Fighting in Syria shifts as sectarian divisions intensify


ALEPPO, Syria — Soma lives in the shadows. He moves through back alleys rather than main streets. He keeps his head down and confronts no one. If he speaks in public, it is in a low voice and only to trusted friends.

Soma, 28, is wanted by the Syrian regime because he evaded military service to support the revolution. He can no longer enter government-held territory, and as a member of the Alawite sect that dominates Bashar al-Assad’s government, he is now no longer welcome in the rebel zones, acutely aware that many members of the Sunni-dominated opposition would kill him simply for being Alawite.

It wasn’t always this way. At the beginning of the uprising against the Assad regime, Soma was an active supporter of the revolution in his home province of Homs. He organized protests. He joined the Youth for Freedom movement, exposing the brutal government crackdown on protesters via YouTube videos and Facebook posts. He worked together with Sunni, Shia, fellow Alawites and Christians united by a common goal – freedom.

“In those days, there were no racist chants, but there was an uncertainty,” said Soma. “Everyone feared the hatred between the Alawite and Sunni. Nothing was clear.”

And now the early fears appear to have been founded, he says. The fight has shifted and the array of groups that make up the opposition are increasingly dominated by Sunni ideologues and fundamentalists. The war itself is increasingly defined along the lines of a Shia regime backed by fellow Shia in Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah versus a Sunni opposition backed by Saudi Arabia, Turkey and a reluctant array of Western powers, including the United States.

For Soma, the changes are more and more perceptible every day.

Last month, as he walked on the street with several friends, they were approached by two angry, non-Syrian Islamic extremists. As they chastised Basel Absi, one of Soma’s closest Sunni friends, for smoking in the street and Absi’s Kurdish wife for not wearing a full abiya, Soma could do nothing but watch in horror. Absi managed to talk their way out of the confrontation without anyone realizing Soma was Alawite. In his home shortly after the conflict, Soma related his feelings.

“I had a lump in my throat. I thought to myself, death has arrived,” said Soma, whose family name has been withheld for his own safety and that of his family.

“I had an image in my head of the people I should have said goodbye to. But the worse thing was the feeling of helplessness. I couldn’t protect my friends – I couldn’t even save myself. I was paralyzed. I kept thinking, this is not the way I want to die. If they hear my voice or check my ID – what can I do? I am in my house right now and I am still so afraid.”

The Syrian uprising began in March 2011, when anti-government protests erupted across the country. The movement began like the majority of the Arab Spring movements that swept across the Middle East that year. Protesters called for freedom, change and human rights.

But over time, that cry for freedom began to take on religious tones. The fight against a corrupt dictatorial government morphed into a fight between a Sunni majority and the leadership of a regime dominated by an Alawite minority – an offshoot of the Shia faith.

The population of Syria is as diverse as that of its neighbors Iraq and Lebanon, where sectarian violence has torn communities apart. Last month more than 1,000 were killed in car and suicide bombings across Iraq, and fighting between Shia and Sunni raged in Lebanon’s Tripoli. But for decades it had appeared that the Syrian people had managed to avoid the sectarian and religious turmoil that plagued the region.

An estimated 80 percent of Syria’s population is Sunni Muslim. This includes a Kurdish Sunni minority in the north who account for around 11 percent. The rest are predominantly Alawite, Shia and Christian with several smaller racial and religious groups dotting the country.

In those early days, protesters did not distinguish between religion, race and sect. Neither did the government. Alawite and Shia demonstrators were arrested and beaten alongside Sunnis. Hundreds, like Soma, had their cars burned, their homes targeted and their names placed on wanted lists for anti-government activities.

For Majid Rafizadeh and his family living in Damascus, being Shia Muslims did not excuse them from being targeted by government forces. Majid now lives in the US working as a Middle East scholar, lecturer and editor for the Harvard review, but his extended family remains in Damascus. To date, four of his cousins have been shot in the street by either government security or rebel forces and his uncle was arrested, tortured and killed. Several others have been kidnapped and escaped or fled the country under threat. Another cousin remains missing.

“At the end of the day, what matters is if you accept the ideology of the regime or not,” Rafizadeh said, adding that while his family does not support the opposition, they do not support the government of Bashar al-Assad either. “When it really comes down to it, the regime is not so much sect-based as it is based on corruption. It’s connections that matter more than religion.”

