Sunday, November 20, 2011

Sectarianism in Homs

Anthony Shadid fears that what's happening in Homs could be a harbinger of things to come in Syria:
"A harrowing sectarian war has spread across the Syrian city of Homs this month, with supporters and opponents of the government blamed for beheadings, rival gangs carrying out tit-for-tat kidnappings, minorities fleeing for their native villages, and taxi drivers too fearful of drive-by shootings to ply the streets...

"Homs, Syria’s third-largest city, has a sectarian mix that mirrors the nation. The majority is Sunni Muslim, with sizable minorities of Christians and Alawites, a heterodox Muslim sect from which Mr. Assad draws much of his top leadership. Though some Alawites support the uprising, and some Sunnis still back the government, both communities have overwhelmingly gathered on opposite sides in the revolt...

"Fear has become so pronounced that, residents say, Alawites wear Christian crosses to avoid being abducted or killed when passing through the most restive Sunni neighborhoods, where garbage has piled up in a sign of the city’s dysfunction...

"Even as the death toll has dropped in Homs in recent days, the sectarian strife seems to have gathered a relentless momentum that has defied the attempts of both Sunni and Alawite residents to stanch it. One prominent Sunni activist, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity, used the term shabeeha — an Arabic word that refers to government paramilitaries — to describe the situation evolving inside Homs.

"'There are shabeeha on both sides now,' he said."

There is a relentless logic to these kinds of identity-based conflicts by which a small number of militants can pry apart larger communities that would otherwise get along. Where public order is weak, armed fanatics will target you just for who you are. How do you respond? By finding the armed fanatics who will protect you just for who you are. We saw this dynamic play out in Iraq, especially between 2006 and 2008, when mixed Sunni/Shi'ite neighborhoods were cleansed of one group or the other. As a result of the turmoil of post-Saddam Iraq, hundreds of thousands of mainly Sunni Iraqis remain as refugees in Syria and Jordan, an everyday reminder in those countries of what many Arabs see, not entirely fairly, but also not unfairly, as an ethnic tyranny that now controls Mesopotamia.

Much as Saddam Hussein's regime was not overtly sectarian but disproportionately favored Sunnis based on personal connections, so Ba'athist Syria supports and is supported by the Alawite communities and other religious minorities. When Sunni/Shi'ite prejudices are already high because of the Iraq situation, the more recent developments in Bahrain, and Arab fears of Iranian influence, the ground is ripe for a repeat of sectarian civil war following the collapse of a Ba'athist regime. Based on the reporting out of Syria, I fear the worst.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)



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