Fears of sectarian bloodbath in Syria
Berlin - Former Reuters correspondent Khaled Yacoub Oweis, perhaps the agency’s most experienced Middle East operator, is ensconced in the swish offices of the Institute for Security and International Affairs, a German think-tank.
It’s Berlin but his wall has paintings by Syrian artist Fadi Yazigi and his smartphone bleeps with messages and calls from Syria, from where he was expelled in 2011 as acting Reuters bureau chief. Oweis had lived in Damascus for six years after spending 2003-05 mainly in Iraq.
His research papers on Syria cover local ceasefires, the effects of the US bombing of the Islamic State (ISIS) and the fractured opposition to President Bashar Assad. Oweis is currently examining rural Sunnis — the “backbone”, he says, both of peaceful protests in 2010-11 and now of the anti-Assad forces — but he also keeps an eye on Syria’s minorities.
Oweis says Syria’s Christians and Kurds have made themselves vulnerable by supporting the Alawite-led regime established by Assad’s father, Hafez, in 1970.
“Take the Christians,” he said. “At the start of the revolt, Michel Kilo [Christian writer and political prisoner] said: ‘All we have to do is stay neutral, at least show a gesture: If a protester dies, go to the wake’.
“But by and large, the Christians didn’t do this. Many joined regime militias and now, if the tide goes against Assad, I don’t think the Christians have a bright future.”
So far, Oweis argues, the backlash is muted. “You haven’t seen large-scale massacres of Christians or Druze — Alawites are a different story — even by Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda branch. In Idlib [city in north-west Syria captured by rebels in March], there has been no mass exodus of Christians. Given the scale of the minorities’ support for the regime, we haven’t seen a sectarian bloodbath but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen.”
The Christians’ predicament results, says Oweis, from decades of the Assad regime’s security penetration of the church and its involvement of Christians in corruption. “The Christians lost land [to Alawites] in many places but regime figures also often employed a Christian banker or lawyer to help with their ‘business’,” he said. “So many Christians acquired wealth by illegitimate means.”
Collaboration has been less marked with the Druze. “I visited Sweida [mainly Druze city near Jordan] in 2007. When I looked at the Syrian artillery, it wasn’t pointed at the border. It was pointed directly at Sweida,” Oweis said.
The Ba’ath Party’s manipulation of minorities makes Oweis impatient about talk internationally of its rule as “secular”. “In the 1980s, Hafez Assad killed and expelled thousands of Sunnis but he also purged leftists and secularists,” he said. “Riad al-Turk, a secular Sunni, spent nearly 18 years in solitary confinement.”
Centrally, the regime has fostered Alawite sectarianism. Oweis cites Aref Dalila, an economist and political prisoner from 2002 until 2008, as a brave exception, saying, “If he had stayed they would have killed him as they probably killed Abdul- Aziz Khayyer [an Alawite dissident], who has disappeared.”
The Assad regime has also tried to exploit the Kurds, particularly through the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its Syrian offshoot, the Democratic Union Party (PYD). The target, says Oweis, is Kurds wanting to join the wider Syrian opposition.
“When the revolt broke out, [Kurdish dissident] Mashaal Tammo said the Kurds should be part of an inclusive, democratic Syria.
He told me the blood of a Damascene killed by the security forces was the same as the blood of a Kurd killed in Hasakah,” Oweis says. “He joined Walid al-Bunni and Haitham Maleh [both Arab Sunnis] in calling the National Salvation conference in 2011, which was to be held in Qaboun [a district of Damascus] in a wedding hall until the security forces killed 14 people.
“The PKK, or PYD, was opportunistic. After Tammo was assassinated in 2011, it took over Kurdish areas. In exchange for the regime pulling out, they cracked down on anti- Assad demonstrations and expelled non-PYD Kurdish activists. But the PYD’s Kurdish ‘over-reach’, in a mixed city like Ras El-Ain, prompted an invasion by Arab tribes. It also helped ISIS gain Arab recruits and the result was the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Kurds to Turkey or Iraqi Kurdistan.”
Oweis says progress in Syria requires agreement to remove Assad, both to curb Sunni extremism and persuade minorities to stop cooperating with the regime.
“The symbol of humiliation for the Sunnis is Assad, and the longer he’s there, the more there will be militancy,” Oweis says. “Once the minorities get a signal that the international community wants to remove Assad — for example if President [Barack] Obama says, ‘One more chlorine attack or barrel bomb and we’ll unleash our air force’ — then they’ll stop supporting Assad.”
The one place left for a transitional government, says Oweis, is Syria’s 3,000-year-old capital. “If you preserve Damascus and establish a central government with money and support, people might start switching. There may still be a slim chance to save Syria,” he said.