The concern that Middle East analysts have about Syria, particularly if there is Western military intervention, is the unstoppering of not-so-latent sectarian tensions that risk escalating into a full-blown civil war. It’s an understandable fear. The regime has armed Alawite villages in the coastal parts of Syria; Palestinian refugees have been used as minesweepers on the Golan Heights, and last summer 5,000 additional refugees went “missing” from Latakia after heavy naval bombardment of that port city. Also, the regime has reportedly perpetrated a policy of ethnic cleansing in Jisr al-Shughour in the Idleb province, bringing in Alawites from a neighbouring village to occupy the homes of displaced or massacred Sunnis.
Although Assad’s sect make up a mere 12 per cent of the total population, Alawites have occupied elite positions in the military and various branches of state intelligence for decades. The shabbiha mercenary gangs, which have carried out some of the most brutal atrocities, are thought to be predominantly Alawite as well (the accent or dialect is easy for most Syrians to decipher). And yet, for all that, it’s actually staggering how much forbearance the protest movement has shown in refusing on matter of principle to turn an inherently political struggle against dictatorship into a tribal one. There are prominent Alawites, such as Syrian actress Fadwa Suleiman, who have joined the revolution, and many more non-prominent ones who have been a part of the grassroots anti-Assad campaign from the start. In some cities, Alawites have sheltered persecuted Sunnis. Nevertheless, how long until the inevitable balkanisation of Syria unfolds according to the regime’s plan?
I spoke yesterday to Amer al-Sadeq, a spokesman for the Syrian Revolution General Union (SRGU). Far from unleashing a civil war, he says intervention is the “safest scenario” to forestall the kind of reprisal killings that everyone fears as a result of intervention:
“Operations by the FSA [Free Syrian Army] and armed militias at this stage have mainly targeted security forces and the army. Ninety-seven or 98 per cent of the operations have been this way, with very few armed Alawite villages being attacked. But if the Syrian people continue their struggle – and that’s very likely – this percentage will change dramatically. Why? Because regime officials will flee to these villages and try to hide. I wouldn’t let a criminal who just killed my brother or sister run away, would you?”
Amer himself is in hiding right now. His latest “crime” was to expose the existence of a secret military field court on the outskirts of Damascus that tries both civilians and military personnel. “It has four magistrates, all are military officials, no one has a law degree. One is a senior officer with military intelligence. I have the names of these four that we [SRGU] are threatening to publish. We drove this court nuts with this leak. Even people who worked there didn’t know some of the information we had, so we managed to stop the whole thing’s activity, at least temporarily.”
Set up to liquidate any affiliates of the banned Muslim Brotherhood, the court’s purpose since the revolution kicked off was to act as a kind of Stalinist purge machine, handing out death sentences at an average of 10 per day.
The most famous of the recently executed, Amer says, was Lt Col Hussain Harmoush, one of the earliest high-level army defectors who, along with a handful of soldiers and locales, tried to defend Jisr al-Shughour last June against a regime onslaught that included tanks and helicopter gunships. Harmoush was the founder of the Free Officers Movement, not to be confused with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), although, like the FSA founders, he too took refuge in Turkey – until he was captured by Assad’s mukhabarat in late August in circumstances that remain murky. Harmoush was paraded on Syrian state TV where he “confessed” to a host of imagined conspiracies about the true nature of the uprising and the motives of the army defectors. To the rebel movement, Harmoush became a “martyr” and a totem of the brave and honest Syrian soldier who refused to fire on unarmed civilians; to the regime, he became a warning to its own rank-and-file of what awaits further mutinies.
And yet, for better or worse, the warnings are beginning to cut both ways. “Senior officers of the army are looking for me,” Amer says, “but they know they’re under threat now, too. If we publish these names, then they will be targeted for what they’ve done.”