The ethnic and religious minorities in Syria represent up to 50% of the population. The governing regime has subjected these minorities to various types of persecution and exclusions in all aspects of life, with the goal of domesticating them and making them subservient to its interests among the remaining components of the Syrian population. Silence has persisted through long decades of fears of oppression and punishment, but Syrian history has also witnessed resistance movements and activities which have opposed the policies of the regime. Such opposition parties and figures were imprisoned and exiled for their efforts.
The Kurdish people have experienced oppression and racial discrimination, but they remained active, rejecting the regime and its authority. Hundreds of Syrian activists—among them Druze, Alawis, and Christians—have also been forcefully oppressed as a result of their attempts to build a civil, pluralistic, and democratic Syria. Today, despite the participation of Syrian minorities in the revolution (albeit to varying degrees among the regions), we bear witness that they have cause to worry and even fear the post-Assad period. Attempts to exercise exclusion, marginalization, and the confiscation of rights have emerged in both the speech and actions of opposition forces and political figures. The Islamization of the revolution, placing it in the purview of the political Islamic trend in pursuit of regional desires for compatible political projects that reject the secular nature of Syria and the overwhelmingly secular discourse that has characterized the Syrian revolution, is also a cause for concern.
From within Syria, voices of minority activists transparently and boldly reflect the reality of the situation:
Raghda Al-Hassan, a daughter of the Alawi sect and an activist in the revolution who was released from prison and works to achieve freedom, says:
“The minorities have been a part of the revolution from the beginning, with effective participation on the ground…but there are those who try to give the Syrian revolution an Islamic dimension and form, and they have a great deal of support in doing this…they have been able to co-opt some of the opposition forces and media outlets, and this has allowed the regime to benefit, for it also participates in fixating on the idea of the Islamization of the revolution, thus guaranteeing the exclusion of a large sections of the minorities and to relegate them to the sidelines, silent. The particularity of the Alawi case makes this sect’s position hesitant and fearful…for the Alawis are affiliated with the regime in that it speaks and fights in their name. They also have fears and concerns that whenever it needs strong support, the regime will conjure up the memory of the buried grudge against the Sunnis due to [the massacre of Hama] that the regime committed, and their fear of the regime’s terror, which complicates the problem and made the Alawite sect work to participate in the revolution…the ongoing revolution to build a free, pluralistic, democratic state in order to achieve justice between all components of the Syrian population.”
Lawyer and Christian activist Anwar Al-Bunni believes that the minorities are in the revolution and this guarantees their protection:
“The minorities in Syria directly and truly share the revolution just like every other Syrian community, in almost the same proportion of the population, less in some places and more in others. The lack of observed movement within regions that are characterized as having large percentages of minorities does not mean that they are not involved, but that the tight blockade imposed on these areas, in addition to the position of feeble religious men, collaborators, and regime security forces prevents their movement. Several areas such as the city of Hama and the surrounding areas are exceptions to this rule. The actions of the regime throughout the previous decades and more specifically during the first year of the revolution created a real crisis among the Alawi sect, which intensifies every time the regime kills and co-opts the sectarian situation to accomplish that killing.
The issue of the minorities is a scapegoat that those fearing for their interests use to justify their silence, that the international community uses in order to justify its inaction, and that the regime uses to justify its murder.
We want to build a society that will guarantee to its citizens – whatever their religious, sectarian, or nationalistic inclinations may be – a society that respects human rights to the highest degree. A document of founding principles for the constitution and laws has already been completed and approved by all political parties, including the Muslim Brotherhood. Perhaps the political opposition in its new and old organizational forms did not give this foundation enough importance or effort, and perhaps the pressure of fast-paced events and the blood that has been spilled in Syria did not give them the opportunity to discuss this aspect that was published in a document, despite the fact that everyone declared quite clearly that the goal was to build a civil, pluralistic, democratic country in Syria, and this is the broad goal that I believe must be accepted at this time. Guarantees are only given to those of authority; the opposition does not possess the power to give any guarantees or assurances other than their word, which, as far as I know, is good.
I believe that the most important guarantee is that the minorities achieve their full participation in the revolution; that is the greatest guarantee.”
Politician and activist Jad Al-Jaba’ai speaks about the situation of the Druze in the revolution and what he sees as far-reaching detriments to morality and reason:
“It is possible to approach the positions of the minorities generally through the mechanisms of power in the past decades, paradoxical mechanisms that reflect their contradiction in the atomization of society and the dismantling of groups, and bringing together new facets or groupings which are tied to the state, i.e. the special security forces and religious leaders. To these [new groupings], personal privileges have been granted in exchange for increasing loyalty, whereas the historically influential families have been marginalized and monitored, in attempt to socially isolate them. Additionally, the role of the rising political parties and most of their cadres come from the minorities and the rural populations.
