Syria and Bahrain: Two poles of the Arab revolt highlight a slide toward sectarianism

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.

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