Saturday, February 18, 2012

Q&A: Nir Rosen on Syrian sectarianism

Journalist who recently spent time with Syria's diverse communities describes growing divides in society.

"Journalist Nir Rosen recently spent two months in Syria. As well as meeting members of various communities across the country - supporters of the country's rulers and of the opposition alike - he spent time with armed resistance groups in Homs, Idlib, Deraa, and Damascus suburbs. He also travelled extensively around the country last year, documenting his experiences for Al Jazeera.

This is the third in a series of interviews he gave to Al Jazeera since his return. Catch up by reading his comments on Syria's armed opposition and the country's protest movement.

Al Jazeera: Was Syria divided along sectarian lines before protests began?....

AJ: Has this changed during the uprising?

Since the crisis started, sectarian fears have grown. The security crackdown and the loyalty most Alawites have to the regime have also increased anti-Alawite sentiment. The security forces, those shooting, arresting, abusing and killing citizens - opposition activists or even random Sunni citizens - speak with Alawite accents, say the opposition......

Interestingly, anti-Shia feelings among the opposition are more predominant than anywhere I have ever been, even though there are few Shia in Syria. This is mostly a response to the support, whether material or rhetorical, that the regime receives from Lebanon’s Hezbollah and from Iran - and the betrayal many Sunni opposition supporters feel over Hezbollah's siding with Assad.

AJ: Is the opposition making efforts to prevent sectarian strife?.....

AJ: Do religious minorities participate in protests?....

AJ: Does Islam play a role in the uprising?

Undeniably, Islam is playing a role in the revolution. The majority of Syria’s population is Sunni Muslim - and so are most of the opposition.....

AJ: Are Islamist movements influential in Syria?

The regime and its supporters describe the opposition, especially the armed opposition, as Salafis, Jihadists, Muslim Brotherhood supporters, al-Qaeda and terrorists. This is not true. The Salafi and Muslim Brotherhood ideologies are not important in Syria and do not play a significant role in the revolution.....

AJ: What role do mosques and religious sheikhs play?.....

AJ: Do you predict a deepening sectarian divide?

The longer the conflict drags on, the more likely it is to devolve into a battle of Sunni militia fighting Alawite militia. Both sides will become further radicalised as fear of extermination will likely lead to pre-emptive attacks and then revenge attacks.

The opposition has failed to reassure Alawites that they have a safe future in a post-Assad Syria. Most Alawite homes have somebody working in the security forces and they are also disproportionately represented in other government jobs. They fear collective punishment and losing their jobs. If the regime collapses, many will flee back to the mountain or coastal villages they came from.

At the same time, Sunni residents who are a minority in parts of Latakia, especially in the mountain villages, may also face displacement. I believe a civil war is inevitable.

The insurgents will carve out more autonomous zones and those pockets of pro-regime supporters, especially if they are Alawite, will fight or flee. I already know of many Christians and Alawites who have fled from Homs. Alawite neighbourhoods in Homs or Damascus associated with the security forces may be subject to revenge attacks.

Members of the security forces might choose to stay in their villages or neighbourhoods out of self-defence and parts of Syria will be caught up in sectarian conflict."

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