The growing perception that the Syrian conflict is a Sunni versus Alawite struggle troubles Soma deeply.

“A lot of Alawites have been arrested in the past for political activities,” he said. “The regime only favors those who support them.”

Soma often secretly stays in the Aleppo home of one his most trusted friends Basel Absi, a Sunni archeology student whose family actively supports the Syrian government. While the two are on opposite sides of Syria’s sectarian divide, their stories are not so different. While both gave full support to a peaceful uprising, they have both found themselves at odds with an increasingly Islamic movement, separated from their families who remain on the other side of the Syrian frontline.

Absi was among the first anti-government protesters in his hometown of Ariha in Idlib. At that time, only a tiny group of students supported the uprising.

“It’s hard to imagine now, but about 90 percent of Ariha was pro-government then,” said Absi.

Ariha is now under rebel control and almost all who remain claim allegiance to the FSA.

But back then, Absi described mass pro-government demonstrations and attacks by local citizens, almost all of whom have now joined the FSA, wielding knives and sticks at their small group as they called for freedom and democracy.

In the following months, placards read, “Syria is ours and not Assad’s.” Protesters chanted, “The people want the fall of the regime.”

But slowly racism and religion crept into the chants of the demonstrators. Speeches became more like religious lessons than calls for democracy.

On a visit to Ariha in mid-2012, this reporter observed protests led by Sunni sheikhs who lectured the crowds from pulpits and the back of pickup trucks on religious virtue, appropriate dress for women and calls to God to grant victory over the enemy. Absi said arguments began to erupt between the Islamic clerics and the more secular, pro-democracy speakers.

“Every day we could see this Islamic element increasing. Some began to think that if we wanted freedom it would have to be by Islamic rules,” he said.

“When people are arrested, tortured, see their family killed, they need something to believe in. It’s like you become so weak and disempowered you need something more powerful to count on – more powerful than everyone. This is why so many turned to God,” Absi added.

More and more people began to join the protests, and increasingly the crowds poured onto the streets straight from Friday prayers at the mosque.

“At the beginning we would chant, ‘Allah, Syria and freedom only’, but later we found ourselves saying ‘Allah, we don’t have anybody but you,’” Absi said. “Step by step, racism and religion began to creep in. It was gradual so we didn’t see it coming. We dismissed it as an expression of belief. But before we knew it they were screaming in the mosques to kill Alawites and Shias.”

“Christians go to Beirut, Alawites go to your coffins,” became a common protest chant.

In an effort to stem the tide of Islamist ideology from destroying their democracy movement, Absi and a group of university students launched a magazine called The Pen of the Nation.

But their call for a united uprising and denunciation of sectarianism led to death threats for Absi and his friends. At first they were shunned from protest rallies. Then the threats became more aggressive.

All around them an Islamic system began to take shape. Women began covering their faces. The town’s three alcohol shops were burned down.

Absi said the FSA arrested several young people for having “modern hairstyles.” Their heads were shaved as a punishment.

“At that time we realized we had lost,” Absi said with sadness. “First they told me, it’s not your revolution anymore. It is an Islamic revolution – Leave! When I didn’t leave town, they threatened to kill me. At the beginning the Islamic guys had supported the government. They worked against us as shabiha (pro-government militia). But in the end, those of us who began the protests became labeled shabiha – it was like if you don’t want an Islamic government you are the enemy, just the same as the government.”

The turning point was when the name of one of the magazines’ editors was given to the government along with details of his movements. Absi says this information could only have been passed via members of the FSA Islamic leadership.

Abid Maher, Absi’s co-editor and close friend since childhood, was captured, tortured and executed by chainsaw. Locals in Ariha say his severed body was found by the roadside several days later.

The message was clear – this was no longer a revolution for democracy and freedom. Although there is still a secular element among the opposition groups, Absi said they felt it was increasingly clear that it was becoming a movement to establish an Islamic government. To many armed revolutionaries, Alawites and Shia had become the enemy along with anyone who refused to condemn them.

For activists like Absi and Soma, there was simply no place in an Islamic movement. Across the Syrian frontline, choices for Syria’s minority groups were also narrowing.

Majid’s brother Masoud Rafizadeh said that in Damascus, while few support the government at heart, most Shia and Alawite families have changed their opinion of the revolution over time.

