On a hot July night, Aleppo icon Shadi Jameel performed his legendary songs inside Aleppo Citadel while thousands of Aleppoians were dancing and waving Syrian flags. Before Jameel took to the stage, the concert presenter saluted Syrian regime forces for their "victory" in taking back Aleppo last December. He cheered the crowd and said "now; among us are the Armenian, the Christian, the Alawite, the Shiite and the Sunni. Because we are all Syrians before being Muslims or Christians. This is Syria; this is Assad’s Syria".
Only a few kilometers to the southwest, hundreds of long beard militants are embarking on a vehement struggle to control Idlib which the rebels controlled some two years ago. The fight is between Hayat Tahrir al Sham- a coalition of Salafi Jihadist groups that includes Fateh al Sham, which was previously known as Jabhat al Nusra- and Ahrar al Sham -a Salafi group backed by Turkey and some Gulf States. Although Ahrar al sham is considered more moderate than Hayat Tahrir al Sham, which is listed as a terrorist group, both movements hold radical versions of Sunni ideology.
Interestingly, these two pictures coming up from Syria last month summarise developments of the drama there, and seem to perfectly present what the regime vied to promote since the outset of the 2011 uprising which turned into a drastic regional and international struggle for power and is paralleled by a bloody civil war. Today, these two scenes of a secular Syria ruled by Assad vs. an Islamic Syria led by rural Salfists stand as a solid fact. Although, the Assad regime manipulated identity for realpolitik ends and exploited fears of minority groups (including Alawite; Christians and Druze) to safeguard its very existence, such as deploying sectarian forces Shabiha (which consisted mainly of Alawite) and lijan shaabiyya Popular Committees (composed chiefly of Druze, some Christians and Alawite) while allowing Iranian, Afghani, Lebanese and Iraqi Shiite militias to shadow the Syrian army in combating Sunni rebels. Nevertheless, the official discourse for the regime strived to keep the secular face on and made numerous usages of secular slogans like ‘We are all Syrians’, ‘Syria is for all’, and ‘we belong to Syria’. Unlike most of the opposition factions, which very explicitly apply sectarian discourse in their slogans, flags, even the names of many militias (e.g. ansar al sunna the Islamic army or ansar al sunna The Sunni Supporters). On the other hand, secular opposition does not seem to exist anymore. Alas, those secular youth who bravely took to the streets on March 15 2011 in the heart of Damascus while chanting pro-democracy slogans have been marginalised. As these young people have been trapped between the continuous repression of the regime and the challenges imposed on them by the fundamentalists, they have been provoked to flee the country and crippling their agenda. Further, they lacked and are still lacking sufficient support. Henceforth, their activities are limited to the online sphere while the ground is captured by Islamists.
Indeed, this has pushed Syrians in the grey category al fy'aa al ramadyyiah - a term that was coined during the beginning of the uprising to refer to those Syrians who neither supported the regime nor the opposition- toward the regime as for them Assad’s Syria is secular and stable. In this grey category are Syrians who did not support the uprising because they feared chaos, violence and retaliation: those were mainly apolitical urban Syrians from the upper and middle class. Remarkably, the grey category began expanding with the escalation of violence and the inflammation of sectarian clashes, it started to include more secular and moderate Sunnis. However, pictures of the two Syrias incite al ramadyyon (grey people or Syrians in the grey category) to support the regime, and this would certainly have fatal implications on any political solution as it expands the gap between Syrians and emphasises the line between ‘us’ and ‘them’. More importantly, it would paralyse any deradicalisation process.
Hitherto, footage that was broadcasted last week from Saraqib (eastern Idlib) of civilians protesting against Hayat Tahrir al Sham revives some hope. One female protester tells Alwan Radio (a local radio station that operates in Northern Syria) “I’m protesting today to tell al Golani (leader of Fateh al Sham) and all other extremists that they are not welcome in my town”. Another protester yells “we call on the Local Council to take control”. Regardless of the fact that this protest was punished a few hours later by militiamen, it still reflects the spirit of civil resistance at the grassroots level and the quest by citizens to counter fundamentalism. Although, locals are deemed to hold a Sunni ideology which won’t accept secularism, their struggle against extremist groups like Hayat Tahrir al Sham and requests to the Local Council for control indicate their preference for civil governance.
Hereafter, a very good opportunity is there to embark on a process of deradicalisation. Western powers should perceive it and act accordingly; empower Local Councils in rebel-held areas and counter the quest by Jihadists to spread their ideology. Enabling Local Councils to address the daily needs of the population (e.g. water electricity, bread) would boost public support for civil governance and build credibility for civil institutions. In parallel, the West should back the moderate local militias which fight under the umbrella of Ahrar al Sham so they won’t be eliminated or recruited by the Jihadists. Nonetheless, alas, the U.S administration declared that it has ended a classified CIA program to arm rebels in Syria (a program that was established four years ago under the Obama administration). Consequently, this would inflame radicalism since it would trigger rebels to pursue any source of arms supply. Well, there are plenty out there who strive to gain leverage over an angry Sunni fighter.
In this light, these scenes of two Syrias, by large, are the product of a calculated approach by the Assad regime, and a short-sighted miscalculated one by the Western powers. However, protests in Saraqib should be a reminder that opportunities can be found to institute a more productive rhetoric. And it should also serve as a reminder that the cost of more lost opportunities in the Syrian crisis would be very high for all actors involved.
*/ Ola Rifai is a Fellow at the Centre for Syrian Studies at the University of St Andrews.
The views & information contained in these posts & articles are strictly those of their authors who are solely responsible for their accuracy, and should not be regarded as representing the Centre for Syrian Studies or the University of St Andrews.