Syria’s Activists (II): The Struggle for the Minorities

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A member of the Druze community walks in front of Syrian flags during a rally in the Druze village of Majdal Shams on the Golan Heights on 14 February 2012. (Photo: REUTERS - Baz Ratner)

By: Ernest Khoury

Published Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Religious Minorities in Syria are increasingly seen as a trump card that can sway the uprising one way or another. Opposition activists grapple with the legitimacy of their fears, their effectiveness in sustaining the status quo, and the potential positive role they can play in the uprising.

Damascus – “We were born and raised on the idea that we Muslims are in a state of integration with Christians, not merely coexistence. After the revolution erupted in Deraa, we were starting to doubt this,” told me some activists who wished to remain anonymous.

Using different formulations, they reach the same conclusions: Christians, especially in Damascus, are the most willing to stick with the regime until the end.

Opposition activists try to understand the reason for this disappointing course. Many of them repeat, “the Christians barely suffered from sectarian kidnapping or murder in the first year of revolution.”

Moreover, activists insist that “Christians suffered, like other Syrians, from various kinds of abuses and forms of violence by the regime. They received assurances and guarantees from politicians and activists in the revolution. They were also given representation in the political formations of the revolution, proportionally larger than their size, such as in the SNC.”

In spite all of this, they say that “the majority of Christians decided to side with the regime. One reason is fear of repeating the situation in US-occupied Iraq, where Christians were displaced and killed. Other motives are sectarian. The regime and some religious personalities that have recently reappeared are feeding into that fear.”

But who are they afraid of? The stridently sectarian Sheikh Adnan al-Arur or the Muslim Brotherhood? Or simply, the rule of the Sunni majority in a country used to minority rule?

One answer comes from an Alawi opposition activist, whose sect is in the same position as the Christians. Regarding the current events, she says that “they are afraid of everything and everything is uncertain. The Iraqi experience is in front of them. They might also lose their privileges and their relatively liberated lifestyles.”

Walking in the largely Christian inhabited neighbourhood of Bab Touma, Bab Sharqi, and al-Qassaa confirms this feeling. More and more young men and women recently began wearing crosses on their necks.

Activists say that these areas “are rewarded by increasing electricity rations. In the worst-case scenario, the electricity is cut for three hours in Bab Touma. Other areas are punished with 15-hour cuts sometimes.”

Moreover, there are stories of how being a Christian “is enough to allow them to cross freely through [regime] checkpoints, since ‘it is one of us.’” These security posts have now become a fixture throughout Damascus and its surroundings, and between districts and cities.

This situation results in one thing: activists do not dare organize a “flash demo” in the Christian suburbs of Damascus “out of fear that local residents, working with the security forces, will stop them.”

Outside Damascus, “the situation is better.” More Christians are involved in actions against the regime – Homs is a model for this. One of the activists reminds us that “one of the first to have fallen in Deraa was a Christian.”

Given what is labeled as the “negative neutrality” of most Christians, how do opposition activists feel toward them? Is there hatred? A desire for revenge? Do they understand the dilemma of Christians in the east? The answer comes from a straw poll conducted by Al-Akhbar of around 15 activists of both sexes and almost all religious confessions, except Christians.

There is an attempt on the part of those polled to comprehend the situation but there is also much blame and reproach, and even a feeling of treachery. On the other hand, they all insist that “generalizations are forbidden” and that the chances of Christians being victims of sectarian retaliations are “not big.”

It remains difficult to determine if this is a general position in the conservative milieu of majority Sunni cities, such as Douma, Jouber, and some parts of Hama. It is certain, nevertheless, that some activists do not accept such sectarian positions, especially those on the left, in addition to professionals and artists.

The two other significant religious minorities in Syria – the Druze and Alawis – have also been reluctant to participate in the uprising in large numbers.

The best indication of the Druze community position is the relative tranquility of the Sweida province, where they are concentrated, and the migration of those who wish to become active to Damascus.

The absence of the Druze community from activism could be attributed to their secretive religion, fear of their surroundings, and the lack of “a traditional leadership able to lead the revolution in Jabal al-Arab,” like what happened in the 1920s with Sultan Pasha al-Atrash.

