Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Fears of Divisive Conflict Grow in Syria

Talk of sectarian and ethnic schisms isn’t just regime propaganda, observers say.
By Zoe Holman
  • Protest in the Douma area of Damascus, 2011. (Photo: Syriana2011/Flickr)
    Protest in the Douma area of Damascus, 2011. (Photo: Syriana2011/Flickr)

As the Arab League peace plan for Syria stalls and the United Nations faces deep divisions over how to halt regime violence against opposition protesters, a peaceful settlement of the ten-month old uprising is looking increasingly unlikely.

Since the beginning of protests in March 2011, the administration of President Bashar al-Assad has used the threat of instability and civil war as justification for hanging onto power.

While the opposition dismisses this as regime propaganda, other voices are increasingly warning that the country could descend into divisive conflict.

“Sectarian conflict is a very real possibility and a very grave one,” Chris Doyle, director of the Council of Arab-British Understanding, told IWPR. “The regime has tried to paint its fall as leading to something worse, and has thrived on this notion as part of its survival mechanisms. But after ten months of relatively peaceful protests, increasing numbers of people believe the only way to get rid of the regime is through the use of force.”

According to Doyle, armed resistance by protesters could stratify the conflict along sectarian lines, as the Allawite minority rallies behind the Assad administration. Other religious communities may then align themselves with either the regime or opposition, according to how they see their future.

As the Assad regime retains its grip on power amid intensifying violence, fears of a descent into civil warfare become more plausible.

“Huge swathes of the Syrian population are carefully calculating where they stand,” Doyle said. “The moment it gets to the point of war may be when the regime persuades some communities to side with it to bring back stability.”

While gauging political sentiment across Syria is near-impossible, there are indications that levels of popular support for the regime may have been underestimated.

A recent opinion poll commissioned by the Qatar-based Doha Debates suggests that 55 per cent of Syrians do not want Assad to resign. Despite criticism of the conditions under which the survey was conducted, one striking finding was that those who expressed this view were motivated mainly by fears for the future.

In December, the UN called for urgent action to prevent the conflict – in which the death toll is now estimated at nearly 6,000 – from sliding into civil war. Similar warnings have come from Syria’s northern neighbour Turkey.

With dire warnings of the threat of sectarian violence now being voiced by international players as well as regime supporters, ordinary Syrians may opt for the status quo out of fear or uncertainty about the alternatives – specifically, about the opposition’s agenda.

Ammar Waqqaf, a former member of the Syrian Social Club, a group of UK-based Syrians who support government-led reforms in their country, believes Assad and his administration enjoy “wide support”.

“This is not only the diehard five or ten per cent, but a whole range of people who do not like the opposition approach as a whole,” he said. “To many, it seems the opposition just want Assad out at any cost, without caring about the price for Syrian unity. But do we really want to bequeath to future generations a whole devastated country, just like Iraq?”

Such concerns are only heightened by news of army defectors and others taking up arms against government security forces.

“As the regime crackdown continues, protestors have quite wisely remained peaceful. But some have fought back which creates a risk of retribution and revenge killing as the conflict takes a more sectarian form,” Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said. “More and more people in the opposition are now picking up arms to defend themselves and fellow-protestors against security forces and armed gangs – many of which are minorities.

Opposition representatives like those on the Syrian National Council, SNC, face a dual task of persuading the waverers – especially from minority groups – that they offer a viable alternative, and that they will represent and protect all sections of the country’s diverse population.

“There is a high risk of civil war if we don’t address underlying sectarian issues,” said Yussef Anwar, a representative of the Kurdish Democratic Party in Syria and a supporter of the opposition movement. “When I talk to Syrians, it is clear that people are very afraid. They look at what is going on across the border in Iraq and think that the future is uncertain.”

There are some 25 Kurdish members on the 120-strong SNC, but according to Anwar, their demands for recognition have been drowned out by other council members. Like other elements of Syrian society, he said, the Kurds risk being marginalised from the opposition and therefore from having a stake in the future of their country.

“Kurds share the same aims as the opposition, and have been very active in protests, but this has not been at all reflected in the SNC’s media presentation,” he said. “It is very clear that the SNC is only working to get international support for their goals, and not any other interests.”

Anwar argues that Islamist and Arab influences are overrepresented on the SNC, and that this makes minorities and women worry about the kind of values that could be enshrined in a future constitution.

“We must represent all of Syria in the SNC,” he said. “We must not exclude anyone, even the Allawites who have legitimate fears about their role in post-Assad Syria.”

Other SNC representatives maintain that the extent of the divisions in Syrian society is exaggerated.

“Nobody in Syria wants a civil war,” Ausama Monajed, an advisor to the SNC chairman, said.

Monajed argued that Syria was more homogenous than neighbouring Lebanon or Iraq, which each contain several large competing groups, and this made it less likely to descend into sectarian conflict.

“Seventy-five per cent of the Syrian population is Sunni Arab, which means that the majority would not be constantly fearing minority insurgency,” he said. “They would be more able to compromise and give rights to minorities, rather than creating coalitions to protect competing sectarian interests.”

However, Monajed acknowledged that the longer the conflict lasted, the more tensions were likely to be inflamed.

“The regime is overplaying the scenario, as a last resort to keep minorities on its side,” he said. “But... the longer it goes on, the more likely it is that the uprising will develop in a way that is not favourable to anyone.”

Zoe Holman is a regular IWPR contributor.

More IWPR's Global Voices