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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Specter of sectarian violence proves two-edged sword for Assad

Post-Mubarak Egypt although ruled by a military council is one where Copts for the first time have felt secure enough to assert their rights. (File photo)

Post-Mubarak Egypt although ruled by a military council is one where Copts for the first time have felt secure enough to assert their rights. (File photo)
The Arab revolt sweeping the Middle East and North Africa prides itself on forging bonds across ethnic, religious and sectarian fault lines.

To be sure, the scenes of Muslims protecting Coptic worshippers on Cairo’s Tahrir Square during protests that forced Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak out of office early this year were marred by devastating attacks on churches.

Nonetheless, post-Mubarak Egypt although ruled by a military council is one where Copts for the first time have felt secure enough to assert their rights and demand that past discriminatory practices be abolished.
Similarly, bridges were built in Libya with Berbers joining NATO-backed, Benghazi-based rebels in the fight against Libyan leader Col. Muammar Qaddafi. The Berbers manage one of the major fronts against Mr. Qaddafi in the Nafusa mountains.

Bridging religious and sectarian fault lines in Egypt is relatively easy with Copts accounting for at best ten percent of the population. That is proving far more difficult in an ethnic and religious mosaic like Syria, which moreover, unlike Egypt is witnessing a protracted battle for greater political freedom and economic opportunity in the face of a brutal government crackdown.

Until this week, the protesters seemed largely able to keep at bay the threat of sectarian strife that is one reason why the United States, Europe and much of the Arab world has been reluctant to call for the resignation of President Bashar Al Assad. That however may be changing.

For one, Qatar in a major blow to the Assad regime has closed its embassy in Damascus after it was attacked by supporters of the president. Relations between Damascus and Doha became increasingly strained as a result of the Assad regime’s assertions that the Qatar-owned Al Jazeera network was instigating the protests demanding the president’s resignation.

More worrisome is a series of ominous killings in Homs, Syria’s third largest and most mixed city, that have raised the specter of the kind of sectarian violence that tore Lebanon and Iraq apart against Alawites, the sect to which Mr. Assad and his clan belongs. Syrian tanks have been patrolling the city’s streets for weeks.

Tension in Homs is running high between the town’s majority Sunni population and an Alawite minority with a build-up of sectarian incidents over several weeks. Reports from the city say the latest killings occurred in the wake of an attack by Alawites armed with sticks and shouting anti-Sunni Muslim slogans on a mosque in a Sunni neighborhood shortly before the noontime prayers on Friday.

Sunnis reportedly reacted by abducting three Alawites, whose bullet-ridden bodies were found dumped in a Sunni neighborhood of the city. In response, Alawites went on a rampage, looting and burning Sunni shops. At least three Sunnis were killed, including a 27-year-old woman who was gunned down when she stepped outside her home in a majority Alawite neighborhood. Afraid of retaliation, Alawites are fleeing the city.

A Facebook page entitled Homs Revolution has been fuelling the flames. Postings describe Alawites as pigs and urges Sunnis, who account for three quarters of the population, to take up arms against the government. The page has been endorsed by some 2,000 people.

Sectarian violence works in Mr. Assad’s favor. It solidifies his support among the Alawites and other minorities as well as the business community who fear that the five-month old protests will tear Syria apart like it did in Lebanon which fought a bitter, 15-year civil war and post-Saddam Iraq, which cost some 100,000 deaths. It also increases international concern of what would happen if Mr. Assad were forced out of office as well as fear that sectarian violence in Syria could spill across the country’s borders.

Mr. Assad has repeatedly argued that armed gangs were seeking to drag Syria into civil war. His warnings threaten to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

To be sure, there is no evidence that Mr. Assad or his cohorts are responsible for the sectarian violence although democracy activists say they have no doubt.

The specter of sectarian violence in Syria is one that could dissuade discontent populations elsewhere in the Arab world to take to the street. An escalation of the violence would further put paid to international fears and could persuade the United States, Arab nations, and Europe, which is contemplating further economic sanctions against Mr. Assad and his cohorts that Mr. Assad”s successor could not be worse for the country than the president already is.

That would not halt the violence but would increase pressure on the president to halt his brutal crackdown that if not by design than by its brutality is sharpening ethnic tensions.

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