National Security & Defense

Hostage to Foreign Extremists

Frightened Syrian minorities speak of brutal atrocities committed by rebel jihadists.

As the secretaries of Defense and State testified before the House Armed Services Committee about American military intervention in Syria on Tuesday, I spoke with two Syrians to discuss the war in their homeland. It was a perspective few in the West have heard, one that complicates the U.S. government’s intervention storyline. With President Obama’s announcement that war will be averted for the time being, there is an opportunity to examine the realities on the ground for the Syrian people.

The Syrians, whose names are withheld for their safety, fear reprisal. The Syria they describe is a more complex place than that seen on the news by Americans. 

Prior to the outbreak of civil war in Syria, the Sunni majority, Alawi, Shia, Druze, Kurds, and Christians lived in peace. When the protests began in 2011, “the idea of change was welcomed by all Syrians,” says one of the Syrians. “But there was an external agenda.” The other interjects: “Saudi Arabia . . . the Wahhabi, the Salafi.” As peaceful protests gave way to rebellion, violence, and civil war, Syria began to splinter into sectarian and tribal affiliations. “Most of my friends are [Sunni] Muslim,” says one. “Today, you cannot even say hello.” But it was not so simple as Syrian Sunnis versus religious and ethnic minorities.

Not long after protest gave way to rebellion, the influx of foreign fighters to Syria began, coming from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and even Europe and North America. Syria became the front line of a broader conflict: Sunni versus Shia, Islamist versus secular, an intra-civilizational civil war. These foreign Sunni jihadists flocked to make holy war as the mujahedeen had done in Afghanistan a generation earlier. “Most of them come through Turkey . . . their weapons stamped from Saudi and Qatar.” They quote a report from Jacques Bérès, of Doctors Without Borders, who claimed that “at least half” of the wounded rebels he treated were not Syrian.

While these Islamist militants from other parts of the Middle East have been making their way into Syria, many Sunni moderates and secularists have been leaving Syria for more stable countries in the region. According to these Syrians, not all were fleeing Assad; many Sunnis in fact prefer Assad to the Islamist radicals who are sure to govern Syria if Assad’s secular Alawi regime falls. These Sunni jihadists terrorize Syrian Sunnis and religious minorities alike. “In Aleppo, all the rich business people are Sunni,” one says. “The rebels have kidnapped many of them, destroyed their factories.” These Sunni businessmen, among others, “are with the regime.”

Recent claims by Senator John McCain and Secretary of State John Kerry that the rebels are “moderate” — claims that were proffered dubiously, cited ubiquitously, and refuted persuasively — were intended to provide a partial justification for any proposed military intervention. This justification now seems rather tenuous. To our visitors from Syria, the claim that the rebels are moderate is stunning. “They are terrorists,” they say.

Young women who are members of religious minorities have been particular targets of the rebels. “We are expecting they will come night or day to cut off our heads or rape us,” says one of the Syrians. One tells the story of an Alawi teenage girl who was raped and murdered by the rebels, her body tied to the bumper of a car that was driven through the streets of Homs. The rebels shouted warnings to helpless onlookers: “This will be your daughter if you oppose us!” There were many rape survivors. They had looked into the vacant eyes of rape and other trauma victims — eyes that stared blankly back at her, the divine spark extinguished by unspeakable violence. “Some of these girls have been mute for two years.”

They admit that few of the atrocities were witnessed firsthand, though the rebel atrocities documented thus far are sufficiently grisly. But if even some of the allegations are true, this must not be ignored. They speak of infants ripped from their mothers’ arms and beheaded, of conscripted children forced to execute government sympathizers, of kidnapping and rape and torture. “They are on drugs,” says one of the Syrians. “How else could a person do such things?” Like all reports from Syria, these ought to be scrutinized and verified.

They discuss Syria before the civil war began, their visages a mix of sorrow and joy, recalling the peace of what now seems an age ago. “We lived in freedom,” they say. “All minorities had freedom to worship as they liked.” This freedom was not restricted to a particular house of worship. Minorities “could celebrate in the streets” on religious holidays and were free to proselytize and even distribute religious literature in public. They are not under any misapprehensions about what the overthrow of the government would mean for this freedom — or for their prospects for survival.

They readily acknowledge that Syrian state-controlled media are slanted, though they are equally skeptical of Western media, which they believe fail to convey the truth. They do not deny that Assad’s regime has been brutal at times. “Our army made many mistakes — many mistakes on both sides,” says one. The army’s brutality was on full display in the crackdown that began in response to the protests in 2011. The regime sought to crush the opposition with a swift blow, such as Hafez Assad had inflicted on the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama in 1982. This proved an egregious miscalculation. In 1982, the violence was confined inside Syria; 2011, however, saw a regional and cultural shift of seismic proportions, with the Gulf States standing ready to provide Sunni jihadists with an endless supply of weapons and money. When rapid, ruthless suppression failed, a protracted conflict with tens of thousands of civilian casualties followed, and there was no shortage of innocent blood on either side. Syria, as a nation, has essentially ceased to exist, much like Bosnia-Herzegovina in the 1990s.

What is taking place today in Syria has roots in its violent history. As Charles Glass noted in Tribes with Flags: A Dangerous Passage through the Chaos of the Middle East, the tension between extremists and moderates was not new even when it flared in 1982. Extremism had been put down in the 15th century, then later by the Ottomans, and then by subsequent regimes. As Glass observed:

The Baath Party in theory stood for all the ideals the devout Muslims of Hama most feared: rights for women, co-education, equality among religious sects and land reform. In 1970, a Baathist who was also a despised Alawi became president. For the Sunni landowners of Hama, Hafez Assad epitomised their worst fears: the rise of the poorer classes, the domination of the Alawis and an end to their hope of establishing a theocracy. It was as if white southern plantation owners in the United States had been confronted in the 1950s with a black socialist in the White House.

Glass wrote these words, incidentally, in 1990. Today, America’s foreign-policy establishment and a black president find themselves supporting not white southern plantation owners in the Middle East but an infinitely more extreme collection of Islamist militants. During this intermission in the march to war in Syria, America’s people and policymakers ought to pause to consider both the complex realities on the ground and the full implications of military intervention.

— Andrew Doran served on the executive secretariat of the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO at the U.S. Department of State. His views are his own.

Andrew Doran served on the State Department’s policy planning staff from 2018 to 2021. He is currently a senior research fellow at the Philos Project.


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