x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Sectarian fears are destructive in Syrian crisis

Six months after protests started, the worst-case scenario in Syria is for sectarian incitement to prevail.

Last week, Maronite Patriarch Bshara Al Rai expressed concerns in Paris over the future of Syrian Christians if the Assad regime is toppled. He is not alone in that concern - in a volatile country, there is a frightening level of uncertainty for many people who enjoyed relative stability, if not freedom, under the Baathist regime. But those people are not any safer for the Patriarch's comments.

Six months to the day since the beginning of the Syrian protests, the country is one of the worst flashpoint of violence in the region. Unlike in Egypt and Tunisia, where regimes fell with surprising rapidity, or in Libya, where the Qaddafis were forced out by a Nato-backed rebellion, the Assad regime has shown few signs of cracking. And as such, each statement has to be weighed for its consequences.

Patriarch Al Rai's concern for his co-religionalists is understandable; the Lebanese leader Walid Jumblatt has also voiced support for Syrian Druze who are caught in the conflict. But in the current unrest, concern has to be carefully phrased. By warning against the regime's fall, Patriarch Al Rai has, in his native Lebanon at least, been accused of supporting the violence. That is a mischaracterisation of his statements, but nonetheless it is a clarification that most Syrian Christians would not want to have to explain to their compatriots.

It works both ways. Shortly after the protests began, a group of Saudi clerics jointly condemned the violence, but that positive position was pushed into condemnation of an "Alawite sectarian war" against Sunnis. Syrian protesters are marshalled against a brutal regime; the fact that it is dominated by Alawites is a secondary consideration.

Warning of a sectarian war is one way to incite one. Outsiders should take note of more tempered statements from Syrians, some of whom have their lives on the line. The leading Syrian Christian opposition figure Michel Kilo has argued that the current Islamic protest movement advocates a civil state and a pluralistic constitution. Another positive example came last week when three Alawite religious leaders in Homs condemned the violent crackdown and asserted that the Alawite minority distanced itself from the killings. It is a direct contradiction to the regime, whose security forces are regularly shown cursing Sunnis as they carry out their atrocities.

The worst-case scenario in Syria is for that sentiment to prevail. The outside community, particularly Arab political and religious leaders, have an enormous responsibility to help Syria. And in some cases that may mean remaining silent.