Under sectarian surface, Sunni backing props up Assad regime

June 20, 2013

‘If Sunnis were united behind the rebels, trust me, Bashar would've fallen within days,’ says a Syrian activist in Deir e-Zor. Michael Pizzi and Nuha Shabaan explore the taboo of Sunni support that is keeping the Assad regime in place in the first of this two-part series.

AMMAN: As the Syrian conflict grows increasingly sectarian, with loaded rhetoric coming from Sunni fighters calling Hezbollah the “Party of Satan” and pro-regime Shiite clerics calling on supporters to defend their Shiite villages and shrines inside Syria from Sunni “terrorists,” the largest group backing Assad's Alawite regime has merited little public discussion: Sunnis.

Prominent Sunni leader Sheikh Youssef al-Qaradawi stirred controversy on May 31st when he declared a jihad on the Syrian regime, calling for Sunni Muslims to join the fight against president Bashar al-Assad and his Shi’ite support base. In addition to calling Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam, “more infidel than Christians and Jews,” al-Qaradawi condemned the intervention of Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shi’ite militant group, in Syria.

“How could 100 million Shia [worldwide] defeat 1.7 billion [Sunnis]?" al-Qaradawi asked his audience at a rally in Qatar.

 The answer, of course, is that not all Sunnis are committed to Bashar’s downfall, even within Syria. Considering that Sunnis compose roughly 65% of Syria’s 25 million people, as a group they will likely determine the revolution’s outcome. Opposition Sunnis confirm that it is pro-regime Sunnis who are defying the sectarian trend by actively working alongside Assad’s traditional Alawite support base to keep him in power

“Do you think those who are committing [these] massacres are all Alawites?” asks Abu Qays, the manager of a pro-revolution media office in Deir e-Zour, who asked that his full name not be disclosed for security reasons. “If Sunnis were united behind the rebels, trust me, Bashar would've fallen within days.”

Pro-Assad Sunnis are not a monolith: they are not comprised of large families and their support for the regime is rarely ideological. Instead, they fit a number of molds; prominent businessmen with longstanding loyalty to the regime and economic interest in a stable Syria, snitches who are compensated by the government to undermine the opposition’s efforts, and members of the Syrian armed forces who are afraid to defect.

Regardless of their motives, these Sunnis are widely regarded as traitors by their pro-revolution counterparts. “They're not as numerous as the Alawites,” Abu Qays added, “but the Sunnis backing the regime are worse than the Alawites.”

High-profile businessmen quietly back regime

“The money of traders and businessman is prolonging the regime’s life,” says Wael Al-Khatib, the general coordinator of a Free Officers group in Homs, which is composed of about 200 Syrian army officers who defected from the regime and now fight with the FSA.

“Their support is unlimited,” he says.

Al-Khatib, who served as an army captain with the regime for 13 years before defecting in January 2012 to serve, presented a list of Sunni businessmen who he claims back the regime. These Sunni merchants lack “any sense of nationalism” and only care about profits, he says.

“They belong to the sect of money,” he says.

Tarif Akhras, one of the businessmen al-Khatib names, was hit with European Union sanctions in 2011 for “providing economic support to the Syrian regime.” Among the largest exporters in Syria, Akhras is also a relative of Asma Al-Assad, the Syrian First Lady. Along with Emad Ghraiwait and Fares Chehabi, two more of Syria’s most prominent Sunni businessmen, Akhras had his European assets frozen in September 2011. A Christian, Issam Anbouba, was subject to the same sanctions.

Joshua Landis, a Syria expert and the author of the Syria Comment blog, says that these sanctions affect Sunni elites by hitting them where it hurts.

“For months the opposition and Western diplomats have been talking about the need to split the Sunni merchant class from the regime,” Landis wrote on his blog. “These measures are designed to do just that.”

According to the Syria Report, which publishes economic news about the country, the Syrian economy is tanking. Recent findings include a 95% drop in Syria’s hospitality industry revenues since 2011 and a 26% decline in economic free zone trade last year. The publication also released reports about factory looting in Aleppo, and the exodus of Syrian investors from the country as the Syrian pound “free-falls.”

“Trade and industry have regressed,” says Um Raghad, a pro-revolution citizen journalist in Hama who holds an Economics degree from Damascus University. “Some factories in isolated areas continue to operate, but generally, corporations have been negatively impacted – there are no development projects, no infrastructure.”

“I lost business and stopped work [in Syria] altogether,” says Naser Abu Anis, a Sunni from Damascus who ran a plastics manufacturing operation in Syria prior to the revolution. He describes himself as a moderate Islamist, and although he has since fled to Cairo, he stands behind the revolutionaries, attributing his substantial losses to what he calls the “criminal, cutthroat, corrupt regime.”

Nevertheless, Abu Anis says, “I lost a lot of money.”

Osama Abu Zaid, who heads the media office at the opposition’s Commission for the Protection of Civilians in Homs Province, explains that for many merchants, “there are pre-existing ties” with the Assad regime. He says that businessmen, Sunni and otherwise, have long partnered with high-level regime officials in business ventures. “That continues today,” he says.

In a statement issued in November, 2011, the FSA announced that it had arrested Al-Dakkak, “the traitor and number one regime informant in Hama,” but he was later released. A video uploaded last fall by FNN Syria, a pro-revolution YouTube channel, depicts Al-Dakkak from a distance, standing beside a Syrian Army soldier and speaking on a walkie-talkie.

The video offers another animal nickname for the Hama merchant: “Bashar’s dog.”

While Al-Dakkak may enjoy the regime’s protection so long as he remains loyal, he has drawn the ire of the Free Syrian Army.

“He’s first on the FSA wanted list in Hama,” says Um Raghad.

Opposition sources say that Sunni businessmen remain loyal to Assad in large part because they believe the regime will stay in power, and that some pro-regime businessmen expect to be rewarded with political positions if the regime survives.

“If the regime falls,” Um Raghad says, “they think they’ll just leave Syria.”