WASHINGTON – During moderated panel discussions at the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) on Friday Syrian activists blamed the media for promoting disunity within the opposition by needlessly overemphasizing ethnic and sectarian tensions in daily coverage. Although there were differences between the political opposition groups abroad, the panelists maintained that the revolutionaries fighting on the ground were entirely united.
Perceptions of internal strife have hindered the movement’s efforts at securing international support for ousting President Bashar al-Assad, whose regime has killed more than 7,000 Syrians since the largely peaceful protests broke out last January. Considering Assad’s father killed 20,000 people to quell an uprising in 1982, many see engaging in dialogue as delusionary.
The activists were gathered to discuss the uncertain future of women and minorities within post-Assad Syria, and while they all highlighted the iniquities of the current regime they scoffed at the notion the revolution would turn into a sectarian civil war once Assad was deposed.
The first panel, moderated by Kathleen Kuehnast from the USIP’s Center of Innovation on Gender and Peacebuilding, focused on the critical role women have played throughout the revolution. But during the question and answer session the issue of factionalism was raised and met head on by Farah Al Attasi, president of the Arab Information and Resource Center, who said the revolutionaries saw themselves as nationalists, first and foremost. The Syrian people were united by the same goal of freeing their homeland from tyranny, she claimed, which trumped all other ethnic, sectarian and political agendas.
Steven Heydemann, the USIP’s Senior Adviser for Middle East Initiatives, moderated the second panel on minorities. Syria consists of over 40 minority groups including Christians, Alawites, Kurds and Druze, but the Syrian National Council (SNC), which is the most widely-recognized coalition of anti-regime forces, has been portrayed in the media as being heavily-influenced by Sunni extremists intolerant to other sects.
Assad himself belongs to the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam, and has ruled the Sunni majority with an iron fist for 11 years. Hence, once Assad is removed from power, minorities like the Alawites are fearful Sunnis may seek retribution for years of oppression.
SNC member Najib Ghadbian tried to dispel the notion that the opposition council favored a theocratic state. Although many Syrian Sunni Muslims are conservative, he said a wide majority supported the concept of separation of church and state, including factions such as the Muslim Brotherhood.
Ghadbian understood that many Syrian minority groups were reluctant to see Assad toppled and wanted to make it clear the SNC was interested in establishing a civil modern democratic society that would protect the rights of all Syrians regardless of religion or ethnicity.
Oudei Abouassaf, originally from the Druze-majority city of Sweida, echoed these sentiments and said it was hard to imagine any future government being worse than Assad’s.
However, contradicting the picture of unity painted by the panelists was a story in Friday’s New York Times, an excerpt of which stated:
The Kurds, a group that has long complained of repression and discrimination by the Assad regime, have failed to unify and declined to join the Sunni-dominated opposition, with some concerned that a post-Assad government led by the uprisings leaders may be no better — or perhaps even worse.
One of the panelists, Abed Alo, an active member of the Syrian Kurdish Diaspora, told me after the session that the U.S. is using the appearance of so-called “divisions” as an excuse to hide the fact other geopolitical factors are driving the reluctance to intervene.
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