Posts Tagged With: sectarianism

Iraqi lessons for Syria

An article I wrote for OpenDemocracy on the similarities between the two Ba’thist regimes and what can be learnt from Iraq to avoid the same mistakes in Syria. 

Syrian wounds and Iraqi scars

ANDREA GLIOTI 24 November 2012

The similarities are stark: a Baathist regime in power for decades, a ruling religious minority accused by some of fuelling sectarian resentment and praised by others for maintaining a secular identity, the emergence of Sunni-Shi’a strife

Twenty months after the beginning of the Syrian revolution, the daily massacre is a development which is reminiscent of Iraq: where almost ten years of conflict continued far removed from the media attention of the world.

The similarities are stark: a Baathist regime in power for decades, a ruling religious minority accused by some of fuelling sectarian resentment and praised by others for maintaining a secular identity, the emergence of Sunni-Shi’a strife, the proposal of dividing the country along sectarian lines to halt violence and the problems of post-conflict reconciliation if the regime is overthrown.

On the other hand, there are many differences in the way the Government has been challenged by the opposition and the outcome of this: Saddam was quickly overthrown by foreign military intervention; Bashar al-Assad is still resisting a popular uprising. But whatever the dissimilarities, there are lessons to be learnt from Iraq, particularly regarding the risks pending on any future transitional phase.

Baathist secularism or sectarianism?

In both Syria and Iraq, under weakened state control, the emergence of violent sectarian clashes has led some to believe that Baathist secularism was a valid antidote: “No one knew your sect under Saddam, there was no discrimination and I witnessed the same in Syria under Assad” states firmly Emmanuel*, a 25-year old Chaldean Christian from Baghdad, who had to flee first his country and then Syria in 2011. Norwegian historian of Iraq, Reidar Visser, disagrees. Beyond the Syrian and Iraqi official “non-sectarian, nationalist stance, […] the recruitment patterns to the truly important positions […] follow very clear sectarian and/or tribal lines”, he points out. In the Syrian case, this is evident in the choice of intelligence chiefs. Even supposing that sectarianism was absent from Baathist societies, it emerged in the tense relations between civilians and the security apparatus.

“The problem in the relations between Syrian sects is tied to the relations between security and citizens: the majority of security forces are Alawis, while the majority of citizens are Sunnis,” explains Omar al-Karosh, a Sunni journalist in his thirties from Fallujah (Anbar), who moved first to Damascus and then to Northern Lebanon’s Tripoli, because he faced so many problems as an Iraqi Sunni with the Alawi-dominated Syrian intelligence. Members of the religious majority are likely to blame the sectarian features of the minority-controlled establishment. But in the end, leftist Baathist ideology has always been an appealing option for minorities unable to achieve power through Islamic political doctrines. “In Iraq, Shi’as were prevented from reaching high military ranks, just like Sunnis in Syria,” affirms Mohammad*, a 27-year-old graphic designer from a family of the southern province of Maysan, whose surname is well known in Iraqi Shi’a politics. Mohammad had to leave Damascus to avoid being targeted by the most radical groups of the Sunni opposition. Even if they belong to different sects, Mohammad and Omar have both had to flee, just to avoid taking sides.

Saddam and Bashar al-Assad have deployed a similar “rhetoric of fear” in the way they portray the opposition and gather support from minorities. “In Syria, the regime convinced minorities that they needed it to counter a Salafi uprising,” argues Mohammad, “in Iraq, Saddam depicted the Shi’as as Iranians, warning the Sunnis about their plan to turn the country into another Iran.”

Failed reconciliation

After Saddam’s overthrow, despite all the effort, Iraq has failed to achieve a real reconciliation between Baathists and the new establishment. Syria will have to undergo a similar phase and avoid turning it into an arena of “private” purges. According to Visser, “The first problem of de-Baathification in Iraq related to the US Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) period and the interim governments between 2003 and 2005, and it consisted of the all-out attack on members of the Baath.” At that time, many called for national unity instead of pushing Arab Sunnis into the ranks of the resistance and this, together with the need to rely on experienced Government officials, was among the reasons for reversing into re-Baathification in the following years. But the damage had been done. “Any process of de-Baathification should focus on accountability for individual crimes,” suggests Visser: “Membership of the Baath party should not in itself constitute a basis for prosecution.”

