Andrea Glioti looks back at the events in Jisr Al-Shugour, Syria, to investigate the issue of Syria’s armed opposition, and asks whether the resistance is on the brink of radicalization.
Eleven months ago, the Syrian opposition resorted to armed resistance whilst it endeavored to preserve its peaceful image. This was an attempt to gain international support and contradict the narrative of President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime, which focused on the threat of armed insurgency.
Unfortunately, the result has been counterproductive, as it has tarnished the opposition’s credibility and nurtured doubts in those who view the opposition as a nebulous movement. At the same time, it would be unfair to criticize the opposition exclusively. It could be said that the main responsibility for the increased militarization and sectarian trends of violence lies with the regime’s brutality.
What happened in Jisr Al-Shughour?
Things were not meant to go as in Egypt or in Tunisia, where the masses succeeded in occupying squares and peacefully overthrowing the local regimes: in Jisr Al-Shughour, near the Turkish border, this was clear by June 2011.
During the five months I spent in Damascus since the beginning of the uprising, I attended several peaceful demonstrations which were repressed by security forces. But the relationship between Jisr Al-Shughour and the regime had been growing increasingly tense for thirty years, since Hafez Al-Assad ordered a bloody military crackdown on armed rebellion of the Muslim Brotherhood in the city in 1980.
“I’m going to tell you what happened, even at the cost of damaging the cause of the revolution,” says Uthman, a refugee from Atma, who had to flee to the Turkish refugee camp of Reyhanli after the battle in Jisr Al-Shughour.
According to Uthman, in Jisr as-Shughour everything started around 20 May 2011, when 15 Syrian workers were killed by state security forces. People were already prepared to respond to the attacks with force. In Omar’s account, the armed protests started right after this massacre.
“On the third of June, we took weapons with us and hid them, while marching in the demonstration,” he recalls, “when the snipers of the military security (al-mukhabarat al-askariyyah) opened fire on us from the post office, we hit back—killing some of them”.
The protesters were then joined by the battalion led by Lieutenant Colonel Hussein Al-Harmoush, the first high-ranking officer to defect, and planned an offensive against military security forces, which were the only intelligence branch that refused to hand over its weapons. Omar explained that military security forces are mainly made up of Alawis and hardcore loyalists.
“The siege of the post office lasted for 3 hours,” remembers Tareq Abdul-Haqq, a 26-year-old activist from Jisr As-Shughur, while showing me the videos he filmed during the clashes. “We tried everything: dynamite barrels used in construction, exploding a gas cylinder . . . in the end the last surviving officers came out because the noise of these explosions drove them crazy.”
The wider confrontation with military security forces lasted for two days, causing the government in Damascus to deploy a reserve security contingent to the restive city on 5 June 2011. Unexpectedly, the insurgents succeeded in resisting the offensive with Kalashnikovs seized from the security headquarters, and the contingent had to retreat. “After having defeated military security, we set up checkpoints and planted landmines [in preparation] to face the arrival of the army,” says Omar.
The people of Jisr As-Shughur already knew how it was going to end. According to Tareq’s account, Bashar followed the example of his father and deployed 11,000 soldiers to Jisr As-Shughur on 9 June. Tareq chose to flee on 12 June, one day before the army broke in the city to ‘restore security’ by destroying mosques and private property. By that time, most of those involved in the clashes had already escaped to Turkey.
According to Syrian authorities, at least 120 security officials were killed. Pan-Arab media, such as the daily newspaper Al-Hayat and the TV channel Al-Arabiya, reported that activists heard gunshots followed by “an explosion,” and believed that this was a response to defections within military security forces. “The head of the military security in Jisr As-Shughur, Abu Yarub, ordered the killing of 30 officers who had refused to shoot on us,” confirms Tareq. “We found their corpses in the toilets when we finally broke into the headquarters.”
It is undeniable however that some security officers were also killed during the armed confrontation; “the explosion” was possibly caused by the gas cylinder hurled at them. On 3 August, Joshua Landis pointed out the same incongruences on his blog, SyriaComment, and called on Western media to admit the presence of “armed elements” in the opposition, without denying the violence committed by the regime.
However there are some who believe that the peaceful image of the resistance should be defended, possibly fearing that the descent of the revolution into civil strife would decrease its support abroad.
We are all Syrians…apart from the Alawis?