The regime is also yet to commit a fatal mistake in Sweida, such as killing demonstrators. Another reason could be that around 100,000 young men from that region live and work abroad. There is also talk about theological reasons that are known only to those who have “received their faith.”

Consequently, Sweida province – with the exception of the city of Shahba – has a timid opposition. Some opposition Druze activists say that all they ask from their community is “to stay on the sidelines, and not collaborate with the regime.” Those activists had organized a “list of shame” naming religious, financial, and political leaders in their community who support the regime in one way or another.

Homs: The soft spot

For the Alawis, the situation is different and very sensitive. The Alawi community has in the past seen many leftist leaders who were deeply antagonistic to the Baath. But today the opposition’s mobilization in the Alawi coast and mountains is still weak.

Young men and women who oppose the regime tell many stories about “murders and kidnappings of Alawis by policemen, later attributed in the media to the [Sunni] opposition.” They admit that some in the opposition are involved in kidnappings. They say that “a captured Alawi can be exchanged for a number of detained Sunni activists.”

For some activists, this explains the fear that exists in the Alawi community. The regime, activists say, encourages Alawis to watch the sectarian al-Wisal TV, owned by Salafi Sheikh al-Arur, to say to them: “Look what will happen to you if these people are in power.”

What if the regime falls? What will happen to the Alawis? Al-Akhbar asked the question during a meeting of activists. Their answers are ominous: the risk of sectarian retaliation is great, especially in Homs. It is the source of sectarian terror on all fronts, especially between Sunnis and Alawis.

A Sunni activist from Damascus explains that “a lot of blood was spilled in Homs. In the end, one cannot rely on a primordial consciousness beginning to appear in many segments of Syrian society. Although Syrian Islam is generally closer to Sufism in its openness, moderation, and the combining of prayer times, blood can change things, unfortunately.”

After extensive discussion with people directly involved in civil and military mobilizations in Syria, it is clear that they have become accustomed to the idea that “it will not end soon.” Most predict that the crisis will continue for another year.

They conclude that any strategy “should be based on this reality and these calculations. Waiting for external intervention is like waiting for Godot, who will not arrive, not now.” The say a civil war is unlikely, “but the regime can be up to anything,” especially in Homs, which is known as “the sectarian soft spot.”

Everything is likely, “as long as it is logical.” They dismiss the idea that the country could break apart as many are predicting. “Partition?” They say it angrily and then switch roles and begin questioning me, a journalist from Lebanon who gets lost in the geographical and sectarian map of Syria.

They throw out the names of every city and town to explain how Syria is the most difficult to partition of all countries in the region. They repeat that “history proves it is impossible, so does the geography and the Syrians themselves.” One of them asks: Why didn’t they speak about the partitioning of Tunis, Yemen, Egypt, or Bahrain? Why is this issue mentioned only here?

The stories continue, but I want to understand if there is a limit to their determination. The answer comes when I watch them, for hours on end, eluding the police to organize a demonstration in the Midan neighborhood in Damascus. Their experience and ability to organize both peacefully and militarily are growing.

They are counting on their movement to be able to reach minority communities and reduce the number of mistakes and misdeeds – those that were fatal and acceptable. They hope that popular anger about rising prices, unemployment, poverty, and the lack of basic services will lead to action on the ground against the regime.

The young civil and military activists understand that there are countless factors influencing their “revolution.” The internal and external questions are becoming interlinked to a large extent. There are many opportunists who seek to reap their efforts.

Danger to their country is looming but I hear them reiterate that they are only concerned with daily struggle to reach their goals by all available means. In the end, “those who theorize from outside, about what we should and should not do, do not suffer what we suffer.”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


Well written and insightful. Great article.

"they are only concerned with daily struggle to reach their goals by all available means"

lacking NATO bombing, thus, they are NOT too dangerous. Good, because their statements that not SO much "others" are kidnapped, tortured and killed by their "revolution" give me creeps - and I am not even in Syria.

They look like stupid and cruel, sorry, but this is my impression. After all, they are (I could not repeat it often enough), NOT against NATO bombing of Syria.

By the way, WHAT they are FOR? For the bright examples of Iraq? of Afghanistan? Of Libya? Of Saudis?

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