In Iraq, nevertheless, the political rehabilitation of certain Baathist officers didn’t mean they severed ties with the resistance to the US occupation. The difference is that a legitimate Syrian Government elected after a popular uprising is likely to face less resistance than a cabinet shaped by Washington. As the Syrian situation reaches a bloody stalemate, some Iraqis argue in favour of a military intervention, despite their experience. “A foreign intervention should follow the Libyan pattern, not the Iraqi one, that was an occupation,” affirms Omar from Anbar, “I think both the UN and the west learned from their mistakes.”

Divide et impera

Those who have already lost hope in a Syrian reconciliation foresee a fragmentation along sectarian lines to halt hostilities. In particular, Alawis are rumoured to be preparing for the establishment of an independent state to avoid living under a Sunni Islamist ruler. However, as Visser points out, “During the years of Baathist power in Syria, Alawites have been spread throughout the country: that demographic fact is in itself a powerful argument against partition.”

After the fall of Saddam, Iraqi Arabs got used to federalist and separatist proposals coming from all sects, but they consider them part of a foreign plot to weaken their social fabric. “Federalism and division are part of the New Middle East project conceived under Condoleeza Rice,” claims Omar from Anbar, “the Kurds, Southern Sudan, Southern Yemen…It’s all part of the same plan to weaken Arab societies.”

After the US invasion, Iraq was turned into an open lab for painful experiments. Until now, it hasn’t fully recovered from the laceration of its social fabric. The result is a country dominated by sectarian parties and separatist trends backed by foreign actors. The Syrian conflict has the promising features of an uprising, but it shares with Iraq a long authoritarian history and a population composed of numerous sects. Despite good intentions, Syrians will face a challenge keeping control of its destiny to avoid the Iraqi fate.

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Alawi dissident voices his concerns about the Syrian uprising

An unpublished piece I wrote about an Alawi friend of mine, who fled to Turkey to avoid serving in the army. Even though he has never been a supporter of the regime, he has been reluctant to join the uprising for several reasons…

Alawi dissident: Intellectuals limited to Facebook in the Syrian uprising

By Andrea Glioti- Mersin (Turkey)

“I left Syria mainly for two reasons: I never wanted to serve in the army and, in the current situation, it would mean being killed whether because I’m an Alawi or because I’m automatically considered a supporter of the regime”, said Hassan ‘Ali, a 24 year-old IT sciences graduate from the countryside of Massyaf, who moved to Mersin one month ago. Hassan was lucky enough to leave the country on a bus without any need to be smuggled across the border, since his name was not blacklisted by that time. “If I was Sunni, I wouldn’t have been able to leave” he admits, while sipping some wine at the port. However, his situation in Turkey is not easy: he arrived without knowing a word of Turkish and started working in a bar to pay his hotel room, while hoping vainly to find a better job. He’s still an alien on the Turkish Mediterranean shores, strolling around in his bohemian outfit and greeting the few acquaintances from the bar.  Hassan is considering moving to Lebanon, his family is not in the position to help him, since the father works as a school employee and the only other source of incomes is a small shop. “Our economic situation got slightly better since my brother has been accepted for an exchange program in a military academy in Russia,” says Hassan, “nevertheless, I don’t have a good relation with my family anymore, since they believe I should be fighting the holy war of ‘Alawis against Sunnis and threatened to hand me over to security forces for my political views, when I was still in Syria”.

Hassan has been at odds with his religious family since long time, being an atheist nostalgic of the ‘50s, when Syrian communists enjoyed major freedoms and a wider appeal to the population. At the same time, he is critical of the religious trends within the Syrian uprising: “Nowadays, the Syrian revolution is led in the streets by Sunni religious leaders, whereas the intellectuals play a role limited to Facebook”.  The fate of secularists in Syria is a grim one, according to Hassan, who puts their chances as high as those of the Salafis in case of fair elections. “Both groups enjoy the support of 10-15% of the population, the difference is that Salafis are more likely to gain the support of Sunni popular classes”. However, in his opinion, the electoral outcome will be decided between nationalists and Muslim Brotherhood, depending on the party most capable of attracting Sunni educated classes. Sunnis account for 75% of the Syrian population.

