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Ramadan could put Syria sectarian struggle in motion as attacks, protests increase (w/ video)

Ramadan began Monday, which could spark a fresh spate of protests and ensuing violence in Syria — some of which may lend itself to sectarian undertones. During Islam’s holy month, Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. Muslims congregate at mosques following sunset. The majority-Sunni Syrian population will therefore have a means to meet up and discuss the atrocities being committed by its government, which is largely controlled by the minority (about 12 percent of the population) Alawite sect of Islam.

The attacks also will do nothing to silence the murmurs of sectarian strife in Syria. The Muslim Brotherhood accused Bashar al-Assad’s government Sunday of igniting sectarian conflict:

“Syria is witnessing a war of sectarian cleansing. The regime has linked its open annihilation with the crescent of Ramadan. It is a war on the identity and beliefs of the Syrian nation … on Arab Muslim Syria.”

The Brotherhood’s timing is significant. Many people have suggested Syria would devolve into sectarian crisis, and Ramadan could best amplify that sentiment. Alawites view fasting during Ramadan as merely symbolic, whereas it is one of the five pillars of Islam that Sunni Muslims observe without question.

Hama, a central Syrian Sunni stronghold, suffered 80 deaths at the hands of government-backed security forces Monday. Such violence will only magnify the growing divide between ruling forces and people at large.

What is getting less attention than the actual violence itself is the opportunity Ramadan will give Sunnis to organize. Under the cover of the mosque, Syrians can organize face-to-face and discuss strategy with less fear of backlash. Meeting in a mosque is inherently safer than a coffee shop, and physical communication removes the risks of internet and telecommunications contact. It could also help bring protest outsiders into the revolution as they see the passion with which protesters carry themselves.

But at the same time, various Muslim sects meeting daily for prayer during Islam’s holiest month as violence continues may foment discriminatory, sectarian views. To this point, many Syrians believe President Bashar al-Assad has manipulated violence to make it appear more sectarian. By doing so, al-Assad can claim his rule is important for restoring order so the nation does not devolve into sectarian war. However, as violence and protests ramp up this month, it will be increasingly plausible to Syrians that a sectarian struggle is on the horizon.

Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, established a sophisticated patronage network by installing the formerly disregarded Alawite minority into top business, police and military positions. That network has provided Bashar al-Assad unflagging loyalty, as if the regime falls, so do those top Alawites who benefited from al-Assad corruption and thuggery.

As attacks continue during Ramadan, Sunnis will grow more enraged with the regime. Alawites do not share the same view as Sunnis when it comes to the holy month. The differences between sects will never be more pronounced than during the next 40 days.

 

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Syria’s tyranny of the minority

Syria’s current governance problem can be explained from the ground-up argument that its civil society is much to blame for Bashar al Assad’s gross abuse of power.

First, let’s get some facts out of the way: Syria “continued to broadly violate the civil and political rights of citizens, arresting political and human rights activists, censoring websites, detaining bloggers, and imposing travel ban,” has repeatedly tortured civilians, is ranked 173 of 178 countries for freedom of the press, has systematically discriminated against certain ethnic groups and has been ruled by one family under martial law since 1963.

Syria’s government right now, however, can be classified by a simple analogy — Assad’s party and confidants are like the scrawny kid who got picked on all throughout middle school. But sometime over summer vacation their voices dropped a few octaves, they got taller, lifted some weights and now have a bloodthirst for vengeance.

Assad is an Alawite, which make up less than 10 percent of the Syrian population. Sunni Muslims, which comprise a majority of Syria, consider Alawites heretical, as their highly secretive beliefs incorporate forms of Christianity and other religions. Alawis, for example, celebrate Christmas and Easter.

Before the Assad-led Baath Party came to power in 1963, Alawis were relegated to a lower rung of Syrian society, stripped of most legal rights and often taking menial labor jobs. But then Hafez al Assad came to power, consolidated the military under his control and placed Alawites in top military positions to secure loyalty.

Bashar al Assad is reportedly stirring the sectarian pot — many believe Assad is trying to frame the violence in Syria as a sectarian outbreak, which would keep his minority Alawite group in Assad’s control for fear of persecution should the Assad regime fall. Assad has spun this scenario and forged allegiance from top military officials as a result.

Alawites are no longer persecuted as they were in the pre-Assad days, but that doesn’t mean Alawites have distanced themselves from that memory. It is unlikely Assad would give up power anyway, and clinging to that time long ago when Alawites were mere housemaids will help him maintain some semblance of support.

At the core of this paranoid power struggle is a civil society and national history that have both failed to protect minorities. During the United States’ nascent years, the founding fathers wrote about “tyranny of the majority” because the colonists were oppressed by an entrenched group of people with longstanding institutions and history.

But in a nation like Syria that has a history of systematic discrimination against minorities and no stable institutions for checks and balances against abuse of power, the minority is more likely to abuse the seat of the throne.

Assad’s regime will fall eventually, there is no question. The only way to prevent something like that from happening again, however, is to ensure no long history of abuse, discrimination or prejudice ever exists again. Preventing rising resentment among ethnic or religious groups will allow Syria’s citizens to come together and draft a system of checks and balances against power. There is certainly incentive to do that now that Syrians can see what can happen when the wrong people have too much power.

Trust is part one. There must be a mutual desire between all ethnic groups in Syria to come to the negotiating table. Given the decades of sectarian framing from the Assad family, that will be quite difficult. But in doing so, coming together will drastically reduce the chances of a tyrannical minority from coming to power.

 

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