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Syria: democracy or civil war?

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The situation in Syria is getting evermore chaotic. Today’s Guardian reports that the United Nations is warning that the country is headed towards a full-blown civil war. Whilst the protestors vow to never give up until the regime is overthrown, one question we must all ask is, what will become of the minorities if the Assad regime does fall?

It’s a rather ironic fact that minorities tend to get more protection in despotic regimes than in democratic ones. That’s not to say Syrian protestors should be denied the chance at political freedom, but if the will of the people topples Assad, what will happen to the Alwaites, the religious minority Assad belongs to? Will a revenge attack against them be the price of freedom?

My latest piece, published in Eureka Street yesterday.

Syria’s hopeless democracy dream


The conflicting stories surrounding the case of Syrian teenager Zainab al-Hosni epitomise the confusion inherent in that country’s six-month-old uprising. Seemingly certain at times to topple the Assad regime, and at others, to strengthen it, the situation has reached a point where it is almost impossible to predict the outcome

Believed to have been tortured and beheaded by the government, the teenager made a surprising appearance on Syrian television late last week. Family confirmed it was indeed al-Hosni although they expressed doubts as to whether the images where captured before or after her alleged killing.

Meanwhile, Syrian officials, in the words of the Sydney Morning Herald, have ‘sought to score a propaganda coup’ with her appearance, where she claimed to have run away from home because of physical abuse at the hands of her brothers.

Who is telling the truth? Even for those of us with family in Syria, it is virtually impossible to determine what is actually happening. Talking to those inside by telephone can be dangerous, with even Assad supporters conceding phone tapping is widespread and endemic. With travel restricted by roadblocks and safety fears, many turn to state television for news.

Authorities, aided by a compliant media, have local residents claiming anti-government protestors are ‘troublemakers and terrorists’ bent on bringing chaos and Islamism to the secular state. Rumours of weapons smuggled in from Salafists groups in Saudi Arabia are rife. Meanwhile, opposition groups accuse authorities of detaining and torturing family members of activists operating from abroad.

The protests, which two months ago were spread across the country, have largely flagged. However, that’s not to say the uprising is quashed, yet.

Recently, The New York Times reported that the flashpoint city of Homs, in the country’s southwest, had descended into a civil war-like state with both sides carrying out ‘targeted killings’ and ‘rival security checkpoints’ resulting in a ‘hardening of sectarian sentiments’. For Syrians themselves, the prospect of a full-blown civil war comes as no surprise, particularly one starting in Homs.

Homs, in the country’s south, is a microcosm of the nation. A Sunni majority town, it is also home to several minority groups including Christians and Alawites.

The latter is the Shia offshoot sect to which Assad and most of his cabinet belong. The animosity between Sunnis and Alawites goes back centuries and has only been exacerbated by the strong-armed rule of the Assad family, beginning in 1970 with Bashar’s father, Hafez.

So despised were the Alawites that many Sunnis refused to accept them as true Muslims. With the Syrian constitution mandating that only a Muslim could be president, it took religious decrees by prominent clerics, declaring Alawites part of the Shia creed, to allow the elder Assad to take power.

Unlike the largely homgoneous populations of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, Syria is, like Iraq, fiercely sectarian. Under the stifling Assad regime, which allowed no room for dissent, they have managed to live together, perhaps artificially, more or less at peace.

There have been occasional outbreaks of dissent such as the Muslim Brotherhood-led uprising in the city of Hama in 1982. The elder Assad’s ruthless response left more than 20,000 dead.

The current regime’s increasingly violent response to the protests is fuelling resentment towards the Alawites, who fear reprisals on an unprecedented scale should the revolution succeed. As Edward Walker, a former US ambassador to Israel and Egypt, remarked, they are a ‘reviled minority … and if they lose power, if they succumb to popular revolution, they will be hanging from the lamp posts’.

Homs is now the scene of midnight gun battles, armed revolutionaries and assassinations, reinforcing fears that a post Assad Syria is more likely to sink into civil war rather than sail into democracy.

A few months ago, Assad looked to be all but gone. That brought mixed feelings to those of us who dare to dream of a free Middle East, and who had feverently hoped Assad would make good on his promises of reform.

Those who desire (and are willing to die for) democracy surely deserve democracy. But in a country as sectarian as Syria, the reality may not match the dream. Like neighbouring Iraq which continues to suffer tit for tat attacks, the foreseeable future of Syria, with or without Assad, looks grim.


Written by Ruby

October 14, 2011 at 11:32 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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