Uncertainty in Syrian conflict leaves Christians and Druze in limbo

Uncertainty in Syrian conflict leaves Christians and Druze in limbo

Members of the Druze community hold posters depicting Bashar al-Assad during a rally marking Syria’s independence day in the Druze village of Majdal Shams on April 17. (PHOTO Reuters, RONEN ZVULUN)

August 19, 2012, Sunday/ 11:45:00

As the departure of embattled President Bashar al-Assad becomes imminent, traditional backers of the Syrian regime, Christians and Druze, have started to question their stance towards the regime, fearing for their fate in the post-Assad era.

The expansion of the conflict in Syria has amplified the fears of the Christians and the Druze, keeping them under pressure from both the regime and rebels to take sides and make their allegiances known.

“The uprising in Syria left the Christians on the horns of a dilemma. Christians, feeling marginalized, believe that they will be the most impacted by the crisis. Even though they are not very happy with the Assad regime, they believe that the alternative to the regime would be worse. For these reasons, they are siding with the regime,” Oytun Orhan, a Syria expert from the Ankara-based Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (ORSAM), told Sunday’s Zaman, adding that the main reason for their concern was the experiences of Christians in Iraq, Libya and Egypt.

Nonetheless, many Christians fear any government that replaces the Assad regime could be dominated by groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, which could marginalize them.

“Not all the Christians have sided with the regime as the Alawites did. Many have stayed completely silent due to fear of the post-Assad era. They also fear the Muslim Brotherhood or Salafis gaining power in the post-Assad era. The Christians are afraid of facing the same scenario as the Iraqis faced after the US invasion in 2003,” said Orhan.

Christians also worry that their communities could be devastated in the crossfire between sectarian groups, just as Christians in neighboring Iraq have suffered greatly in sectarian wars over the past decade.

Bassam Ishak, a senior member of the Syrian National Council (SNC), argued in remarks to Sunday’s Zaman that some Druze and Christians are indifferent to the revolution, believing that minorities have nothing to win from political change. “Some believed that armed extremist Islamists were involved in the revolution and that the regime would defeat them with its superior firepower. However, as the revolution dragged on and its popular support became evident, sentiments among these minorities began to shift and they expressed views opposed to the regime,” said Ishak.

Syria’s Sunni majority is the backbone of the opposition, and minorities such as Christians and Druze have generally stuck to the sidelines, partly out of a fear that they will be marginalized -- or even targeted -- in the post-Assad era.

Christians and Druze hold senior positions in the state, although some have joined the opposition.

“Nobody would prefer a dictator or totalitarian regime except those who benefit from it, for instance some Syrian Christians and Druze,” said Ishak.

Orhan stated that increasing violence and terrorist activities across the country are forcing minority groups to side with the regime. Syrian Christians rank first among these groups. “Despite the fact that the proportion of Syrian Christians to the whole Syrian population has decreased to 5 to 6 percent, the position they have taken is critically important in the uprising process in Syria,” said Orhan.

Syrian Christians agree that they have little choice but to wait until they see a clear sign of advantage in moving one way or the other, and until then they are likely to be too timid to budge.

Orhan stated that since the beginning of the uprisings, Christians had acted with a “minority psychology.” He explained: “I would describe the attitude of Christians as ‘passive neutrality.’ They were aware that in the end they would be the loser, so they agreed to exclude themselves from the uprisings,” said Orhan, adding that the Church had always warned the Christians to stay away from the uprising.

Syrian church leaders say that the prospect of an Islamic fundamentalist takeover in Syria represents a greater danger to Christians than the continuation of the current administration.

Patriarch Bishara Boutros al-Rai stated last year: “We endured the rule of the Syrian regime. I have not forgotten that. We do not stand by the regime, but we fear the transition that could follow. We must defend the Christian community. We, too, must resist.”

Historically, the majority of Christians have enjoyed a privileged status under Assad, serving in important security, economic and political positions, and they have been able to practice their religion freely.

“During the Assad era, Christians didn’t face any difficulty in practicing their religion. But they were facing some difficulties under the control of a dictator regime,” said Orhan.

Assad’s regime has always pushed a secular ideology, which has been seen as minorities with a measure of protection.

In a phone interview from Germany, Fawaz Tello, a prominent dissident who resigned from the SNC last May, told Sunday’s Zaman that Christians and Druze never faced a real threat in Syria, regardless of some rumors and lies spread by the regime to the media. “This is an old policy of the regime, creating fears among minorities,” said Tello.

“Minorities, including Christians and Druze, will always find an open arm by the Sunni majority [provided that] they stop supporting the regime -- it already became clear that the regime is over -- or at least take on a neutral attitude [regarding] the revolution,” said Tello.

Nevertheless, some Christians and Druze have joined opposition groups like the SNC, which has openly opposed the Assad regime since the initial uprising last year.

Tello states that the Assad regime has played upon the fears of the minorities. “I heard that the regime was using the church to give false messages to the American and European decision-makers, who are ready to believe these false messages. This destructive role is the main role the regime has played against the revolution,” said Tello.

In a phone interview from Egypt, Ishak stated that Christians and Druze support Assad for two reasons: to gain a benefit, and to maintain current advantages. “They fear losing the benefit they have. No one loves a dictator,” said Ishak.

However, it is said that the backing of Assad by the Druze has been visibly eroded. “The majority of Druze took a neutral attitude towards the revolution. A minority of Druze either support the regime or are against it. I believe that the neutral ones will shift to the revolutionary side as soon as the regime falls. But Sunnis will never consider them real supporters,” said Tello.

In Syria, the Druze make up a tiny minority of about 3 percent in a country of 22 million and are marginal to the bloody power struggle there.

Orhan stated that some Druze figures hold important government positions, explaining: “We cannot say that the Druze have joined the opposition movement. Because they are also a minority, they have stayed away from the uprising.”

While the world considers the broader regional implications of the Syrian crisis, the status and position of religious minorities is becoming an increasingly important issue.

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