“At first, they were with the protests, but then when they saw the killings and violence and kidnappings, they became silent,” he said this week in an interview via Internet. “Many members of the minorities in Damascus have been kidnapped. People say FSA and other rebel groups kidnapped them. Also, we hear that they even pay money for anyone who kidnaps from our communities. There are many videos showing how they kill the Alawites, Shia or Christians. They think all minorities are with Assad. This is wrong. I think Sunnis, ordinary people are attacked from the side of government, but the minorities are attacked from both sides. People don’t know who to trust.”

As for Soma’s friends and relatives living in government territory, he said they side with the government out of fear of what the opposition will do to them. “They feel the government is protecting them,” he said.

In Damascus, Rafizadeh agreed that fear is the deciding factor. Every minority group has videos on their cell phones, both real and misrepresented and stories passed between families of atrocities committed against their community by the rebels, he said. This fuels both fear and hatred in an endless cycle.

The sectarian nature of the Syrian conflict has now reached alarming levels, observers say. Foreign jihadists continue to flow in to support the rebel forces, bringing with them increasingly extremist views. While on the government side, weapons and fighters from both the Shia state of Iran and Hezbollah – Lebanon’s leading Shia political party and military force – are entering the country to fight on the side of the Syrian regime. Recent victories by joint Hezbollah and Assad troops show the presence of this regional heavyweight may be turning the tide against the Syrian opposition.

Meanwhile, famed Egyptian Islamist cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi delivered a sermon from Qatar, calling on Muslims to launch “a jihad in Syria against Bashar al-Assad and Hezbollah, which are killing Sunnis and Christians and Kurds.”

So how did an uprising that began as a call for freedom become a call for sectarian war?

“In the Middle East, whenever the state fails to deliver the necessary security and social welfare, as well as when a widespread insecurity at individual and family level emerge, people naturally will turn to their faith, sect, and ethnic groups as a key instrument to survive,” explained Masoud Rafizadeh.

Adding to this natural reliance on religion is a regional influence where sectarian divides have plagued Syria’s neighbors. The Syrian conflict has in many ways became a proxy war played out by Shia states with heavy backing from Russia, and the region’s Sunni regimes.

Inside Syria, Rafizadeh says the government actively fueled the divide for its own purposes.

“Assad’s regime has been so far successful in playing on the ethnic and sectarian lines of the society. This is classic political strategy of ‘Divide and Rule,’” Rafizadeh said.

Through propaganda and state television he has managed to convince the minorities that their only hope against “al Qaeda terrorists” lies with the government.

“One of the strategies that the Syrian regime has been employing is the application of the Syrian state-owned media to frighten and scaremonger the minorities by sending a firm message that Syria without Assad would lead to the persecution of all minorities by rebels who are primarily from the majority Sunnis. The regime repeatedly shows videos of killing and violence, and it affiliates the videos to the terrorist groups and rebels,” Rafizadeh said.

Absi said when the protests began in Ariha, the first smart move by the government was to send all police home with full pay. This created a sort of anarchy in the streets.

“My family would tell me – is this the freedom that you want? No security, no power, no bread – go out and enjoy it! I tried to explain this is what the government did but they couldn’t blame anyone but me and my friends,” he said.Absi echoed Rafizadeh’s words, saying that the second tactic of the government was to fuel the sectarian divides. They began to arrest young activists and those who wanted democracy, but hundreds of Islamic activists imprisoned long before the revolution began were released, Absi said.

In Ariha, the most famous Islamic leader to be released at the outset of the protests was Abu Artik (Eyad al-Adel), now a prince of Jabhat al Nusra, an opposition group with links to al Qaeda.

“When he returned he would hold meetings with the young activists and speak of Islam and the need to fight and kill the atheist government,” Absi said.

Amid threats and disappointment, Absi and Soma discussed plans to flee Syria.

Last week, seven FSA men burst into Soma’s home, announcing that since this was an Alawite house, it was being confiscated by the FSA. Escaping with his life, Soma began his forced evacuation to Turkey.

“I always felt my place is with the rebels. It’s not my fault I am Alawite,” Soma said. “But here I am always concerned, always afraid. I can’t walk in the street, I can’t go to the shop. I can’t move. What can I do? I have no choice but to leave.”