This written in light of the Mother Agnes/Stop the War/Owen Jones-Jeremy Scahill debate:
It is of course far too simplistic to say that support for one side or the other in Syria splits along sectarian lines: that minorities like Christians and Alawites support the regime, and that members of the Sunni majority support the opposition. There are pro-Assad Sunnis, just as there are anti-Assad Christians and Alawites.
But numerous reports have documented how minority groups in Syria at least tend to support the regime. This from the U.N., in December 2012:
‘Feeling threatened and under attack, ethnic and religious minority groups have increasingly aligned themselves with parties to the conflict, deepening sectarian divides. Syria’s Armenian Orthodox, other Christian, and Druze communities have sought protection by aligning themselves with the Government’.
Why might this be? Is it because they are simply callous, unfeeling monsters who don’t care about the victims of the Assad regime? Or more likely, and as the report touches on, is it because that – even if they recognise the crimes and depredations of the regime – they still ultimately see it as ‘the lesser evil’, and an imperfect protector?
I think this could well be the case.
The U.N. wrote in June 2013, for example, of how ‘Provocative rhetoric, such as recent statements by the spokesperson of the Free Syrian Army, risks inciting mass, indiscriminate violence against minority communities’ (p.7)
Upon hearing that, and if you’re in a minority group, just how keen are you going to be to see the armed opposition win (bearing in mind the FSA are supposed to be the moderate, mainstream armed opposition?)
There have already been documented cases of such violence against minority communities by some in the rebel ranks, including the Free Syrian Army.
In October 2013, Human Rights Watch documented how ‘Armed opposition groups in Syria killed at least 190 civilians and seized over 200 as hostages during a military offensive that began in rural Latakia governorate on August 4, 2013 . . . At least 67 of the victims were executed or unlawfully killed in the operation around pro-government Alawite villages’.
The report goes on to say that ‘Some of the opposition atrocities during the operation had clear sectarian motivation’.
Only today, Human Rights Watch have released a report documenting how ‘Opposition fighters in Syria apparently executed civilians and others in their custody during an offensive in the Christian village of Sadad from October 21 to 28, 2013’.
The report goes on to describe the desecration of Christian churches, documenting how they saw ‘destroyed religious icons, pews with smashed wooden legs, seats, and backs, and the church’s broken and empty collection box’.
(And yes, I am quite aware that according to similar reports, pro-regime forces have been responsible for similar atrocities and worse, and nor have I ever sought to deny the fact. I am also aware that there are plenty of non-sectarian people within both the armed and the non-violent opposition)
So these are some very serious crimes carried out by elements within the opposition against minority religious communities within Syria.
It is within this context that support for the regime among minority communities – including perhaps Mother Agnes – should be seen, even if we think it is misguided: that of a basic and mortal fear of what some in the opposition would like to do to them, given half the chance. And while the regime likely has whipped up fear of sectarian reprisals from some in the opposition for it’s own self-serving ends, it doesn’t mean that fear is entirely without foundation.
For me, and while the comparison is inexact, it’s like people in this country (the UK) who advocate support for the Labour party on ‘lesser evil’ grounds. They will recognise that Labour is a party deeply implicated in mass atrocities, widening inequality, support for dictatorships the world over, attacks on civil and human rights domestically, and so on. But they will say that despite this, they’re still better than the Tories, and so are worth supporting, even if it is with a clothes peg over your nose.
And yet when members of minority groups – who face a far bigger threat from some in the Syrian opposition than British social democrats do from the Tories – in Syria employ similar logic to argue in support of the Syrian regime, they are simply shunned as sinister apologists.
It seems to me that it’s basically seen as fine for British social democrats to support repressive, dictator backing, mass murdering political parties on ‘lesser evil’ grounds here, but way beyond the pale when people elsewhere, who potentially have far more to lose, do it as well.