x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Support Syria's moderates to stop sectarians

A sectarian attack by Syrian rebels in eastern Syria is an alarming omen for the country's future. But it is a clear signal that outsiders must step up support for moderate rebel groups.

Syrian rebel groups have carried out what appears to be the first overtly sectarian massacre committed by the opposition since the beginning of the uprising.

The Syrian regime has long represented the uprising as sectarian, in an effort to ensure the loyalty of religious minorities and to justify its own violence. Now, as the United-Nations-documented death toll passes 93,000, this incident suggests that the regime's sectarian rhetoric is a self-fulfilling prophecy. And it reminds us again that prompt, meaningful outside support for moderates is utterly vital.

What is more troubling is that the opposition has so far failed to condemn the attack, saying the victims were armed fighters who had attacked rebel groups to help the regime retake a vital checkpoint.

Several rebel groups took part in attacking the Shia village of Hatla, near the city of Deir Ezzor. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said about 60 people were killed, including fighters. At least one of the victims was a woman. Some houses were burnt.

Despite opposition claims, the attack had a sectarian tone. YouTube videos show attackers saying things like "this is your end, Shia dogs". One fighter, baring the face of a dead man, says "this is the Shia carcass".

Many in the village converted to Shiism in the 1990s, leading to tensions in the mostly-Sunni province; some say the conversion was driven by Iranian or Kuwaiti Shia money. When the uprising began, the village's Shia residents backed the regime, adding to neighbours' suspicions.

A worrying aspect of the attack is that a prominent Kuwaiti supporter of the Syrian rebels admitted that the killing was motivated by sectarian vengeance. Shafi Al Ajmi said in a video posted on YouTube: "Today, we took the village of Hatla and slaughtered the bad ones with knives as you slaughtered our wives and children in Qusayr."

Sectarian slogans, increasingly heard among the rebels, are in part generated by interference from individuals in other countries, who fund select groups. Private donors are mostly driven by ideological agendas.

The rebels' reliance on this kind of funding must end. Instead, outside powers must work to support the rebels through the fledgling command-and-control structure under General Salim Idriss, the Free Syrian Army's chief of staff.

This attack, an alarming omen for Syria's future, is a clear signal that outsiders must step up support for moderate rebel groups.