The most important thing to read on Syria this week is not the news that the regime drove rebels out of the Khalid bin al-Walid Mosque in Homs, but rather this opinion piece by Thorsten Janus and Helle Malmvig in the Christian Science Monitor. But their proposal depends upon the distinction between pragmatical allegiance and belief-based loyalty. This crucial distinction affects the Syrian Civil War on both sides, and it deserves to be unpacked more explicitly.
The idea is simple: not everyone who declares allegiance to someone agrees with everything that person espouses. This is true of political parties. Cold War-era American propaganda pitted the “godless Communists” in the USSR against the “Christian nation” of the USA, so I was surprised to learn, while visiting the Indian state of Kerala, that the local Communist party has many members drawn from the large South Indian community of St. Thomas Christians. Indeed, the current president of the Syrian National Council, George Sabra, is a Christian member of one of Syria’s Communist parties. The conflict between Christianity and Communism is very real in some quarters (as Russian Orthodox priests will tell you) and not in others, and depends widely on what those two terms are understood to mean in various locales. Not everyone who votes for a Communist party candidate has drunk deeply of doctrinaire Leninism or Maoism (although some have, to be sure). Some simply see the Communist option as better than any available alternative.
This distinction between pragmatic acceptance and doctrinaire loyalty plays out on both sides of the Syrian Civil War. On the rebel side, international observers have been alarmed at the increasing influence of jihadi extremism, usually linked to al-Qa’ida. commanders have complained of soldiers defecting to Jabhat al-Nusra, and cited the lack of ammunition held by the FSA compared to the free-flowing arms of the jihadi Jabhat al-Nusra as an explanation for this trend. In other words, as Salim Idris has grown increasingly frustrated at the failure of western nations to provide his Free with weaponry, the more extreme groups have plenty of weaponry from international sources supporting their jihad against the infidel Syrian regime. The idea is that many of those fighting for jihadi groups do not necessarily agree with the ideology, but are willing to tolerate it for the sake of getting what they desire more, which is the weaponry to fight against the regime. This is precisely the argument made by Mouaz Mustafa, the head of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, according to an interview with him two weeks ago, as to why the US should get more involved with the Syrian Civil War. On his view, providing weapons with secular strings attached will not only contribute to deposing President Bashar al-Assad, but will also diminish the appeal of jihadi groups, because they will no longer have the advantage of greater resources.
On the other side, religious minorities in Syria have by and large not participated in the rebellion, and in many cases have actively supported the regime. This is equally true of ‘Alawites, other Shi’ites, and various Christian groups. This does not mean that they approve of everything which the Syrian Army is doing; it merely means they regard the regime’s side of the Civil War to be more likely to hold a future for them. They have reason to be alarmed. Attacks on Coptic Christians in Egypt have increased progressively since the 2011 ouster of president Hosni Mubarak, escalating again after the ouster of Muhammad Mursi because his supporters blame the religious minority for the coup. When two months ago a Syrian rebel commander filmed himself cutting open a killed ‘Alawite soldier’s corpse, removing an internal organ, and biting into it while spewing threats against all ‘Alawites, he made clear to the ‘Alawites that they have no future in a post-Assad Syria. That has been the message many Syrian Christians have taken from the abduction and murder of Christian clergy by rebel forces. Fearing a sectarian cleansing of all non-Sunnis, most religious minorities in Syria see no choice but to support the regime.
The Syrian rebels have done very little to convince religious minorities that a post-Assad Syria will be better for them, or that the occasional vague assurances of minority rights in the future Syria will be enacted. The one-sided portrayal of the Syrian Civil War by the US government, lionizing the rebels and demonizing the regime, has left many Syrian non-Sunnis feeling that America has betrayed its principles of democratic pluralism and minority rights. This is where the proposal of Janus and Malmvig could be so important. If the US and the US-backed rebels could somehow convince non-Sunni minorities that they will be allowed to continue breathing in a post-Assad Syria, then their support for the regime might be less unshakeable. Janus and Malmvig are banking on the fact that the minorities themselves do not want violence, and probably do not like Assad, so an option which assures their future safety would be very welcome to them. It is an interesting proposal.
The question is whether that assurance could be given in any credible way. Would Shi’ites and Arabic Christians trust themselves to an American or UN peacekeeping force? Or would they suspect the force would fail to prevent them from falling victim to violence by other segments of society? If the Free Syrian Army declared an amnesty for all ‘Alawites, would any ‘Alawites entrust themselves to the mercies of a force whose commanders have promised to purge all supporters of the regime? Or would they not rather continue to support the regime, distrusting promises of safety from some rebels while others call for their blood?
With regime forces gaining ground in Homs, many non-Sunni minorities may be feeling that they have chosen the winning side. But if additional arms flows to Syrian rebel forces again reverse the tide of this long-running civil war, as has happened in the past, then the minorities may feel that their backs are against the wall and they have no choice but to live or die with the regime. The real importance of the minorities will be seen in their potential as stalemate-breakers. When two armies are very closely matched, even a small force can shift the course of battle. This was clearly demonstrated in May when Hezbollah, with fewer than 2,000 soldiers, joined the Syrian Army against the rebels, each of which has over 100,000 soldiers, and yet it is precisely from May that regime forces have begun to gain ground against rebel forces. If the rebels continue to scare non-Sunni religious minorities with threats of vengeance and extermination, they will simply make it all the harder to defeat the regime. On the other hand, if the rebels address concerns of non-Sunni rights for example by punishing violence targeting religious minorities in rebel-held territory and providing special protection to religious buildings of other groups, then they might gain ground by undercutting Assad’s support. The civil war in Syria may be won or lost by the allegiances of non-Sunni religious minorities, whose primary motivation will not be ideology but a pragmatic calculus how to survive the war and its aftermath.