In Syria, the sectarian atrocities will commence shortly

Things have been bad enough in Syria but they are about to get much, much worse.  The spectacular assassination of a number of senior security officials in Damascus in recent days will have triggered paranoia within the regime about loyalty among those previously thought pro-regime, so something will need to be done to radicalize the lines of division and shore up support.  To achieve this, I expect that Bashar al-Assad will order a large-scale atrocity be committed that will be ostentatiously sectarian in intent, on the order of the destruction of the Askari mosque in Iraq or the Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia.  He will likely use Christians or Alawites, who tend to be pro-regime, to perpetrate it and Sunnis, who have been substantially in opposition, will be the target.  It will not result from widespread ethnic or sectarian hatred — though there is discernible tension between groups as it is — but, rather, it will be an effort to create widespread ethnic or sectarian hatred.

This is a strategy that in Bosnia was called ‘compromising the villages’ — Anthony Loyd writes about in his exquisite memoir My War Gone By, I Miss It So — and its tactical purpose seems self-evident but is, in fact, more subtle.  The gain is not measured so much in the violence inflicted on the ‘enemy’ (in this case, from the Assad regime’s perspective, the rebellious Sunnis) but in the ethnic or sectarian solidarity this creates in the perpetrating group or groups.  It is, then, principally about the effect of atrocity on one’s own side, not on the other side; it is a mechanism for imposing sectarian thinking on those who might attempt to think in other ways, about ideology or nation or justice.  The post-massacre argument that Assad will then use to keep the Christians and Alawites from defecting from the regime will be simple: “Your group just slaughtered them in X, do you think that when they come back looking for revenge they will distinguish the ‘good’ Christian or Alawite from the ‘bad’?”

It is brutal, but it works: look at Lebanon, where the long civil war that began in the 1970s forced even those who disdained sectarianism to think this way.  Or Bosnia — which I wrote about in this article for Travel + Leisure — where there were no ethnic differences among the groups whatsoever, only religious ones, and the historically cosmopolitan city of Sarajevo was ruthlessly homogenized by the war.

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The spillover effects on Lebanon today of any large-scale atrocity in Syria are hard to quantify but it is worth reading the post I wrote before the rebellion heated up about what I called ‘the invisible map of Beirut‘ — that is, even in peacetime Beirutis understood which areas of their city are thought to ‘belong’ to which sectarian groups and in this way could be said to have already mapped the frontlines of the coming war at a time when few believed war was coming.

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A note on the photograph above showing the famous golden dome of the Askari mosque in Samarra, Iraq, which is sacred to Shi’ites.  The photograph was taken by my grandfather in 1959 on a road trip from Damascus, where my family was living at the time, to Tehran.  The dome was destroyed in 2006, the minarets in a subsequent attack in 2007.

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