Foreign governments, especially the United States, have been vocal advocates for the protection and safety of minorities in Syria. But many Syrians can’t help but feel that the international community does so at the risk of missing the big picture. Of course minorities are in danger— all Syrians are in danger. This Friday, peaceful demonstrators across Syria rallied together on the specially dedicated “Friday for the protection of the majority.” Their point is simple, but profound.
Western concerns over dangers to Syria’s minorities are well-founded and the UN has attested to the sectarian dimensions of the conflict. Militias often target recruitment by sect and fears of violence arise out of ethnic identifications, though not as definitively nor as homogeneously as many writers portray. Narratives of victimization have also focused on religious identities, as in in a recent statement by the American Center for Law and Justice asking the U.N. Special Envoy for Syria “to pay particular attention to the ‘vulnerable ethnic and religious minorities.’” The statement was couched within a larger appeal for the general well-being and safety of all Syrians, and there is little to fault in the passionate document. What is dangerous, however, is privileging minority narratives at the expense of recognizing the full scope of the conflict.
The apparent disconnect between international concern for Syrian minorities and broader inaction contributed to last week’s “Friday for the protection of the majority.” The rallies, which took place in communities across the country, were only the latest in a tradition of dedicating peaceful Friday demonstrations to emphasize a message nationally and to broadcast it the international community. One sign from the rally pointedly asked, “Does protection of the minorities mean extermination of the majority?” Another sign depicted the international community dictating to massacred Syrians that, “We want guarantees from you for the protection of minority rights.” The caption pleaded, “Who will protect the Syrian majority?”
Unfortunately, the international communities’ insistence on protecting minorities could further marginalize minority populations. The emphasis on “protection for minorities” is making the minorities look, in the eyes of some Syrians, partly “responsible” for what is going on. The more the international community heightens this focus on minorities, repeating the theme at conferences and in statements, the more vulnerable some minorities may feel in their communities while the conflict continues. Worse, many Syrians worry that such minority-centric logic risks playing right into Bashar Al Assad’s hands. The self-styled “defender of minorities” has excelled in deftly using rhetoric to fan sectarian narratives and has sought to tie associations of Alawite identity to the regime. He even proclaimed in a recent interview that, “I am an Arab and a Muslim, an Arab and a Christian.”
In reality, it is complicated, if not impossible, to paint a precise picture of how the conflict affects Syrians along sectarian and religious lines. Despite its title, this article from the Atlantic presents a fuzzy picture of religious dimensions without generalizable distinctions, quoting one Christian man saying, “I have no problem with Jabhat Al-Nusra, is better than Bashar [al-Assad] 100 times.” Another Christian says, “We don’t know about the fighting groups. All we want is the fighting to stop.”
Protecting “the majority” isn’t about the country’s predominantly Sunni population— it’s about focusing justice and accountability efforts on what matters. It is not only minorities that have been victimized, but Syrians from all backgrounds. Scud missiles, car bombs, chemical weapons, bullets, and shrapnel do not see the world along ethnic lines— and most of the time the perpetrators of violence don’t either. When crimes are committed, it can be useful to understand the possible sectarian dimensions, but this is surely secondary to establishing the evidence that can point to the victim, the culprit, and the damage done. From there, healing can begin.
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