On the other hand, Hassan understands some of the concerns of his family, due to the forms of sectarian violence he has witnessed in Masyaf. “Among Alawis, there is a sort of ‘consecration’ of a single case of violence, leading everyone to believe the community is targeted”, he points out, “but in the villages surrounding Masyaf at least 50 civilians have been killed by Sunnis and I knew personally three of them”.  In August, his uncle from Salhab was kidnapped by a Sunni armed group, who thought him a loyalist thug (shabih). After being blindfolded and threatened of death, Hassan’s uncle was liberated thanks to the mediation of an Alawi tribal leader. “We had many similar cases, they usually end with a prisoners exchange between Alawi and Sunni villages,” adds Hassan, “even in the case of my uncle, his village was already prepared to retaliate by kidnapping a large number of Sunnis”.

The sectarian cleavage is one of the reasons why Hassan took part only in two demonstrations in Damascus: the only silent sit-in organized under the approval of the Government, after peaceful demonstrations were formally legalized in April 2011, and the protests occurred in the university city in June. Hassan ascribes the sectarian drift of the revolution mainly to the Government, as a matter of fact, the Alawi identity has been the other factor which kept him partially detached from the uprising, being aware that any punishment would have been double for his alignment with the opposition. He also considers the emergence of Salafi radical groups in provinces like Idlib a result of the marginalization of those who had relatives involved in the Islamist uprising of the ‘80s. “Even the Sunni armed groups responsible of the attacks in Masyaf are not members of the Free Syrian Army,” adds Hassan, “they’re gangs of criminals, who were intentionally granted amnesty by the regime in April 2011”. The aim was to consolidate the binomial regime-security in the minds of Syrian citizens.

Differently from the Sunni refugees living in the Turkish camps, Hassan does not advocate the use of further violence to overthrow the Government, as he is convinced that the balance will remain in favor of the State, unless Bashar al-Asad is assassinated: only in this case, the upper echelons would give birth to a power strife beneficial for the opposition.  Meanwhile, Hassan gets ready to wait for a long time somewhere abroad.

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Lebanon: What happened to the campaign to remove sects from civil registry records?

An unpublished article I wrote for the Daily Star (Lebanon) about the campaign launched by the Union of Lebanese Democratic Youth (ULDY) against one of the facets of political sectarianism. Then the Lebanese government collapsed in January 2011, big fuss, and the anti-sectarian movement was not worth much attention anymore (and I had to deal with an idiot editor at the Daily Star). Well maybe this piece was just not good enough to be published, I leave it up to the readers, at least it found its place on this blog…

A special thank to Tareq al-Wazzi for his photo shot at one anti-sectarian demonstration in Jbeil in 2010.

What happened to the campaign to remove sects from civil registry records?

Beirut, 15 November 2010

More than one year and a half have passed since February 2009, when the Interior Minister Ziyad Baroud issued a memorandum allowing Lebanese citizens to remove their religious identity from civil registry records. It was a significant achievement for the joint campaign carried on by the Union of Lebanese Democratic Youth (ULDY), the Progressive Youth Organisation, the youth sections of the Lebanese Communist Party, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) and the People’s Movement of former MP Najah Wakim. Since then, the ULDY has been gathering hundreds of citizens all over Lebanon, urging the Registry’s civil officers (ma’muuriin an-nufuus) to respect these people’s right to conceal religious identity on official records. Specifically, according to the Constitutional Court’s ruling on this initiative, every Lebanese citizen is legitimately entitled to have his religious affiliation deleted from the sect records (sijillaat at-ta’ifiya) kept on paper at the Registry Department (daa’irat an-nufuus). However, since the last ULDY’s mobilisation under the spotlight in April 2010, the campaign faced a series of administrative impasses and unexpected repercussions, leading to a long-lasting deadlock.

At first, those who removed their religious identity from the records were prevented from applying for low-level job posts within the army and the security forces. Arabi al-Andari, a ULDY’s representative, refers to these rejections as completely unlawful according to the Ta’if Agreements’ call to “abolish the sectarian representation base and [to] rely on capability and specialization in public jobs, the judiciary, the military, security, […] excluding the top-level jobs and equivalent jobs which shall be shared equally by Christians and Muslims without allocating any particular job to any sect” (II; G a). From this passage it is clear that only the highest posts (wazaa’if al-fi’ati l-‘uulaa) are still supposed to be allocated according to sectarianism. In Nabatiyeh, on the contrary, ‘Ali was precluded from being among the eligible candidates for a police officer post, merely because of his decision to maintain religion in the private sphere. Left with no choice, ‘Ali asked the civil officers to re-include the sect in the nufuus but, paradoxically, he was first required to beg ‘forgiveness’ from the religious leaders, as if he abandoned his sect. “‘Ali never stopped to be a Muslim or a Christian”, al-Andari commented, adding that the campaign is about the right to defend one’s privacy, when it comes to sectarian and religious belonging, not about turning people away from religion.

