Unrest in Syria takes on sectarian hue

30 January 2012

The ruling Alawi sect will ensure the unrest continues to avoid handing over power to the Sunni majority

When the unrest in Syria started, none of the opposition leaders thought it would be quick or painless to bring down the Al-Assad regime. After 11 months the protests now look headed towards civil war.

Clashes between the defected soldiers who form the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and regime forces are no longer restricted to towns such as Deraa, Idlib and Hama. The resort town of Zabadani, located near the Lebanese border and only 25 kilometres from Damascus, became the first to be liberated by the FSA, after repelling government forces on 18 January.

After four-decades in power in Damascus, time is running out for the regime, as the Arab League and UN Security Council gather to discuss a resolution on a transfer of power. But it is clear that the process is likely to be long and bloody.

Syrians have long thought of themselves as non-sectarian and immune from the kind of strife seen across the border in Iraq. The conflict, however, has taken on a sectarian colour, thanks in large part to Al-Assad’s manipulation of ethnic differences.

Every observer who analyses the uprising notes that beneath the surface lies the bitterness between the ruling Alawi sect, which accounts for 3 per cent of the country’s 20 million-strong population, and the Sunni majority. The observation is a simple one: the officers’ ranks in the army are filled by the Alawi, as are the Mukhabarat, the omnipresent secret police.

While the avarice of Syria’s elites and their fear of life in a Sunni-dominated country, will ensure that the battle for power continues, the opposition must try to shed this narrative if it is to gain wider support from outside the country. The Arab League, in particular, can play an important role, helping to unify the country’s main opposition bodies. These forces can then push for international intervention.

But as long as Syria’s leadership remains united, the opposition fragmented and the Arab League on the sidelines, the unrest will drag on.

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