June 21, 2013
Amidst growing sectarian tensions in Syria, Michael Pizzi and Nuha Shabaan focus on the Sunni population, whose support is critical for the Assad regime to stay in power in the second of this two-part series.
AMMAN: The majority of Syria’s 25 million-strong population is Sunni, and while activists increasingly blame the Alawite-led shabiha and mercenary Hezbollah forces for keeping the Assad regime in place, it is in fact the Sunni population that is quietly propping it up.
Whether out of fear, genuine ideological support or financial interest, Sunni Syrians who support the regime see some benefit in doing so. Some financially benefit from the regime on a smaller scale, acting as low-level informants.
“They’re very few, but dangerous, like snitches and double agents,” says Abu Yousef, a Hama-based activist.
In Deir e-Zour, the media office director Abu Qays tells how an unknown Sunni “of poor morals” reported him for running the media operation from his house. When his name was reported to authorities, his father stopped receiving retirement payment, and his family found itself in dire financial straits. “Bashar and the regime are taking advantage of [these Sunnis] and turning them against us,” he says.
Abu Qays has no way of knowing who reported him, nor can he prove it was a Sunni, but he vows retribution.
“If I knew who it was, I’d kill him myself,” he said.
Sunnis in the military
The internecine Sunni-Sunni divide grows everyday on the battlefield, activists say. But even with the ongoing stream of defections from the Syrian armed forces, Sunnis continue to fight in the regime’s military.
Defection is not so simple, however. Every defecting or captured soldier must stand for an ad hoc trial in a Free Army military court. These courts are neither highly organized nor consistent in how they rule or operate, but most apply some version of Islamic jurisprudence.
“We question [defectors] about what they did, and why they defected,” explains Abu Qays, speaking about the FSA court in Deir e-Zour.
The very real possibility of execution, however, looms for those who have committed “crimes” on behalf of the regime. Abu Qays explains that certain prisoners in FSA custody will pay the price for their involvement in the regime’s brutality, an almost certain deterrent to defection for those Sunnis who feel they may be implicated.
Sunnis remain active in all branches of the Syrian military and political leadership. Ali Mamlouk heads the Syrian National Security Bureau, while Farouq al-Sharaa has been a fixture in Assad circles for decades, despite persistent rumors that he has defected. Walid Mouallem remains as Foreign Minister.
In particular, Sunnis have a long history of service in Syria’s Air Force, dating back to the early Hafez al-Assad regime.
“The Air Force Intelligence is the most important branch of Syrian intelligence,” says Assad al-Zu’bi, a Sunni pilot from Damascus who graduated from the Aviation Academy in Aleppo in 1974 and served in the Air Force until he defected last August. Al-Zu’bi currently lives in Jordan, but he continues to consult with the FSA on military strategy. He says that Sunnis long constituted a majority of Air Force pilots, but in the 90s, the regime began to reverse its policy in order to ensure Alawite dominance. Today, Al-Zu’bi estimates that Sunnis comprise 30% of the Air Force.
“There is communication between the defected and non-defected officers,” Al Zu’bi says. “The non-defected officers are afraid to lose their financial status, their ability to support their families, if they join the revolution.”
As with many Sunni merchants who are loyal to the regime, Al-Zu’bi says that there are also officers in the Syrian armed forces who believe that Bashar al-Assad will survive this uprising, and that defection is therefore ill advised.
“Some of them consider themselves traitors to the revolution and to their people, but they still work for the regime because Russia supports it, and they think the regime will stay.”
Accusations of betrayal haunt Sunnis who remain aligned with the Syrian regime. Naser Abu Anis, the Sunni merchant from Damascus, is aware that there is a price to be paid for defection.
“Not all Sunnis with the regime are traitors,” he says, “because some of them fear the regime’s cruelty and retribution if they appear to be with the revolution.”
Others, he says, “stand with the regime and kill alongside it because they are traitors.”
“Now, there’s no room for half solutions,” says Um Raghad, who explains that the revolutionaries are fed up with trying to win over unconvinced Sunnis. “You’re either with the regime or against it.”
The tides may be turning for pro-regime Sunnis. Turkish media reported on Friday that 73 Syrian Army officers had defected and requested refuge across the border in Turkey. With last week’s announcement that the United States is finally going to arm the Syrian rebels, activists say, pro-regime Sunnis will feel added pressure to reconsider their support of Bashar al-Assad.
They may be too late, however.
“We will hold everyone accountable who assisted the regime,” promises Wael Al-Khatib, the defected Army captain from Homs.
“They will be severely punished, and Sunnis will be sentenced before the others.”