In the majority of the cases, including ‘Ali’s one, Baroud’s personal intervention was necessary to counter the lack of a coherent administrative norm and to allow equal opportunities of employment, regardless of sectarian identities. This applies also to the story of a father from Ma’arika, Issam, who struggled for five months before seeing the Interior Minister intervening to finalise the registration of his newborn child, without any sect mentioned in the nufuus. When he went for registering his son, Issam found the civil officers completely unaware of the possibility to hide one’s sect, on the contrary, they “make you feel like the situation is complicated and ask you about getting a future job”.  “I am religious and I believe in God but this has nothing to do with my daily life and should not determine my future”, Issam adds in support of the ULDY’s campaign. Instead of being helped to exert his rights, Issam was discouraged from proceeding and he had to drive the daily Al-Akhbar’s attention to his case, before having Baroud solving personally the issue. The secretary general of the ULDY, ‘Ali Mutayrlik, explains: “these problems were administrative and not legal, the interior ministry has thus to solve the issue: some heads of the muhafazaat did not even know about Baroud’s memorandum!”. In the face of this situation, the campaign has been temporarily halted, while the UDLY has been vainly calling for a meeting with the Interior Minister for the last five months: according to Mutayrlik’s words, what they want is “a new memorandum, where Baroud will reaffirm the campaign’s legality and he will specify the way people could reverse the procedure, if willing to”.

According to the ULDY, the campaign seems to be exclusively hindered from administrative impasses but, at the time of Baroud’s initial memorandum, others expressed more scepticism about the initiative’s mass appeal. For instance, Doha Shams wrote in Al-Akhbar: “Do Lebanese truly dream of a secular civil state? And how many of them have this dream?”. In response to this, more than one year later, al-Andari has no hesitation in concluding that the mobilisation enjoyed a wide support all over Lebanon.  Those opposing the campaign were restricted to the political circles benefiting from sectarianism. Even on the local scale, Mutayrlik adds: “some people tried to attack politically those joining the campaign during the municipality elections, claiming that they were ‘shy’ of stating their sect”.

Al-Andari emphasizes how a similar mobilisation cannot even encounter the opposition of religious leaders, as it doesn’t curb any religious dominion. Here lies the difference, for example, from the late president Elias Hrawi’s proposal for civil marriages in 1998. At the same time, the issue of civil marriages along with all the sectarian facets of Lebanese law are expected to be next among the ULDY’s priorities, after the auspicated success of this campaign. The removal of the religious identity from the nufuus is a preliminary step, al-Andari is perfectly aware that since “Lebanese law repeatedly contradicts this legal initiative, it needs to be reformed to favour changes into sectarianism”. In the end, the ULDY’s efforts will have to revolve around the crucial absence of a secular personal status law (ahwaal as-shakhsiya). For the moment, the campaign is conceived to start Lebanese citizens thinking of themselves as such, regardless of sectarian affiliation, but the long-term struggle for secularism in every field is clearly among the core reasons for support; Issam is particularly concerned about education: “there are different religious books, different history books. The student grows in a closed environment and is identified according to his sect and this is a factor for having a civil war”.

Social actors like the ULDY work on changing people’s minds to gradually change the whole legal system, but they need institutional assistance to speed up the pace of even small scale campaigns. Since this institutional support has been deficient in the last five months, the only option left to the ULDY is to autonomously re-organise its efforts in another direction. As pointed out in February 2009 by Saseen Kawzalli for Menassat, a Beirut-based website, Baroud’s memorandum was not an “automatic removal of confessional designations from current civil registry records”; thus ideally, the ULDY could increase its pressure on institutions by calling for a national referendum to abolish directly, and once for all, the sects from the nufuus. Depending on the outcome of such a referendum, the administrative impasse could be overcome and the political elites could be cornered by a more radical demand for change.

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