Are the press exacerbating sectarian tension in Syria?

The Guardian has published a genuinely interesting and informative ‘timeline of Syria’ map to help explain the background of the Syria crisis. However, included on the map is a list of Syria’s ‘ethnic groups’, with shaded areas to denote where these groups form a majority.

These geographical concentrations are presented in quite a crude fashion. Census data is not readily available so I’m not quite sure what sources were used. In particular, there seem to be two glaring inaccuracies that should be noted:

Firstly, the ethnic breakdown of the cities is completely ignored. About half of the Syrian population lives in either Aleppo or Damascus and they are both ethnically diverse. The map implies that Christians, Alawis and Druze are concentrated in just a few geographical areas, but that ignores the very large numbers that reside in these cities which, according to the map, are ‘Sunni-dominated areas.

Secondly, the map’s view of the coastal region as Alawi-dominated is inaccurate. There are large parts that have an Alawi majority and it is where most Alawis live, but many areas have a Sunni majority. Indeed, the area should probably be multi-coloured or grey rather than ‘all orange’. Take the cities along the coast as an example. Tartus is probably the only city where more than 50% of the population are Alawi. In Banyas, Jableh and Lattakia, the Alawis do not make up more than 50% of the population, yet according to the Guardian’s map they do.

In my opinion the western press should be very cautious about how they portray ethnic and sectarian conflict and tensions in Syria (and indeed everywhere). There IS a sectarian component to this conflict, but it is not (yet) the dominate theme and narrative of the uprising, which remains political – against an autocratic regime.

By emphasising the ethnic divisions in Syria (and not even portraying them accurately), coverage such of this (which I’m sure has been done with no such ill intent) is feeding a certain narrative that this is purely a sectarian dispute.

In the end it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.

What did the Arab League monitors achieve in Syria?

From a piece in CNN, 1st February 2012

The Arab League monitoring mission in Syria has been criticized for failing to stop the al-Assad regime’s deadly crackdown on anti-government protests across the country.

But the head of the Arab League observers in Syria, Sudanese Gen. Mohammed Ahmed al-Dabi, said the mission was designed not to bring an immediate end to violence but to investigate and observe the situation.

The choice of Al-Dabi to lead the mission was controversial in itself: he was part of the Sudanese security establishment that put down the rebellion in the breakaway region of Darfur a decade ago.

Still, one expert says the Arab League mission, which began on December 26, kept the world’s attention focused on Syria at a time when attention had been slipping away.

“The presence of monitors served to galvanize the opposition, and we saw an increased number of demonstrations and anti-government activity during that time period,” Middle East professor Chris Phillips from Queen Mary, University of London told CNN. “But as a consequence we also saw the government step up its visible repression of the protesters.”

While critics say al-Assad has used the Arab League mission as a cover to continue suppression of protests in Syria, Phillips says it was important that the League be seen to be acting on the Syrian crisis before taking the issue up with bigger organizations.

“The Arab League have now exhausted their own internal options and they can be seen to have taken action themselves to try to resolve the crisis,” said Phillips. “It would now seem legitimate for the Arab League to now turn to larger bodies, certainly the U.N., to take action itself.”

Individual states in the Arab League have called for al-Assad to step down, but the organization as a whole has failed to table a similar resolution — and Phillips says that is unlikely to change anytime soon.

“While it seems likely there is going to be some internal negotiation (on a resolution) taking place, it certainly seems very unlikely Lebanon or Iraq — states who are allied effectively to Iran and Syria — will ever join calls for Assad to stand down,” said Phillips.

Will the international community intervene like it did in Libya?

Nothing will happen in terms of military intervention in Syria unless Russia changes its current stance, according to Phillips.

“Russia have said quite clearly that they’re not going to support anything that would risk al-Assad being forced from power,” Phillips told CNN.

“If Russia gave the same kind of green light for Syria that it did for Libya, there’s every possibility that you’d see military intervention, probably coming out of Turkey,” Phillips said. “But Turkey have said they’re highly reluctant to intervene unless they have NATO or U.N. backing.”

Rights group Amnesty International urged Russia Wednesday to rethink its opposition to the latest draft.

“Russia’s threats to abort a binding U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria for the second time are utterly irresponsible. Russia bears a heavy responsibility for allowing the brutal crackdown on legitimate dissent in Syria to continue unchecked,” said Jose Luis Diaz, Amnesty International’s representative to the United Nations.

“Russia must work with other Security Council members to pass a strong and legally binding resolution that will help to end the bloodshed and human rights violations in Syria once and for all.”

Is the opposition united against the al-Assad regime?

The longer the fighting goes on in Syria, activists and Western diplomats say, the more radicalized the revolution is becoming.

Fringe elements of Muslim extremist groups are moving in and sectarian rifts are widening as feelings of despair descend on some flashpoint Syrian cities.

While the besieged city of Homs has traditionally been a place of religious tolerance, “there is a real sense now that that is changing and being manipulated by people on both sides” of the conflict, according to Phillips.

President al-Assad belongs to the Alawite Muslim sect while Sunni Muslims form the majority in Syria.

“The older Sunni merchant class that feel the city is theirs rightfully are now turning on the Alawites, who they see as these recent migrants that don’t actually belong in the city,” said Phillips.

Many Christians have fled to Damascus as communities begin to divide on sectarian lines. Salafists — Islamic radicals, many of whom have brought terror tactics honed in neighboring Iraq — are moving into Homs.

Hard-liners inside and outside the country are already jockeying for post-al-Assad power, while the Alawite community fears the prospect of persecution if the government falls.

“The regime is trying to persuade the Alawites that if they abandon the government, they will be wiped out in the dog-eat-dog aftermath,” Phillips said.