There has been no precedent of civil war or even sectraian clashes in the history of Syria, but fears of civil war erupting in the event President Bashar Al Assad is ousted are growing as the uprising looks more and more like the Libyan model.
In Tunisia and Egypt, the revolt was more a social revolution led by the youth, seeking to neutralise the old political class. In the case of Libya and Syria, the old political class are part of the new movement. While Russia and China didn’t have any motive to defend Muammar Gaddafi and his regime, they have become the main obstacles to the toppling of the Al Assad regime. But the Russians and Chinese are not Sunnis or Shiites. So is it just the deep involvement of Iran and Hezbollah in backing Al Assad’s regime that is pushing everybody to raise fears of a sectarian war between the Sunni majority and the Alawites or other minorities, such as Christians?
These incidents bring Saddam Hussain to mind. Can we imagine saying that Saddam was right all along? Well, the Iraqi dictator had warned that Iraq will stand divided after him. Many would say that this is exactly what is happening since the US invasion. But others, including myself, would argue that the failure of Saddam’s successors has ensured that his warning has come true.
Al Assad’s regime spread the same kind of propaganda in the early days of the Syrian uprising in March 2011; painting the uprising with the brush of terrorism. Unfortunately, this ‘terrorism’ turned to have one meaning: religious extremism. Some would even go further and say Al Qaida. The regime continues with this line of propaganda. Recently, it distributed weapons among Christians to ‘defend’ themselves against the rebels and spread stories about Christian civilians being killed.
Unfortunately, it’s not only the regime that is to be blamed because Al Assad’s opponents swallow this bait as well when they abbreviate the Syrian revolt as just a fight against the Shiite regime.
It’s not just Arabs, especially in the Gulf, stereotyping the Syrian uprising as a Sunni versus Shiite battle, but indications from Syria that are feeding all these fears.
Syrians reject all these assumptions, but there is a gap between the opposition in exile and the armed rebels fighting the Al Assad regime in Syria.
The Syrian ‘national covenant’ adopted by the opposition in Cairo last month speaks about a real Syrian democracy built on equality of its people regardless of colour, ethnicity or sect. The Free Syrian Army, however, criticised the conference and did not voice its support for the covenant. It’s not clear if the Free Syrian Army is considering the covenant or if it is willing to accept it as a reference point for a new Syrian constitution after the Al Assad regime is toppled. This difference in opinion between the armed rebels and the opposition in exile reflects a paradox.
While the opposition in exile chooses to tread the political path governed by the principles of a united Syrian homeland, the armed rebels fighting in Syria are alleged to be perpetrating the same atrocities Al Assad’s forces stand accused of. Clips of Al Shabiha members and Syrian army personnel being executed by Free Syrian Army fighters spread on the internet recently.
Although the Free Syrian Army leadership condemned these executions and emphasised its commitment to all international conventions on conflict, the rebels’ actions feed fears of a revenge campaign after Al Assad is ousted. They add to accusations by international human rights organisations that human rights are being violated on both sides.
Ethical superiority is essential for uprisings and revolts to gain popular sympathy and respect. Yet what is happening in Syria is shaded with ambiguity as the fighting continues in Syrian cities and beyond. This ethical superiority was clear at the beginning of the uprising when it was just a civilian protest, not armed resistance.
It’s obvious that the Free Syrian Army fighters are under enormous pressure confronted as they are with the brutality of the regime and its military machine. But winning the battle for Syria necessitates a solid stand. Their actions on the ground must prove their ethical superiority first of all.
Mohammad Fadhel is a Bahraini writer and media consultant based in Dubai.