Syrian president Bashar Assad interviewed with Charlie Rose and said if we strike Syria we should “expect every action.” He mentions the many unconnected factions in the country and said “every action” might not mean solely his government. He says if the “rebels,” then corrects himself to say “terrorists” have nuclear weapons, they might use them (a good reason for taking quick and significant action against both Syria and Iran much, much earlier). He denies responsibility for the August 2013 gassing attack.
Here are a few snippets from the Harvard Political Review explaining ethnic divides (written by undergraduates):
To understand the fractionalization of Syria, one must first understand the nation’s demographics. Sunni Arabs, by far the largest ethno-religious group, make up approximately 65 percent of the population. The Kurds, non-Arab Sunnis with their own irredentist ambitions, compose eight percent of the total.
Though only representing 13 percent of the population, the Alawite sect of Shia Islam controls the state bureaucracy, almost in its entirety. Christians, accounting for 10 percent, compose the only other significant “ethnic group,” as small smatterings of Druze, Turkoman, and other obscure peoples fill the remainder.
The Sunni Arabs, the meat of the resistance, have been embittered about their relegation to second fiddle in civil society since the early 20th century. Though they had deprived Alawites of the most basic civil rights before World War I, the Alawites would turn the tables beginning in the 1920s through their complicity with the French counterinsurgency in the region. Having gained control of the military, the Alawites slowly took over the Syrian government in the 1950s before consolidating power through Hafez al-Assad’s installation as dictator in 1970. For the next 42 years, the Sunnis became inured to the rule of an ethno-religious group they had once suppressed. Hafez al-Assad and his successor, Bashar al-Assad would come to be symbols of Sunni discontent. But the hatred of these leaders touches merely the surface of historical foment; the substance of the Sunni gripe lies not with the political abuses of Assad – who was, in days of peace, relatively enlightened as Middle Eastern despots go – but with the Alawite sect in general…
Before rushing to judgment, one must note that the actions of the pro-regime forces, however offensive, are typically driven by fear rather than by bloodlust. These pro-government factions are collections of Alawites, Christians, and other minority groups, who believe correctly that a Sunni takeover would lead to massacre, exile, and abuse for their respective peoples. As longtime Western liaison to the Assad regime, Trinity University Professor David Lesch explained to the HPR, “the shabbiha is motivated by survival, by the belief that if the Sunnis come to power, they’d be wiped out. Unfortunately, this fear is not unfounded… this is a cycle that’s been repeated throughout Middle Eastern history.”
After half a century of Alawite domination, the Sunni majority is also driven by fear of marginalization and abuse. Thus, what political scientists call an “ethnic security dilemma” has now taken hold of Syrian society, as multiple groups attempt to destroy one another in a self-defeating, but self-perpetuating effort to ensure their own security.
Confounding Western moral stereotypes, the Christian component of these pro-regime forces is as much a party to the security dilemma as any other actor. Though the group had been largely insulated from the pernicious elements of Syrian society by the relatively secular Assad regime, 2.1 million Christians now find themselves among the victims of lurid Sunni violence. The Syrian Orthodox Church for instance has described an “ongoing ethnic cleansing” against Christians by the Free Syrian Army, and has claimed that Islamists of the al-Faruq brigade have expelled 90 percent of Christians from Homs, confiscating their possessions in the process. Read more about The Gangs of Syria.
Most Americans would be surprised to learn of the ethnic and religious diversity that exists in present-day Syria. Standard references sources give an impression of clear domination by Arabic-speaking Sunni Muslims. The CIA World Factbook summarizes Syria’s cultural make-up as follows:
“Ethnic Groups: Arab 90.3%, Kurds, Armenians, and other 9.7%. Religions: Sunni Muslim 74%, other Muslim (includes Alawite, Druze) 16%, Christian (various denominations) 10%, Jewish (tiny communities in Damascus, Al Qamishli, and Aleppo).”
In fact, Sunni Arabs are not as demographically dominant as they might seem. To begin with, the basic numbers are disputed; Alawites, as discussed in a previous post, may constitute as much as twenty percent of Syria’s population. The Sunni population also includes many non-Arabic speakers, including most Kurds–and the Kurdish population may form fifteen or even twenty percent of the total, according to Kurdish websites. Christian numbers are also likely under-reported, as they seldom include the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Christian refugees living in the country. The Arab Sunni population itself, moreover, is internally divided. Arab Syrians speak widely divergent dialects that most linguists regard as separate languages. As the language map shows, the Arabic dialects of eastern Syria are related not to those of western Syria but rather to those of Iraq.
Grouping the heterodox Alawites and Druze as “other Muslim” also understates Syria’s diversity….Read more at GeoCurrents and view maps of Arabic and Non-Arabic speaking areas.