If Syria and Bahrain represent two poles of the 10-month old popular revolt sweeping the Middle East and North Africa, they also highlight the increasing danger of the uprising descending into a sectarian confrontation between Sunni and Shiite Muslims.
Voices in Syria calling for armed resistance to President Bashar al-Assad’s six-month old brutal crackdown that has failed to squash largely peaceful mass anti-government protests are gaining momentum as Sunni Muslim resentment mounts against Alawites, an offshoot of Shiism to which Mr. Assad and his ruling clique belong, and the government fans sectarian flames to undermine the opposition’s calls for greater freedom and economic opportunity.
Brutal repression and sectarianism enabled Bahrain King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa, a Sunni ruling a Shiite majority, to drive a wedge between his Sunni and Shiite Muslims subjects and squash mass protests demanding the toppling of the king’s family that has ruled the Gulf island since the 18th century. The crackdown moved the protests out of the capital Manama and into villages.
Failed efforts to address the protesters’ concerns in a national dialogue have left anti-government sentiment boiling at the surface. Some 10,000 people attended the funeral of a 14 year-old boy killed by police during an end of Ramadan demonstration and prompted demonstrators for the first time to attempt to reclaim Pearl Roundabout, the rallying point in Manama of the squashed protests, that was bulldozed in March and turned into a traffic junction.
The prospect of Syria deteriorating into armed conflict plays into Saudi-led efforts to paint the wave of revolts across the region as a confrontation between the Saudi-led Sunni and the Iranian-led Shiite worlds. Saudi and Bahraini portrayal of the anti-Khalifa protesters as Iranian stooges that are part of an attempt by the Islamic repubic to undermine the region’s conservative Sunni rulers has deepened the sectarian divide on the island.
With a growing number of Syrian protesters, inspired by the NATO-backed rebel success in Libya that drove Libyan leader Col. Moammar Qaddafi from power in a six-month civil war, reports of Saudi funding of arms acquisitions are mounting. Prices on Lebanon’s market reportedly have soared in recent weeks. Mohammed Rahhal, the head of the Revolutionary Council of the Syrian Coordination Committees, a Syrian opposition group, told Ash Sharq al-Awsat newspaper last week that “we made the decision to arm the revolution, which will turn violent very soon, because what we are being subjected to today is a global conspiracy that can only be faced by an armed uprising.”
The eruption of widespread armed resistance would turn Mr. Assad’s repeated allegations that his forces are confronting foreign-supported armed gangs rather than peaceful protesters into a self-fulfilling prophecy. So far, the protests in which more than 2,000 people have been killed, have been largely peaceful despite a number of armed attacks on Syrian military and security personnel.
German weekly Die Zeit journalist Wolfgang Bauer, one of a few reporters that have penetrated Syria, which has refused entry to international media describes the situation in Homs, Syria’s third largest city, as similar to war-torn Beirut at the time of the Lebanese civil war, “divided along ethnic and religious lines where it’s too dangerous for people to travel in a particular direction because they will be shot if they do so … Alawites have secured the streets leading to their residential areas with checkpoints. Their street barricades aren’t manned by the military, but by Alawite civilians who now fear being massacred in a Syria without Assad.”
Following an attack in July on a Sunni mosque by Alawites, Sunnis reportedly reacted by abducting and killing three Alawites. In response, Alawites went on a rampage, looting and burning Sunni shops, killing three Sunnis. Afraid of retaliation, Alawites are fleeing the city. A Facebook page entitled Homs Revolution posts reports about abused Alawites and urges Sunnis, who account for three quarters of Homs’ population, to take up arms against the government. The page has been endorsed by thousands.
The increased sectarian violence complicates US and European efforts to support the Syrian opposition publicly with condemnations of the crackdown and sanctions against the Syrian regime and quietly with advice and targeted aid. It also raises the specter of sectarian violence spreading to neighboring Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and Turkey.
The United States and Europe have sought to stem the slide toward increased violence and sectarian strife in Syria and Bahrain in different ways with little success on the Gulf island and a sliver of hope in Syria. Western nations have urged King Khalifa to engage in genuine dialogue with his opponents but have stopped short of holding the ruler accountable for his actions.
By contrast, the West has slapped a series of economic sanctions on Mr. Assad and his cohorts in a bid to drive a wedge between the Syrian leader and significant segments of the predominantly Sunni and Christian business community that has so far sat on the side lines of the crisis. The sanctions have prompted a growing number of businessmen to weigh choosing between what they see as a choice between a rock and a hard place: fear of a rise of retribution and retaliation and the emergence of Islamists in a post-Assad Syria, and a period of civil war and chaos in which the business community would at least be seen as having supported the eventual defeat of the Syrian leader.
To state that Syria and Bahrain both demonstrate that brutal crackdowns do not provide solutions and tend to aggravate rather than alleviate a crisis is kicking in an open door. Yet, a slide into escalated sectarianism violence in Syria, Bahrain and elsewhere in the region would not only constitute a significant setback for anti-autocratic protesters but could turn the Middle East and North Africa into an even more volatile, instable region of protracted bloody clashes, assassinations, suicide bombings, sectarian cleansing and mass migrations of refugees.
About The Author:
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.