A few weeks ago our closest family friends, who are members of the external Syrian opposition, defriended us. Not à la Facebook. That might have gone unnoticed. The news landed in the form of an email in my father’s inbox. There was no argument, no warning. In short, we were defriended because they are Sunni and we are Shia.
I will call them Ahmed and Sara. They were not just friends. They were more like family. My mother was in the delivery room when their first daughter was born. When my father was in the hospital, the two of them drove almost an hour every day after work, dragging their three toddlers along, to be by his side.
After we received the email, I spoke to Ahmed. My parents were stunned and I needed to know what had prompted him to write his email. I listened as he recited a litany of perceived offences committed by mutual friends and members of my extended family. He asked me why I had not written about the revolution to date? Had my father told me not to write about Syria, he demanded?
I understand some of his rage. The UN estimates that more than 7,500 people have been killed in Syria’s war since March last year. Two of its cities, Homs and Idlib, are under siege. But the truth is that the reaction to Syria’s revolution even among expatriates is complex. When I worked in Syria as a journalist from 2004 to 2007 I was surprised to learn how many backed the regime – including members of my extended family. And those who supported the regime (as well as those who opposed it) came from all walks of life – Sunnis and Shias, Alawites, Christians and Druze.
At first I chalked it up to a sort of Stockholm syndrome. With time, I came to understand it differently. Bashar the son was better than Hafez the father, many believed. After all, what was the alternative? They placed a high value on stability. As the conflict intensifies, I often wonder what those who once backed the regime are thinking now.
And while some Syrians actively support the regime, many who don’t remain silent, fearful of the retribution family members might face back home. For Ahmed, however, silence is no longer acceptable. The revolution is on, and he is playing his part – on Facebook, from Texas. On the phone he was adamant the conflict was now a Sunni-Shia issue and, by virtue of being Shia, we were on the wrong side. “I am tired of the Shia who.”
I lost my cool. “What are you saying? I know opposition figures who are Alawites,” I screamed into the phone. And a large percentage of Sunnis support the regime as well, I thought. “The whole country has suffered under the regime. You are playing into the regime’s hands. They want to be able to say, ‘It’s either us or civil war’.” I didn’t know how to argue with him. He was angry. I had no words that would change his mind. We hung up.
The battle, at home and abroad, is undoubtedly taking shape down sectarian lines. Saudi Arabia left a “friends of Syria” summit, objecting to the lack of international support for arming the opposition. Earlier Iran sailed a destroyer through the Suez to the Syrian port of Tartus, to show support for its regime.
But this conflict is not the unleashing of long simmering, sectarian tensions, as many would have us believe. The truth is that all sects have benefited and suffered at the hands of the government. There are minorities in the opposition, as well as Sunni business elites in Aleppo and Damascus that have stood by the regime. The lines are not neatly drawn. Decades of dictatorship have left a political void.
We cannot comfort ourselves with the mantra that “this is more complicated than Libya” and so we need not get involved. As more people are killed, we will edge closer to a sectarian war – one that could take the form of a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The international community must resolve to stop the violence, through negotiations, humanitarian corridors, and by ensuring we include all parties in talks. This is not an intrinsically sectarian war, but as the fighting continues, so various sects retreat to their own for safety.
That night, I could not sleep. Ahmed’s talk of Shia and Sunni made me fear what was to come. I contacted a friend now in exile in Lebanon. An activist for more than a decade, he is also an entrenched pessimist. “Are people talking about Sunni and Shia and Alawite?” I asked. To my surprise he said no. “It’s hard. But it’s a revolution. We will win. You will visit a new Syria. It will no longer be a threat to you, your family or any family.” I didn’t know if what he said was true. But I had to believe him. The other option is too frightening.
The writer is a research associate at the University of Southern California’s Center for Religion and Civic Culture
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