Comment: Syria’s civil war has already begun

Sarang Sha 3 December 2011

Amassed on the Lebanese-Syrian and Turkish-Syrian borders, refugees are fleeing the conflict that has gripped Syria since March of this year. Among them you’ll find a ragtag group of Syrian army defectors, called the Free Syria Army (FSA). They don’t know whom they are taking orders from or what their next move will be but are committed to taking down the ruling Assad regime by force. The formation of the FSA is a direct result of the Syrian regime’s deteriorating ability to control the situation within its borders. In just the last month, Bashar al-Assad, the President and de facto dictator of the country, has failed to adhere to an Arab League brokered ceasefire as the country approaches its highest monthly death toll yet. Nine months into the uprising, the international community is asking whether Syria is plunging into civil war.

That civil war has already begun for many Syrians. In Homs, for instance, what started out as a series of peaceful protests has now become a series of tit-for-tat kidnappings and executions between Alawi and Sunni paramilitary groups. Citizens of this once pleasant weekend escape from Damascus are now too afraid of leaving their homes for fear of being killed for their religion or ethnicity.

Homs, a melange of religions and ethnicities, is a microcosm of Syria’s diversity. The majority of Syrians are Sunni, comprising 75 percent of the population. The Assad family that rules Syria are members of the minority Alawi sect of Shia Islam, who only make up about 10 percent of the population and are considered heretical by the Sunnis. The remaining religious population of Syria consists of Druze and Christians, who have sought protection in the secular Assad regime and among their fellow minority group, the Alawites. There also exists a large ethnic population of Kurds, about 10 percent of all Syrians, who have suffered a long history of repression from Syrian Arabs.

To truly understand what drives ethnic and religious division in Syria, one must understand the repressive nature of Syrian politics over the last 40 years.

Since 1970, these longstanding inter-communal tensions have been exacerbated by years of rule by the dictatorial minority government of Hafez al-Assad and his son, Bashar al-Assad. They have filled the ranks of the government and the military with Alawites and have violently repressed political dissidence. So it should come as no surprise that when the protests first started against the Syrian regime that they would fracture along sectarian lines. In the last week, the FSA has assaulted the Air Force Intelligence Directorate complex just north of Damascus, and shelled the Baath Party offices in the heart of Damascus. With these most recent attacks, we are only now seeing the first major outward manifestations of a violent civil war in Syria that has been raging under the surface for several months.

Sarang Sha