home Middle East, Politics Between A Rock And A Hard Place: Minority Communities in Syria’s War

Between A Rock And A Hard Place: Minority Communities in Syria’s War

Four-years of unrelenting war has really taken its toll on Syria. To say that the worst of both worlds has emerged from this horrible mess would be an understatement. On the one hand we have the now infamous Islamic State (ISIS) terror gang, on the other we have the brutal regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad whose brutal crackdown on a civil grassroots uprising in early 2011 sparked this bloody ongoing war. Since that time we’ve seen well over 200,000 people killed and the infamous rise of Islamist terror groups like ISIS and the al-Qaeda affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra.

With the collapse of the society we are seeing the country gradually fragment. Minorities are holding tight hoping that they will not be subjugated or massacred by the likes of ISIS or Nusra. Since early on in this war, minority communities within Syria threw their lot in behind the Assad regime or at least did not support the uprising and remained passive. Kept their heads down in other words–communities like Syria’s Christians, Alawites (from which the Assad family originates) and Druze. The primary reason for this, I would argue, is expediency and survival necessitated by the dire situation in their country. From early on they couldn’t bet on an uprising or an armed insurrection not only toppling Assad, but being able to successfully establish a better, or even tenable, alternative in his place. Furthermore, any hope or prospect that a post-Assad Syria would be anything but a violent Islamist tyranny has been dashed. They therefore, understandably, dug their heels in and hoped they would be able to endure and survive this war.

Assad knew he could count on their support by constantly beating the drums of sectarian tensions knowing these communities couldn’t afford to revolt. And as the war grinds on we see that most of the armed groups fighting Assad who have had the most success are the most sectarian and violent of Islamists–the aforementioned ISIS and Al-Nusra.

We have seen in Iraq and elsewhere what ISIS has in mind for Christian communities they overrun. They can either be second-class citizens who have to pay a special tax, or face mass-executions. Other smaller groups like the Yazidi’s or Shiite Muslims are considered unforgivably heretical. Only fit to be enslaved or murdered.

Similarly, Al-Nusra is an al-Qaeda affiliate which doesn’t have much time for other minority religious groups. In Syria we see them subjugating the Druze communities in the northwestern province of Idlib that they have overrun (which puts them in a position to potentially threaten the Alawite coastal heartland province of Latakia to their west or advance further south into the strategically-important Hamas province) and in the country’s south there are fears they can even threaten Jalal al-Druze, the mountainous homeland of Syria’s Druze minority.

The Druze are an interesting community. As has long been the case with the Kurds, they are situated across more than one country and invariably live in mountainous areas. Living in the mountains have enabled them to survive as a tight-knit community. In Israel, Lebanon and Syria they have remained loyal to those countries respective governments.

Many of Syria’s Christians likely had survival at the forefront of their minds when they acquiesced to the regime’s actions. Again it’s understandable and not necessarily an endorsement of the many brutalities and crimes of the Assad regime. But a recognition that the regimes violent collapse could very well likely spell the end for them. They saw when a powerful military force (the 2003 Anglo-American invasion of Iraq) dismantled Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime how the ensuing chaos and instability saw to Iraq’s Christians fleeing that war-wrecked country en-masse to Syria and Jordan. Indeed before this crisis devastated Syria and displaced and made millions of its citizens refugees Syria itself took in and hosted large numbers of refugees fleeing the instability and violence which has plagued Iraq over the years. It was evident that when a centralized authoritarian regime, even an extremely brutal and repressive one like Saddam Hussein’s or Bashar al-Assad’s, is uprooted the resulting vacuum and instability can be very dangerous for minority communities. It’s arguable that the minorities of Syria took note and are therefore counting on Assad’s continued rule for their own continued survival. A highly unfortunate and unenviable situation to be in.

We see a similar pattern emerging in Egypt–albeit not identical or nearly as severe. Nevertheless the comparison is worth making. Since the Muslim Brotherhood was crushed by the military in July 2013 and consequently banned and further cracked down upon by the emergent government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi (the very army chief who instigated the coup against the elected Brotherhood government) Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority has thrown their lot in behind Sisi. The turmoil and instability which swept across Egypt following the January 2011 revolution have threatened Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority. That community has come under very violent attacks carried out by Islamist terrorists. Sisi has overseen a sweeping and quite brutal crackdown on the Brotherhood and is also fighting the terrorists who have threatened Egypt’s Christians. Therefore they see him as a bulwark against those who would do great harm to them or perhaps destroy their community if they aren’t stopped. But at the same time by getting behind his regime and trying to guarantee their longevity they are also associating themselves with the more sweeping and general crackdowns and excesses of force exercised by that regime whose own human rights record is quite spotty, to say the least. That association could prove dangerous for them in the long-term since history indicates, political orders that depend on coercion and force to a large degree eventually prove to be fatally unstable and unsustainable.

For minorities like Christians in Syria and Egypt alike, there are few good choices when political chaos is in the air.