sunni’ state in the east, and tens of thousands of transnational Shia troops on Assad’s frontlines, Syria’s sectarian dynamic has never been stronger than today. Russian bombing is leading towards a sectarian partition of the country that would immeasurably strengthen both forms of jihadism. Yet very many Syrians still refuse this fratricidal logic and remain aware of how sectarian hatreds have been fanned and exploited by tyranny. If these people are listened to, empowered, and involved in any real settlement, it may not be too late to avoid the very worst. Our solidarity is required. And before solidarity must come real knowledge.