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Sectarian Violence in Syria?

6:00 PM, Jun 7, 2011 • By LEE SMITH
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Assad Bashar

Syria instigated violence on its border with Israel this past weekend when it dispatched Palestinian refugees to the Golan Heights to commemorate the 44 anniversary of the June 1967 war, what Gamal abd el-Nasser called the Naksa. Syrian authorities say that Israeli troops killed 23 on the border, while the Israelis explain that ten people were killed when they triggered landmines on the Syrian side of the border. There are reports that the Palestinians were paid to march, with additional bonuses going to the families of any protester martyred. In any case, the 1967 war is still claiming victims, for just as the Egyptian demagogue Gamal abd el-Nasser willingly tossed away Arab lives for his own personal gain, Bashar al-Assad is doing the same. As the Wall Street Journal notes, it was a diversionary tactic. "We condemn,” a State Department spokesman quoted in the Journal says, “what appears to be an effort by the Syrian government to incite events and draw attention away from its own internal issues.”

The other Syrian border to watch is the one it shares with Turkey, where hundreds of Syrian refugees fled after the recent clashes in the northern Syrian town of Jisr al-Shughour. Syrian authorities say that armed gangs ambushed and killed 120 security forces this past weekend. However, as one refugee explained to the Turkish press, “Since the '80s, residents of Jisr al-Shughour are banned from possessing any kind of weapons, even a hunting rifle…So how can there be armed resistance?” Other reports claim the Muslim Brotherhood was behind it, a story suiting the regime’s larger narrative about the uprising now more than two months old—that it is a sectarian affair driven by Sunni Islamists. Even if the Brotherhood is involved, it is not clear how the heavily armed and armored Syrian security forces, which have used tanks and artillery over the past few weeks, could lose so many people.

Another possibility is mutiny in the ranks, and that the security forces and the army fired on each other. There is apparently more dissent within the Syrian army than Damascus is willing to let on. Al Jazeera is reporting that one junior officer has posted a YouTube video to explain why he has left his post:

I am (lieutenant) Abd al-Razzaq Muhammad Talas, an officer in Division 5, the 15th Brigade, Regiment 852. This is my military ID… I'm from the city of Rastan, near Homs. I joined the army to protect the people… but after the crimes we have witnessed against the people of Dara'a I cannot remain in my post.

He describes a massacre conducted by another army unit and pleads with his colleagues in the military. “Where,” he asks, “is your conscience?"

The issue for the regime is, which “conscience” is the officer referring to? Is he addressing the rank and file as fellow Syrians tasked with protecting the country against “the Israeli enemy” and is now killing their own countrymen?

Or is the appeal directed to their sectarian conscience—i.e., how can we collaborate with an Alawite regime as it is slaughtering Sunnis? This officer, after all, shares the same last name as the former defense minister, Mustafa Talas, who had been appointed by Bashar’s father Hafez precisely to win over Sunni regions like the ones now under fire from the regime.

“Early on in the uprising the regime dispatched Mustafa Talas to negotiate with the locals in Rastan,” says Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “The negotiations obviously failed, and the townsfolk tore down a statue of Hafez, supposedly the biggest one in Syria. The regime has focused on this area, since it’s where the Syrian army draws a lot of its Sunni recruits. Deraa, where the uprising started, and Rastan are rural Sunni towns where the regime used to draw its support by co-opting rural Sunnis. And now these areas are in open rebellion.”

For the regime in Damascus, the only thing worse than a divided security and military apparatus is a sectarian conflict that has spun out of its control. 

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