War and Syria’s Multiethnic Landscape

Avoiding a “Lebanon Solution” to Syria’s Growing Sectarian Tensions

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                                                                    “If the killing continues, the youth will not listen to wise voices.”                                                                                                                                       – Salman al-Awda, International Union for Muslim Scholars                                                                       New York Times, October 7, 2012

On the evening of Thursday, October 25th, elements of the Free Syrian Army’s Salaheddine Brigade entered al-Ashrafiyeh, a predominantly PKK/PYD-controlled Kurdish district in north-central Aleppo. The brigade, made up of mostly of Kurdish fighters opposed to the ideologies of the PKK and PYD, intended to lay siege to the headquarters of the Assad regime’s Criminal Security branch in the district. Upon learning of the presence of FSA forces in the area, the Syrian Army began shelling al-Ashrafiyeh. Residents subsequently flocked to the streets on the morning of the 26th, some armed with light weapons, to protest the presence of the FSA. Residents perceived the FSA’s activity in the area as a breach of a previous negotiated agreement between Kurds and the FSA that rebel fighters would remain clear of Kurdish neighborhoods.

What happened next is unclear. Some sources claimed that PYD fighters attacked FSA checkpoints and repelled them from the area. Others accused the fighters of Jabhat al-Nusra, an unrelated Arab Islamist militant group also combating regime forces in the area, of opening fire on the protestors from adjacent buildings. 30 were killed in the ensuing shootout, and both sides kidnapped over 200 fighters.

“Some who fired on the PYD groups were from the Salaheddine Brigade, but basically it was Arab”: http://tinyurl.com/c5z9ejw

The PYD (Democratic Union Party) is a Kurdish nationalist political party that was established in 2003 as an offshoot of the Turkey-based PKK (Kurdistan Worker’s Party). Originating in northeastern Syria in a region known as “Syrian Kurdistan,” the PYD drew suspicion from both FSA forces and separate Kurdish groups when the Syrian Army peacefully withdrew from towns in the PYD-controlled al-Hasakah governorate late this summer. Opposition forces believe that the PYD may now be working alongside regime loyalists in this area. As a result, inter-ethnic animosity arose between the PYD and the mostly Arab FSA, which finally resulted in violence on the morning of the 26thAlthough the Kurdish militia and FSA forces now appear to be discussing a ceasefire, these events suggest a new element of Syria’s 20-month civil war.

Inter-ethnic and inter-sectarian suspicion is the most dangerous element of the Syrian conflict. The country’s Sunnis, comprising 74% of the total population and the majority of the anti-regime forces, have been pitted against the “Shabiha” and other loyalist components of Syria’s Alawite minority (11% of the population), a Shi’a Islam sect from which the Assad family hails. Although not all Sunnis are aligned with the Opposition—in fact most soldiers in the Syrian Army are Sunni—and not all Alawites support Assad,

Alawite Group Calls on Sect to Join Syria Revolt: http://tinyurl.com/alnbn3z

Defected Alawite General Trains Syria’s Rebels: http://tinyurl.com/8dqeaht

this is not a widely respected fact in Syria’s war-torn neighborhoods and provinces; to many Syrian laypeople, “Alawite” is synonymous with “Shabiha,” and “Sunni” with “Opposition.” The Houla Massacre and subsequent reprisal killings provide only a few examples of the resulting violence.

Syria’s Sunni Children: “I hate the Alawites and the Shiites”: http://tinyurl.com/cagpvfw

Add to this mix Christians and Druze (10% and 3% of the population, respectively) who are beginning to form armed vigilante groups known as “Lijan militias” on the outskirts of Damascus. Now representatives of 98% of Syria’s total population are arming themselves against loyalists, Opposition forces, or general threats to their families and neighborhoods. The al-Ashrafiyeh episode now highlights a developing ethnic conflict between Arabs and Syria’s Kurds, the country’s largest ethnic minority.

“If reconciling Kurd and Kurd is hard, then reconciling Arab and Kurd might prove even harder.” http://tinyurl.com/a7jho5r

Reports indicate that such social divides are already tearing population centers apart. For example, if a citizen of Tell Kalakh, a Sunni village near the Lebanese border, shows his Sunni ID card at a loyalist checkpoint manned by Shabiha from one of the 12 surrounding Alawite villages, he is taken away and immediately executed. For those who remember the Lebanese Civil War, this sounds dreadfully similar to the infamous methods of the Maronite Phalangist militias, who made a habit of setting up flash checkpoints and executing passersby who spoke Arabic with a Palestinian accent.

Minority Militias Stir Fears of Sectarian War: http://tinyurl.com/cblpn7a

To outsiders, the conflict may seem simple: rebels against regime, freedom fighters against forces of tyranny, democracy against totalitarianism. But what happens when Bashar al-Assad falls? What happens when the soldiers of the Syrian Army then take off their uniforms and evaporate back into the population, and the whole country is thrown into a structureless security vacuum? How will Syrians reorganize their country when single neighborhoods are subdivided into sectarian bastions protected by citizens with weapons and enough fear and hatred to fire them? Syria in 2013 cannot be allowed to resemble Lebanon in 1990. Inter-sectarian violence must be mitigated and ethnic confrontations, like the events of October 26th in al-Ashrafiyeh, must be substituted with agreements, ceasefires, and pledges to protect Syria’s diverse landscape. In Syria’s current environment, this will be accomplished most effectively by standing up a well-known and respected force that understands the interests of Syrian citizens, is representative of Syria’s social structure, facilitates intercommunity dialogue, and possesses the means to protect Syria’s democratization from extremism and malevolent third-party interference.

Trusted and experienced members of the Free Syrian Army, such as Colonel Abdel-Jabber Akidi, are the most likely candidates to fill this particular role. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed, an organized Opposition council must include “those who are on the front lines fighting and dying today.” Michael Bagley, President of Jellyfish Operations, a DC-based private intelligence firm, agrees. He had this to say about the establishment of an Independent Political Entity (IPE) to represent the FSA’s commitment to democratization, and Syrian Support Group’s supporting role in the process:

“Once the SSG establishes an Independent Political Entity, the main FSA commanders on the ground in Syria would endorse it and in likelihood nominate Colonel Akidi as its head. The new entity would be comprised of civilian and military leaders and would declare itself to various governments to be the “mechanism through which all interaction with the FSA will be coordinated.”

“Importantly […] the new entity would be inclusive, comprised of Sunni, Shi’ite, Allawi, Christian, Turkomen, Kurd and Armenian representatives, all coordinated by the SSG.”

-Jen Alic, interview with Michael Bagley                                                                                                                                                       Oilprice.com, November 2, 2012

“The US could not afford to be left out of this end game once a credible IPE is established and a path for democracy becomes visible.” http://tinyurl.com/a9r27bb

As the U.S. seeks to reorganize its efforts to support a coherent and representative Opposition body, Syrian Support Group intends to use its on-the-ground contacts within Syria to connect the interests of the Syrian people with Washington’s policymakers.

Syrian Support Group is committed to supporting the Free Syrian Army, through all legal means, to facilitate the establishment of a free, independent, and democratic Syria.

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