A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Syria's Deepening Sectarian Violence

The sectarian aspect of Syria's conflict seems to be deepening Sheikh Ramadan al-Buti, a senor pro-Government Sunni cleric and scholar, was driven out of his own mosque for criticizing the demonstrators. You can find a lot more on the subject5 at Josh Landis's Syria Comment blog on a daily basis via that link, and the more general media commentariat are starting to notice, including this Reuters report,  or this recent piece.

And the violence from the rebel side is worsening, and often is directed at the ‘Alawite community. That has perhaps strengthened support for the government with its ‘Alawite base, and it has allowed the Syrian government to portray the uprisings as a Sunni, Salafi, violent fundamentalist uprising. In at least some parts of the north of the country, that may be a fair characterization, though not everywhere. As I noted at some length last month, the government's brutality is unjustifiable, but it is not all one-sided; in Homs, as earlier in Jisr al-Shughur, there is plenty of evidence of violent attacks on ‘Alawite families, security forces, police, etc. Not all the demonstrators are the peaceful protesters of Tahrir. And although the world was horrified by the mass killings in Hama back in 1982, that was in response to a violent uprising that had seized control and held the city for a week.

The growing sectarian threat allows the regime to portray all its enemies as tools of violent Sunni Salafi radicals. It also gives a weapon to the Asad regime's allies elsewhere in the Shi‘ite world, with Hizbullah and Iran's media also portraying this increasingly as a Sunni-Shi‘a conflict, as in this rabble-rousing report from Iran's Press TV.

There is blame to go around for both sides here, but I fear there is also a real danger that Syria is sliding into a civil war in which sectarian allegiances will be at the forefront: Sunnis against all the minorities, since Christians and sometimes other minorities like the Druze have felt more empowered under ‘Alawite rule and therefore are seen by many Sunnis as pro-government. Sectarian war, as we know all too well in recent decades, is often the most vicious form of war.  Libya (and Yemen) may have divided on tribal lines, but Syria is doing so on sectarian faultlines. Religious war in Syria, like everything else that happens in Syria, would have loud echoes in Lebanon as well. Much as I hope for an end to Asad's dictatorship, I am starting to wonder just what dark jinni is being let out of the Syrian bottle.

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