Seeking to end a popular uprising challenging his grip on power, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has manipulated the country’s rich sectarian diversity by using minorities as “tools” to advance his agenda, a leading Syrian intellectual and opposition figure has said.
In a study released by Al Arabiya Institute for Studies and Training, Michel Kilo, a Syrian Christian writer, thinker and leading activist, also urged the country’s minority groups to break their silence and to plan “practical programs” to promote citizenship and national dialogue among all Syrian minorities.
The silence of some minorities, Kilo argues, does not indicate that they are against the Syrian uprising or that they support President Assad’s regime. It is rather simply a result of an authoritarian policy that has lasted for 40 years in Syria, according to Kilo.
Kilo accused late Syrian president Hafez al-Assad of creating gaps between the country’s different sects.
After the military coup that brought the ruling al-Baath party to power, the late president built an authoritarian regime that worked to isolate Syria’s different minority sects from each other. These minorities were recruited in the military to be put in conflict against one another. The late president was able – through his sect-based strategy - to control the rest of the country by imposing systematic oppression. Kilo cited in his study different historical periods showing that different Syrian sects were more open and collaborative with each other depending on circumstances and policies being emplaced in the country.
While there was no exact Syrian “society” during the Ottoman rule but rather groups of religious sects, the collapse of the Ottoman empire and the 19th century reforms allowed Syrian sects to open up, bond and interact with one another. This step was fundamental for the creation of a Syrian society and forging political cohesiveness based on modern social and ideological terms.
The fight against the French colonial rule too brought together Syrians from various religious sects against the common goal of independence.
Warnings against sectarianism
Kilo pointed out in his study that the popular uprising in Syria was moving toward sectarianism. But the religious Islamic slogans raised by some opposition fighters do not indicate that the revolution has become Islamist as the regime often claims.
To stave off political sectarianism from materializing, the opposition Free Syrian Army decided to ban affiliations to any parties, including faith-based ones, as a prior warning for those who are trying to hijack the uprising and transform it to be sectarian in nature.
Assurances by Islamists to the minorities that they are “safe” are not enough, Kilo advised in his study.
He highlighted that these minorities lack trust in the reassurances given and spoken guarantees are not sufficient or enough.
“The anti-regime policies lack practical programs that address the difficult sectarian dilemma by engaging its partisans as citizens in political, societal and cultural institutions based on equality, nationalism and openness,” Kilo said.
He added that a new regime in Syria must adopt citizenship, freedom, democracy, law, equality and justice as part of its values and be committed not to discriminate its citizens. This, according to Kilo, is what will ensure the rise of a civilian community that consecrates freedom and its sole belonging to the state, Kilo’s study concluded.
(Al Arabiya Institute for Studies and Training)