With the massacre of 400 people in Darayya strange emotions are coursing through Syria. Some are shocked by its sheer callousness, others are cursing the FSA, whilst in the provinces they shout ‘God is most Great! Death to Assad!’ What is becoming increasingly clear is that these massacres are not just the actions of a desperate government trying to hold things together. There is a perverse logic behind the regime’s measures.
The systematic isolation of the town located not too far from Damascus, the house to house searches, the clinical executions followed by Duniya TV, owned by Bashar Assad’s cousin, suggest that this was far from random. Darayya occurred because it is known as the cradle of the Syrian revolution. Houla occurred because it sat on the fault line of the Sunni-Alawite divide. There is method in the madness.
Some, like the dissident scholar Muhammed Yaqoubi in a recent Royal United Services Institute lecture, suggested that these massacres are designed to set up an Alawite mini-state in Lattakia. After all, Lattakia has a good infrastructure with two ports and an international airport. With the right support from the Russians, Chinese and Iranians it could be a nice counter against Western hegemony in the region.
However, Darayya is beyond geo-politics. Darayya is the translation of the deep seated fears of a community that has much more to lose than simply power. The town represents everything that the regime and indeed some of the Alawite community fears; Sunni ascendancy would mean a return to its historic servitude. Darayya stems from the same emotion that made them ban books of a thirteenth century scholar who advocated their destruction. Darayya comes from the same fear expressed by Bashar Assad’s grandfather in 1936 to the French premier Léon Blum: that if the Sunnis gain ascendancy the Alawites would be driven into the sea.
The regime fears that it will be paid back in kind for its actions in the past. It’s aware that its actions in Hama, Aleppo and other towns in the 80s, its disappearances and tortures have bred a generation that thirst for pay back. Especially in the provinces where the the culture of revenge or intiqam still plays a role. So it responds like a cornered animal fighting for its very existence. Darayya is not the action of an out of control mercenary shabiha but that of a regime that has planned for these eventualities. It takes advantage of the divided International community confident that it can out gun the FSA in the long run. It knows that civilians do not have the stomach for a long and bloody conflict and behaves like the Algerian military junta in the 90s, inflicting terror without compunction and creating a psychology of fear in the populace. It aims, as the Syrian joke goes, to crush the uprising so that even Viagra can’t get a rise out of Aleppo or Damascus ever again. Houla and Darayya is a part of that plan. Make no mistake it is working; friends tell me they send their children to school with tags attached in case the worst happens.
Of course in times such as these, intervention is on the agenda yet again. Truth is, intervention would play into the hands of the regime. The Syrian government has had plenty of time to propagate the idea that there is a foreign plot to destroy the nation. Foreign intervention would only confirm this belief. Stephen Starr’s ‘Eyewitness to the Revolution’ suggests many Syrians would resent foreign military intervention. A recent Youtube post by the well known dissident scholar Osama Rifa’i is telling. Following Darayya he commemorated the dead and urged steadfastness, but throughout the twelve minute speech not once did he call on the international community to intervene.
However revolting the idea might sound in the light of Darayya, the sectarian fear that drive young Alawite men to commit atrocities must be addressed. Deep down these perpetrators believe the same thing will happen to them if the Sunnis come to power. That fear must be addressed.
The solution though cannot be a military one but rather a political one. In other words, a space must be created for dialogue. This means opening up channels with the Alawite leadership who sided with Rifa’t Assad during the rift with his brother Hafiz Assad. Dialogue must be opened up with what Dr. Shmuel Bar calls the “young guard” – those who have taken a more consultative approach than their fathers. The Sunni community leaders must also reach out to the Alawite sheikhs – once so influential in their local communities – to alleviate community fears. Dialogue with organizations with close links to the regime must be opened up. This must be followed up by the Sunni lead opposition toning down the incendiary rhetoric targeting Alawites. There has to be guarantees of the Alawite community’s safety, complimented with an inclusive vision of a Post-Assad Syria open to all.
On the international level, the war of words against Iran (the regime’s closest backer) must calm down to allow for a space where the conflict can be discussed. Threats of armed intervention are unhelpful. Diplomacy and tact is what is needed, not gung-ho politics. We are, after all, dealing with a situation that can change the world as we know it. Therefore, diplomatic efforts must be exhausted with appropriate exit strategies to allow the regime to go quietly or at least split their power base. If this is not done then not only will there be more Darayyas, but a conflict that can spill over and destabilize the whole region.