Abdelbasset Sida’s Appeal to Syria¹s Minorities: The Last Game-Changer?
Abdelbasset Sida’s Appeal to Syria’s Minorities: The Last Game-Changer?
by Magdalena Kirchner, Contributor
In retrospect, the Syrian regime’s ability to alleviate popular discontent by promising political and economic reforms without having to give up power – as happened in Algeria, Jordan, Morocco, Oman, and Saudi Arabia – or at least contain it territorially (like in Egypt, Yemen or Tunisia) – seemed close to non-existent from the very outset of the crisis.
First, despite the strong economic background of the protests in southern Daraa last April, demonstrators simultaneously set fire to the local Baa’th Party headquarters, the state TV station, a branch of Assad’s cousin Rami Makhlouf’s Syratel phone company, and destroyed statues of members of the ruling family. Second, the early “pollice verso” by major sections of the international community regarding Assad’s disposition in office eased the pressure on the opposition leaders to accept the president’s half-hearted reform initiatives. Third, the epicenters of popular protests were neither big industrial hubs nor urban centers (as in Egypt and Yemen), and maintained the conflict being limited to peripheral areas (as in Libya and Tunisia). In contrast, the chronological and territorial sequence of demonstrations and protests strongly resembled the biggest challenge to regime security in Assad-ruled Syria – the revolt of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, which the government could only put down by employing massive force (and killing tens of thousands) three decades ago. 
All three developments strengthened a perception of “them or us,” which first explains the rapid change in the government’s policy toward spillover effects of the “Arab Spring”: After initially dispersing peaceful sit-ins in solidarity with Egyptian demonstrators in Damascus with sticks to mass arrests, security forces soon began down brutally and deadly on protests. Within weeks, the government’s response turned into what we have been seeing over the last twelve months – a massive military campaign, including sieges and bombardments, the employment of tens of thousands of soldiers, heavy artillery, tanks, helicopters, and even gunboats.
Second, the dark outlook of a “payback” against the regime and those who directly and indirectly benefitted from it is a major factor in explaining why despite the regime’s inability to suppress domestic unrest, the implosion of the economy, unprecedented international criticism and tangible support for the armed opposition, the point that was critical for the downfall of Ben ‘Ali, Mubarak, Gadhafi and Saleh has not been reached yet: the dissolution of the formal and informal ruling coalition.
Asked in February 2012 why the overwhelming majority of the 700,000 Syrian Druze have not joined the opposition so far, a young citizen of Sweida explained his pro-government position stating, “Muslims have an intolerant mentality. They do not want us, or the Christians or the Alawites, to live freely. Our freedom is protected by the president.” 
One should take into account that this perception might not be a particular Druze one but widespread also among the about two million Christians, who look with consternation to Egypt, Iraq and Nigeria, where the transformation of the political system toward democracy had substantially worsened the position – and the safety – of the Christian community. Last but not least, there are the over two million Alawites, who fear that the replacement of the Assad regime with a predominantly Sunni Muslim government is likely to be followed by a policy of revenge – if not a massacre – instead of reconciliation. That these fears are not only propaganda by the regime and strongly influence the minorities’ indecisiveness in the conflict shows an increasing number of hostile statements and attacks especially against Alawites from segments of the Sunni opposition,  but also the comparatively low level of violence in areas with significant Alawite, Christian and Druze populations.
Last week’s election of Abdelbasset Sida, a Syrian Kurd, as the new leader of the Syrian National Council (SNC) could be an important step towards more inclusiveness and legitimacy among yet-indecisive segments of the Syrian population, although many criticize his weak support among the 1.5 million Syrian Kurds. Remarkably though, Sida went instantly beyond appeals to his fellow Kurds – which could be perceived as closing the ranks of the Kurdish and Arab Sunni Muslim majority – and reassured “all sects and groups, especially Alawites and Christians, that the future of Syria will be for the all of us,” and that “There will be no discrimination based on gender or sects. The new Syria will be a democratic state.” 
As the promise of democracy might in contrast increase fears among minorities, both the SNC and the international community will have to regain credibility regarding their willingness and ability to tame the Sunni majority in their quest for justice and compensation for the wrongdoings of Assad’s rule in order to successfully counter the regime’s strategy to portray itself as the guarantor of minority survival.
Kirchner, M. and Sass, M. “Syria (various opposition groups)”, in Conflict Barometer 2011, ed. Heidelberg Institute for International Conflict Research, Heidelberg 2012, pp. 101f.
Sands, P. “Syria’s Druze community: A silent minority in no rush to take sides”, The National, 22.2.2012, http://www.thenational.ae/news/world/middle-east/syrias-druze-community-a-silent-minority-in-no-rush-to-take-sides#full.
Karouny, M. „Against Syrian anger, Assad’s sect feels fear“, Reuters, 1.2.2012, http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/02/01/us-syria-alawites-idUSTRE81024G20120201.
Al Jazeera, “Syria opposition leader seeks to revamp SNC”, 10.6.2012, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2012/06/201261001212475299.html.