As the Assad Regime Struggles, Syria's Sectarian Divisions Widen

Bakr Sudqi investigates the Syrian crisis from the perspectives of the various sects. The regime has nearly convinced the Alawites that their fates are intertwined, the Christians and Kurds — while not necessarily pro-Assad — are anxiously observing the Islamists in the opposition and the Sunnis long for a share in power that equals their size.

al-monitor Demonstrators take part in a protest organised by Sunni Muslim Salafist leader Ahmad al-Assir (C), to celebrate Wednesday's killing of top Syrian regime officials, during Friday prayers at an open-ended sit-in in Sidon, southern Lebanon, July 20, 2012. Photo by REUTERS/Ali Hashisho.

Topics covered

syrian sunnis, syrian national council, syrian kurds, syrian crisis, syrian civil war, syrian christians, syrian, kurds, assad regime, assad, alawites

Jul 20, 2012

At the latest Syrian opposition conference, new divisions emerged between Kurdish representatives and other opposition parties that are known for their extreme positions regarding the Kurds. At the top of these parties is the Coalition of Arab Tribes, whose representatives were against using the term “Kurdish people” in the conference’s documents.

This was not the first time that the Kurdish delegation withdrew from the Syrian opposition’s meeting to protest the stances of certain Arab parties on the Kurdish issue. In previous months, there were two similar withdrawals in Istanbul.

These withdrawals are not related to a lack of trust between the parties or to any possible hidden agendas. As Syrian Arabs are fighting their second battle for independence, Kurds are also considering their chances to become independent for the first time. Since decades ago, corrupt and rigid dictatorships blocked or continue to block every ray of hope for new changes in Syria and in other countries of the Arab Spring. The greedy mafia families that are in power seem oblivious to their people’s worries. In their own countries, Arab peoples want to replace these regimes with flexible democracies and pluralistic systems.

From a national point of view, the Kurds do not suffer from such conditions. For Kurds, Arab rulers are the same: one ruler follows the other — regardless of whether they seize power by force or are elected by their people. It is true that Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, who succeeded Saddam Hussein, is a Kurd and that there are no official obstacles that could prevent a Kurd from becoming the president of a democratic post-Assad Syria. However, the majority of the people in Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran are not Kurdish. The bottom line is, the Kurds will not find genuine comfort and cannot satisfy their national aspirations without an independent Kurdish state. Several other nations that similarly separated from the Ottoman Empire a century ago have their own independent state now.

Based on the Kurds' historic experiences, they are aware that establishing their own national state is not just contingent on the major challenge of overcoming the objections of the majorities in the concerned countries, but also on the ever-changing international balance of power. Yet what seemed impossible for the Kurds to achieve during the last century is possible today. Years ago, several independent states emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The autonomous Kurdish entity Northern Iraq was established and the world recognized the independence of Kosovo and other countries that were part of the former Republic of Yugoslavia. South Sudan (officially the Republic of South Sudan) also became an independent state last year.

For Kurds — specifically Syrian Kurds — the Syrian revolution is the best opportunity in history for fulfilling their dream of independence. This is particularly due to the strategy that Assad’s regime has been using toward the people’s peaceful revolution. Since the onset of the revolution, the Syrian regime has responded by shedding blood, detaining rebels and imposing an absurd level of oppression. Assad’s regime has also intended to worsen the civil unrest that was fabricated by the same regime for decades. Moreover, it succeeded in causing several sectarian communities to worry about the repercussions of the regime’s downfall. Most importantly, the Syrian regime managed to tie the Alawites’ fate to its own, as well as marginalize the majority of the Christians and Kurds.

The position held by the Syrian Christians is similar to that of the Kurds, as both are minorities in the revolution. The Christians believe that if Assad is gone, he will just be replaced by another Muslim president. They will always constitute a minority community, and their population-growth rate is gradually decreasing. This is because of the Syrian Christians’ active emigration and because they have a lower birth rate than the Muslim communities.

What about the Sunnis? Well, it is hard to analyze their situation in view of their united stance regarding the current situation in Syria. This is natural as Sunnis constitute the largest community in the Arab country. However, we can deduce a typical position in this community, even though it may not encompass the majority’s position. It can be summed up as follows: The regime has been governing for four decades under national, communist and revolutionary ideologies, which turned out to be invalid. We have been governed as if we were a sectarian minority. Therefore, the Syrian revolution provides Syrian Sunnis with an opportunity to restore their "normal" state: Sunnis are the majority and thus Sunnis should be the ones in power.

This scenario is more likely to take place for the aforementioned communities than for other religious movements, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists. We do not know the exact extent of these movements’ power in Syria, but we do know that the Muslim Brotherhood’s influence has dwindled since the promulgation of the fascist Law No. 49 in 1980. This law led to the execution of followers of organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood. Since the onset of the Syrian revolution, the Muslim Brotherhood’s followers outside of Syria have been keen on regaining their social influence.

As for the Salafists, they are a divided and unorganized movement, and contain divided elements that the Syrian regime exploited to execute terrorist attacks in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. Since the Syrian revolution, this group became part of the Syrian opposition. Salafists now play a crucial role in nurturing the revolution and fighting against the regime’s ferocious and oppressive tactics. The Islamic Liberation Party has gained ground during this revolution after it survived several intense assaults at the turn of the century.

Syrians are expecting this revolution to yield new changes and end Assad’s regime. As Arabs long for freedom and dignity, Kurds are pinning their hopes on achieving their own national independence. As for the sectarian minorities, they are fearful of new changes in the ruling power. As for the Sunnis, they long to return to power and recover their “natural right” to rule. While the poor dream of a fairer distribution of wealth, the rich look forward to the replacement of the communist system with a liberal regime.

This is a simplified outline of the situation that overlooks certain grey areas. However, the grey areas are what we need the most in Syria today, because such areas form a platform for a new national identity in which the Kurds, Christians and Alawites will no longer be seen as a minority, and where the secular and sectarian communities and the higher and lower social categories will be able to live together.

Continue reading this article by registering at no cost and get unlimited access to:
  • Al-Monitor Archives
  • The Week in Review
  • Exclusive Events
  • Invitation-only Briefings

More from  Bakr Sudqi