Analysis: Syria faces slide into sectarian mayhem

Sectarian mayhem, growing protest movement, faltering economy, yet no sign that the regime is considering relinquishing its power.

By REUTERS
July 26, 2011 14:48
3 minute read.
Hama, Syria

Syria protest 311. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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LONDON - The popular upheaval in Syria is growing bolder and the cracks in the establishment are getting deeper, yet there is a long and bloody road ahead if protesters are to unseat President Bashar Assad and end his family's 40 years in power.

The price of stalemate is rising daily: sectarian mayhem, a growing protest movement and a faltering economy, with no sign that Bashar and his minority Alawite clan are considering an exit strategy after four decades in power.

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Yet so far, there is no sign of a tipping point that would assure success for protesters, as in Tunisia and Egypt, where millions took to the streets to topple autocratic leaders.

"The situation has not reached a critical mass," said Patrick Seale, biographer of Bashar's father, Hafez Assad.

"Damascus hasn't risen, the security services haven't split yet, the economy hasn't collapsed. The regime looks weak and the opposition looks weaker," he said.

Sectarian killings in the city of Homs this month may be a foretaste for a country with an ethnic and religious mix and a long history of repression by the Alawite-led security forces.

The Alawite sect, an off-shoot of Shi'ite Islam, is a minority in Syria, which has a Sunni Muslim majority, as well as smaller numbers of Druze, Christians and non-Arab Kurds.

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A group of Alawite men, including four security men, went missing on July 14. The bodies of four of them were found killed. Some Alawites from their neighborhood in Homs took to the streets, torched and destroyed shops belonging to Sunnis.

The danger of sectarian strife is real, analysts say. It might even appeal to the authorities, and some of their opponents, as a way to break the deadlock. But it carries high risks for the Assad dynasty, as well as the opposition.

"This is a dangerous strategy for a regime trying to survive," said Eugene Rogan, director of the Middle East Centre at Oxford University. "You watch your army disintegrate if sectarianism becomes an issue."

Analysts say the Homs killings were provoked by a ferocious security clampdown, including the arrest, disappearance and torture to death of hundreds of men. Islamists, long persecuted by the security forces, have their own axe to grind.

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"The security solution hasn't worked. The regime has decided to go for civil strife because it senses that it is losing. The protests are spilling over and spreading to the capital," said a Damascus-based Arab journalist who declined to be named.

Alawite villagers say authorities have been arming young men to fight the insurgency. Mutilated bodies of some Shabbiha men, handed over by security forces to their families for burial, served to incite sectarian hatred in those villages.

Sectarian paranoia is evident, with Assad trusting only two elite units commanded by his brother Maher, the 4th Armoured Division and the Republican Guard, as well as secret police and Alawite militia, known as Shabbiha, to deal with dissent.

"The coherence (of the security forces) is already in question. Sectarianism is already a problem, the loyalty of other units cannot be counted on," Rogan said.

While the authorities blame the upheaval on a "bunch of Islamists", the reality appears more complex.

Some Syria-watchers say the protest movement is driven mainly by youths and includes rural Sunni tribes, nationalists, leftists, secularists and also Islamists, united in their goal of overthrowing an autocratic and corrupt government.

Geographically, the protests have spread since March to many rural and tribal regions, cities such as Hama and Homs, and even to Damascus, although not on a huge scale in the capital.

Security forces and Shabbiha militiamen, armed with metal bars, are everywhere. The army has deployed tanks around the main cities to keep out protesters from the countryside.

"The savagery of the regime has increased 180 degrees. The hostility against it has massively increased too among ordinary people, not just protesters. There are wide-scale arrests in all areas, in cities and villages," the Syrian journalist said.

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