The endless bloodshed led part of the military resistance to an alarming point, which was recently highlighted by the Human Rights Watch report on abuses committed by opposition armed groups (20 March 2012). One might excuse the executions and kidnappings of military personnel as natural developments of guerrilla warfare, though the opposition should have refrained from torture and sectarian attacks on civilians (especially as these echo the brutality of the Assad regime). On 25 March 2012, the two most prominent military figures in the opposition, Colonel Riyadh Al-Assad and Brigadier General Mustafa Shaykh, joined efforts under the banner of the FSA to strengthen coordination and distance themselves from the actions of other armed groups.
An even more worrisome development is that the year-long conflict has nurtured forms of sectarian resentment which were previously latent—or totally absent. The longstanding mantra of the Syrian political opposition has been to ward off sectarianism. This is represented by the legacy of people like Christian Prime Minister like Faris Al-Khouri (1944-45 and 1954-55), Kurdish President Hosni Al-Zaim (1949), and the Druze Commander of the Syrian Revolution (1925-27), Sultan Basha Al-Atrash.
Nevertheless, some recurrent down-to-earth conversations I have had here in Turkey are partially changing my perspective on the influence of these historical figures on the revolution. “In Syria, it is forbidden for a Sunni to be employed,” complains Abdul Sattar, a refugee from Latakia whom I met recently, along with several of his peers. “Look at these guys here,” he says, referring to the seven other men at our meeting, “they’re all educated with degrees, but all the jobs are given to the Alawis.”
He then went on to praise his political mentor, Shaykh Adnan Al-Arur, a Saudi-based Syrian Sunni preacher known for his anti-Shi’a speeches. I asked him what would happen to Alawis in the event that Al-Arur will return to his homeland. His reply stressed that none of the Sunni religious figures could force someone to be an Islamist, even if that person was willing to join the ‘Party of Devil’ as he called it—the Lebanese, Shi’a Hezbollah. Referring to Hezbollah as the ‘Party of Devil’ is common among some Sunni demonstrators, mostly because of its alleged involvement in curbing the Syrian protests.
However, none of the seven Sunni defectors objected to Abdul Sattar’s praise of Al-Arur as the only respectable political figure of the opposition. It is worth mentioning a contrasting example: when I was in Beirut a few months ago, a member of a local committee from the Khaldiyyeh neighborhood of Homs was equally adamant in stressing that he was not a follower of Al-Arur, and accused Syrian Shi’a Twelvers (the largest branch of Shi’a Islam) of being promised paradise for killing Sunnis.
Interested to hear from others on the issue, while in Reyhanli Camp, I met with Bassem, a 40-year-old school director from Abdama. He was convinced that Burhan Ghalioun cannot lead the Syrian opposition because he is ‘not a real Muslim.’
While based in Istanbul, I had the chance to talk with Ibrahim Al-Hajj Ali from Aleppo, an officer expelled from the army for trying to set up a Sunni Islamist cell. Al-Hajj told me that “the war happening in Syria is a war waged on the Sunni sect […], a war of beliefs between the creed of truth and good and the creed of evil.” I also interviewed Abdul-Rahman Al-Shardub, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Syrian National Council, who praised the Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein for being “one thousand times nobler than Bashar Al-Assad.” The majority of Syrians in the room seemed to agree with him. It appears that sectarian trends are spreading rapidly within the ranks of an opposition initially worried to distance itself from any form of religious intolerance.
In contrast, the perception of the regime needs to remain that of a system built on shared interests, and not a sectarian one shaped by the hegemony of one sect over the other. A sectarian conflict would persuade part of the public of the regime’s narrative, which has been attempting to divide the revolution along religious lines from the beginning.
An excellent example is provided in an account by Abdul-Rahman Batra, a member of the HCSR (an aid providing organization based in Istanbul, Antakiya, Jordan and Lebanon) who used to work with the video-blogger Rami al-Said in Homs: he says that the International Red Cross was granted access to the Sunni neighborhood of Bab Amro after the government offensive on 29 February 2012, but that the regime prompted Alawi residents from the neighborhoods of Al-Zahra and Al-Nizha to seize the provisions.
Indeed, these alleged forms of selective punishment of Sunni neighborhoods, coupled with the instigation of fears in religious minorities, have increased the risk of the revolution being completely hijacked along sectarian lines.