Last week, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom issued a report, Protecting and Promoting Religious Freedom in Syria, that describes the religious contours of Syria’s civil war and makes recommendations for US policy with respect to the conflict. The report accuses both the Assad regime and the opposition of sectarian violence. The regime, the report says, has targeted Sunni Muslims, while Islamists in the opposition have targeted Alawites and Christians. Indeed, the report accuses the regime of deliberately setting religious communities against one another as a way of maintaining control.
Exploiting religious tensions in Syria is not too difficult. Although Sunni Muslims, Christians, and Alawites historically have lived in peace under Ba’ath rule, tensions always have existed beneath the surface. The Assads, who are Alawites, have kept the country’s Sunni majority in check, and Sunnis deeply resent it. I remember a Christian friend who grew up in Syria once telling me that his Sunni classmates had a slogan, which apparently rhymes in Arabic, about their proposal for Syria’s future: ”The Christians to Beirut and the Alawites to the grave.” The report says that the regime is now paying people to pose as opposition figures and chant that slogan at pr0tests, in order to frighten minority communities into supporting Assad.
The regime probably doesn’t have to work too hard to get that support. Just looking at the numbers, and knowing the fault lines in Syrian society, it’s obvious that minority groups like Christians have much to lose if Assad falls. The report suggests as much:
Many minority religious communities have tried to stay neutral in the conflict, but opposition forces increasingly see their non-alignment, or perceived non-alignment, as support for the al-Assad regime. Minority religious communities thus have been forced by circumstances to take a position either in favor of the al-Assad regime, which historically provided them some religious freedom protections, or in favor of the uncertainties of the opposition. As these sectarian fissures deepen, it is increasingly likely that religious communities will be targeted not for their political allegiances, but solely for their religious affiliation. . . .
It is clear that sectarianism is increasing and religiously-motivated attacks are being perpetrated by the al-Assad regime and its proxies, as well as at times by opposition forces seeking his overthrow, resulting in severe violations of religious freedom. These violations also threaten Syria’s religious diversity by increasing the likelihood of religiously-motivated violence and retaliation continuing in a post-al-Assad Syria, where religious minorities will be particularly vulnerable.
Three commissioners dissented from the report, arguing that its policy recommendations go beyond the commission’s mandate. In other Syria news, the two Orthodox bishops kidnapped at gunpoint last week, presumably by opposition forces, remain missing.