Is Syria in the midst of a civil war?

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A few months ago, at the 14th meeting of the Spanish Forum of Researchers of the Arab and Muslim World (FIMAM), the question was raised as to whether the situation in Syria could lead to a civil war (especially to one fuelled by ethnicity, as in Lebanon or Iraq). Given the increasing complexity of today’s conflicts, few debates are more divisive within the academic community. The adjective “civil” is not entirely accurate since, in addition to the common people, the military and guerrilla groups are also often involved. Perhaps a better name would be “internal” conflicts, but again, this term is not entirely accurate due to the influence of regional and international forces on the origin, development and outcome of events. The multiplicity of causes and stakeholders, the interplay of political, economic and socio-cultural factors of various kinds, make it difficult even for the natives themselves to distinguish whether the violence they are involved in is purely civil or otherwise (as in a war by delegation, for example). It was years before many Lebanese citizens began to describe their war as a “civil” one. The Iraqis are still wondering whether or not what is happening to them is indeed a civil conflict. The same goes for the Palestinians. Since the second half of 1980, we have witnessed complex conflicts which accumulate new causes, stakeholders and objectives as they progress and increase in intensity.

That said, let’s return to the case in hand. I witnessed the dynamics of the current conflict in Syria during a six week period between April and May 2011 (the revolution

A banner of adherence to the Syrian regime in Damascus shows a picture of Bashar Assad side by side with emblematic churches and the national flag. At the bottom left, the Armenian Church of St. George. May 2011.

had begun in March). On Good Friday, the echo of gunfire just a few meters from the wall surrounding the Old City of Damascus caused panic among Christian inhabitants. These minority communities that openly support the regime of Bashar al-Assad felt, even then, threatened by the wrath of protesters. Although a few hours before that incident they were downplaying the importance of the protests and the repression that were spreading all over the country (“it’s just a couple of unemployed kids; a clan of mercenaries,” “everything will be over in a month, at the very most”), a single lonely burst of gunfire was enough to sow panic in the once quiet neighbourhoods of Old Damascus. Amid the chaos, popular neighbourhood watch and  defence committees were being improvised, with members gathering sticks, clubs and even axes; women were being pushed with their children into their houses; stores were being closed and clergymen were indicating entranceways, corners and terraces that needed to be monitored in what was considered an imminent attack. Who were they afraid of? Obviously the “Sunnis”, the leaders of the uprising and the group that accounts for more than 70% of Syria’s population; the same people who, as many locals vividly recall, martyred in 1860 seven Spanish Franciscan monks whose relics are still shown and venerated with great fervour by the Latin Christians of Bab Tuma. More than any other, the Good Friday episode was for me a clear indication that Christians – just as the Druze and the Alawites –, have interpreted the conflict from the beginning as a litmus test for the survival of their community in Syria.

But let’s go step by step. What I witnessed in the spring of 2011 was undoubtedly a genuine revolution, initiated by a general awareness of the oppression, corruption and misery brought about  by the actions of their rulers. In contrast, the oligarchy, the bureaucracy, the political and military elites and the new upper middle class (which had emerged during the last decade as the result of economic reforms and the freeing up of the Syrian market) were by then reluctant to condemn the regime. The same can be said of most religious minorities, including Christians, the Druze and the Alawites (the Shiite sect to which President Al Assad belongs). Indeed, the conflict began as a liberation and reform movement led by an ethnic and religious majority (the Arab Sunni, organised by tribal affiliation), the aim of which was to put an end to

Some of the 108 civilians massacred in Houla on May 25, 2012. Most were of Sunni confession. Although it is often left out, some Alawites were also among those killed.

a brutal and corrupt regime. Protesters were united by their social and political motivations. I found no evidence among Sunni and Shiite communities of hostility aimed at other ethnic or religious groups in the country, although much anger was directed against the regime and its supporters. And incidentally, in broad terms, minority religious communities in Syria openly support the regime in power, as a matter of life or death. Even at that time it was foreseeable that, although the differences between the sides had clear political and economic origins, over time they were almost bound to overlap with tribal and ethnic rivalries, since the regime’s political support came largely from religious minorities.

Unfortunately, as the situation worsens, the religious component is gaining ground in Syria. The crimes committed by the regime (including the massacre of Houla, which in my opinion marked a turning point) are pushing Syrians to gather around their ethnic, religious and tribal affiliations, in the absence of other cross-mobilizing principles (such as the class struggle, for example). The first churches have already been burned down and, while the echoes of further massacres arrive, the thousands of Syrian refugees seeking asylum in neighbouring countries look for shelter among their religious communities, where they feel safe. The exacerbation and manipulation of ethnic and religious identity by internal and external stakeholders is increasing, reducing the social and political demands that sparked the conflict in the first place to almost nothing. Even if Bashar al Asad were to leave the country tomorrow, could the various Syrian communities really be expected to settle their differences around a table? Personally, I think Pandora’s box was opened the moment the protesters took up arms and became combatants. It is true that the conflict has not yet acquired the dimensions of a full-scale civil war. Syrian society is not fully mobilised for war because, for the moment at least, it does not need to be. The Free Syrian Army is leading the clashes with its guerrilla tactics. But make no mistake: beyond external influences (which do exist and which should be considered), Syrians are fighting amongst themselves, and they are doing so not for democracy, but rather for the sceptre of power.

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