A lot is being made of Syria’s sectarian complexities. The regime, especially, has been tirelessly propagating fears about a sectarian meltdown should the protests continue. The regime’s warnings of sectarian strife are identical to Gaddafi’s earlier warnings of a civil war if Libyans refuse to go back to their homes. They refused, of course, and Gaddafi made sure there was a civil war — an artificial war, if there is such a thing, and completely of his own making.
In recent news reports, I have seen the following breakdown of Syrians by religious sect. It is based on estimates, so take it with a pinch of salt.
Breakdown of Syrians by Religious Sect
But few of the protesters risking their lives today, for freedom and dignity, see themselves or the Syrian regime in the above breakdown. Below is the actual breakdown.
Below is a discussion of the Actual Breakdown
1- The word “gang” is not random.
Many Syrians refer to the ruling elite (including business beneficiaries) as the “عصابة” (i.e. gang).
2- While the pro democracy protests are not motivated by sectarianism, it is a lie to say there is no sectarianism in Syria. Point 2 and 3 offer some background on Syria’s sectarian tension.
When Hafez Al-Asad lead a successful coup 40 years ago, there were nation-wide protests against a non-Muslim, an Alawite, becoming the head of a Muslim state. (A significant number of Sunnis do not consider Alawites to be Muslims, much similar to how some Christians dismiss the Christianity of Mormons. In fact, not even Shi’ites recognized Alawites as Muslims until Musa Al-Sadr, a prominent Shia cleric, issued a fatwa admitting Alawites into the Twelver Shi’ites.)
Because of a long history as a disadvantaged minority, the Alawites lobbied the French colonialists for an independent state comprising areas around the Syrian coast. And for a short period in the 1930s, there was an autonomous Alawite State, with its own flag.
There is therefore deep-seated and mutual suspicion between many Syrians and the sect from which the current regime comes.
3- The Syrian regime is sectarian.
All sensitive government posts are headed by Alawites. And by sensitive I don’t mean ministerial posts; there is not where power lies in Syria. The Syrian regime is a regime of security apparatuses, not a regime of institutions. As such, the chief of military intelligence, for example, is several times more powerful than most, if not all, high ranking military officers. The overwhelming number of those apparatuses, the real source of regime power, are headed by Alawites.
Of course, this preferential treatment extends to other areas, such as public employment, business privileges and higher education. Having said that, it is important to emphasize that a significant proportion of Alawites remain poor and disadvantaged. The regime is so corrupt and inept, it can’t even take care of its own. Additionally, many vocal and brave pro-democracy advocates have come from the Alawite community and they have paid heavy prices for their stances.
Nevertheless, the regime’s sectarianism has weakened Syrian national identify. Or put another way, it has prevented the emergence of a robust Syrian national identity that a secular regime ought to engender, given Syria’s supposed complex sectarian make up. (I say supposed because the complexity of Syrian society is overstated. It is 80% Sunni for god’s sake!!! Unlike in Iraq, Sunni Arabs and Kurds get along very well.)
A strong Syrian identity will always remain hostage to the perception that some Syrians happen to enjoy certain opportunities only because they come from a particular sect.
4- Consider the obvious.
The religion of the dictator does not matter and this most important point in this post. If Syria were free, if Syrians could say what they wanted without fearing imprisonment and torture, if Syrians did not have to pay bribes for every transaction that involved the government, if Syrians were told about the fate of thousands of young men that disappeared in the 1980s, and if Syrians could freely elect a parliament (speak less of a president), then we can begin to engage in a sectarian analysis of the Syrian problem. Before then, we only have to consider the obvious violations of freedoms in Syria in order to understand why Syrians are revolting.
And these violations are well-documented. Every year, respected rights organizations publish distressing reports about the human rights situation in Syria. Bashar might have stopped some of the excesses of his father, but only some. Just in 2008, eight years after Bashar inherited power, there was a massacre of political detainees in Sednaya prison.
Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and Libya do not have Syria’s (supposed) sectarian complexity, but the people in those countries revolted for freedom. The same is happening in Syria. What’s more, Syrians face the most repressive regime of the lot. Without exaggeration, we used to look at Egyptians under Mubarak and say, “If we only had their freedom”! So repressive is the Syrian regime.