Ever since the beginning of the uprising in Syria, I have been in two minds about the whole situation. Obviously, it would be entirely hypocritical of me to claim (as Khomenei has done) that while unrest in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Jordan, and Bahrain was the natural result of decades of misrule, the only way protests would begin in Syria could be through foreign intervention and bribery. There is no denying that a large segment of the Syrian population want something different, and no reason to suspect that events in Syria are separate from the revolts in the rest of the Middle East.
However, I also recognise that warnings along the lines of “What’s the alternative?” should be taken far more seriously in Syria, bearing in mind that any revolution inevitably entails some period of disorder in the year following it. In Tunisia and Egypt, both fairly homogeneous societies, regime warnings about Islamism and civil war were idiotic. In Yemen, where a significant number of people seem to be devoted enough to the cause of felling Saleh to ignore the regime’s attempts to sew divisions, warnings of civil war were similarly loopy in the beginning, although by now I’m not so sure.
Syria is another matter. Despite decades of Pan-Arab Ba’thist rule, the doctrine that Syrians are Syrians first, and then Muslims or Christians, seems to be slipping. The country has been so tightly controlled that expressions of religious violence such as the civil war in the North and al-Qaeda’s kidnapping of foreigners in Yemen, or the attacks on tourists sites in Egypt during the 1990s have been completely avoided and any feelings along those lines have been suppressed. Even the attacks on the Copts in Egypt do not present the same threat to national stability because the ratio of Christians to Muslims is so vastly unbalanced, with only around 8% of the Egyptian population being Copts. In Syria, however, sectarianism is a real danger. That is not a reason to abandon the protest movement at all. But it is something that the opposition should be taking into account in their plans (assuming they have any) for a post-Ba’thist Syria.
All this will not only be important once Assad falls – it is also currently hindering the opposition from both attracting wider support and, more creepily, from agreeing within themselves. The Lebanese Civil War (which lasted 16 years) also began with swiftly-escalating sectarian violence and reprisal killings.
One church, two mosques, four churches, 2000 Muslims, and by the afternoon rival militias had established checkpoints on the Beiruti ring road and were murdering anyone of the “wrong” religion. Clearly this kind of escalation hasn’t happened in Syria, largely because of the complete absence of armed sectarian militias. However, the tension is there.
The opposition, naturally, is trying to avoid any sectarian overtones, and is at the moment desperately engaged in damage limitation about the events in Homs over the weekend. The Assad family’s attitude is more complex: publicising religious violence is an excellent way of defaming the protest movement and ensuring that the silent masses don’t start demonstrating. However, the Assads are all of the Alawi Sect which, like the Copts, is only around 8% of the population, and thus, when aggravating sectarian tension, they have a clear vested interest in not letting it get out of hand. The Ba’th Party, conversely, has no such desire, and is quite possibly hoping for an outbreak of Lebanese-style reprisal violence to break the Alawites’ hold on power, chuck out Bashar, then use the widespread chaos as an excuse to clamp down on the country. This, rather than any genuine prospect of a Syrian Civil War au Libanais, is why I view what is happening in Homs with enormous trepidation.