There are large numbers of informants and Shabiha gang members among the Druze, and they exercise brutal oppression towards those who try to protest or announce their opposition, despite their ties of kinship. It is likely that there is a codependent relationship between the clientelism, sectarianism, and violence, if those individuals and their families feel that their fate is tied to the fate of the regime. The religious and denominational minorities fear the Islamists, and the regime’s propaganda and fabrications awaken sectarian sentiments in the children of minorities – particularly the Druze – that are reflected in the numbing of humanitarianism and the prominence of brutality in speech that is no less than the brutality of the regime. Truly, on more than one occasion, I have felt the extent of moral decay among those who are indifferent about murder, destruction, kidnapping, and arrest. I believe that the issue is related to the extent of cultural and moral devastation that the regime has wrought throughout the past decades. The regime, from its perspective, did not seriously exercise oppression until now in the Sweida province except through the Druze [components of the] Shabiha and those who support them and justify their activities that seem to constitute intellectual terrorism against others. While it may seem that the position of the [Druze] sect is united and consistent, in reality it is quite different. In the past, the elders of the Druze insisted that the interests of the Druze could not be achieved unless they remained consistent with those of the Sunnis, and some called for a return to Sunni Islam. The sect today is utterly without mind or manners. The most important interpretation for what his happening today is the death of intelligence and morality.”
Kurdish leader Hassan Saleh calls for constitutional guarantees for Syrian minorities in order to give the revolution strength and momentum:
“Through half a century of Baath party and Assad family rule in Syria, most of the components of society have been subjected to exclusion, marginalization, and even persecution and oppression – our Kurdish people in particular. Therefore, necessity dictates the provision of explicit guarantees of the rights of all in the new Syrian constitution, in order for many more people to surge into the marches of the revolution with vigor and for them to be true partners in determining the future of the country. In my opinion, we must decide upon a constitution that is politically, nationalistically, and religiously pluralistic. If Syria enters a transitional period, all should participate in the transitional government in order to prevent the possibility of the hegemony of any one party on the resources of the country. The decentralized system of secular thought is considered a good remedy and it would give the regions the right to enjoy federalism or autonomy, as there must also be a split between religion and state in order the guarantee stability and development.”
In sum, we find that the minorities in Syria are the backbone of the movement to bring down this brutal regime, through the participation of the full spectrum of minority factions in the revolution and achieving democracy and a secular civil state. Syria’s diverse population and the predominance of secularism should prevent any political or sectarian project that seeks to prioritize the Sunni or Islamic political agenda.
However, it has been observed recently that anxiety is growing among Syrian minorities as a result of the brutal oppression from the regime and the responses of the people in opposition to it. We have found voices that threaten revenge against the Alawi sect, which has been mostly silent and frightened of the influence of the regime and their fate after its fall. Similarly, the political culture, the media, and the logistical exclusion and marginalization of Christians, Kurds, and Druze, as well as the lack of serious discussion of their issues and rights, have inhibited their active role in the Syrian revolution. Frightening racist speeches from leading figures in the Syrian National Council and the National Coordinating Body against the Kurds, Assyrians, and Alawis, have emerged. This also comes in the shadow of the growing control of the radical Islamic trend over the political and logistical coordination of the revolution as well as the [external] support of Qatar, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia for them, the Syrian National Council, and the post-Assad Syrian nation. These groups have been implementing the Qatari, Turkish, and Saudi agendas, which do not give the minorities any political or material support or guarantees to encourage their strong participate in the operation to bring down the regime and democratize Syria.
Legal and political guarantees must be offered in order to preserve the future and rights of these minorities, and this should be achieved through an agreement among all forces of the opposition to establish a joint committee with representatives of the minority parties. This committee would provide a forum for the opposition to discuss together a mechanism for shared national participation in the operation to overthrow the regime, dismantle its structure in all respects, and go out in peaceful protest. All of the rights and ambitions of the minorities should be recorded in a national document that all vow to uphold and guarantee within the national constitution.
With the guidance of the United Nations and international rights organizations, these rights, guarantees, and freedoms should be established in the future Syrian constitution, so that these minorities can enjoy all human, civil, natural, and political rights listed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Among these would be: the right of peoples to self-determination, prohibiting the return to tyranny, and breaking the theory that the Sunni Arab majority has the right to bend the will of minorities to its own. Also, the next Syrian constitution must guarantee that the role of president will be open to all Syrians, regardless of religion, denomination, or gender.
The distribution of sovereign mineral, agricultural, and oil wealth; the government budget, portfolios, and positions; and government job opportunities should be done according to the proportion of each minority in the population in order to achieve economic and social justice, a nationally shared principle. Most important is the creation of a general Syrian mechanism for a secular state and society, which separates religion from state, and prohibits fundamentalist religious parties from participating in political life or taking government positions. This is true secularism: the separation of spirituality from the body of the state so that the will of the people is above all else.
Establishing the foundation for a future Syria relies on the strength of the opposition and the participation of the international community in beginning a plan for a democratic and pluralistic Syria based on a united secular federal system that achieves equality, social justice, and participation under the legitimacy of law. Syria should be a country of institutions that uphold strong guarantees for the rights of the Syrian minorities. Such an agreement will push minority groups to be active partners in the revolution, which will lead to the end of the Baathist regime and the ruling family, and the beginning of a civil Syrian secular and democratic period.
Jehad Saleh is a Syrian journalist based in Washington, DC.
Jehad Saleh is a Syrian journalist based in Washington, DC.