The Middle East Channel

Syria's fight after the fight

The bloody struggle playing out in Syria has taken on increasingly sectarian tones, with dangerous implications for the future of this important country and the region. Protests originally focused on governance, political rights, and human freedoms. President Bashar al-Assad and his regime responded with violence, torture, and abuse, labeling opponents as "terrorists" and emphasizing sectarian differences. Two plus years into this increasingly protracted struggle, Assad's actions have helped create what he feared -- armed anti-government elements seeking his overthrow, with violent foreign religious extremists importing their dangerous worldview and political agenda.

Considering the diverse set of actors fighting the Assad regime, there will be another war for control of Syria once he leaves the scene. It will pit onetime rebel allies against each other, with alignments along sectarian lines or divides over secular versus religious governance. These cleavages are already starting to show, such as with the recent announcement by al Qaeda and Jabhat al-Nusra of the establishment of an Islamic State in Syria.

Therefore, for the future of Syria, the fight after the fight may be as important as the first. 

The secular nature of the Syrian state prior to the conflict protected religious minorities and provided a modicum of freedom of worship. This is crumbling, and forward looking planning is needed about the future structure of governance. The U.S. State Department has stated that the Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC) is working to include "opponents of the Assad regime from across the political and ethno-sectarian spectrum." The State Department's decision in December 2012 to blacklist al-Nusra as a foreign terror organization linked to al Qaeda in Iraq was another step to limit its influence in a future Syria. There are also a range of U.S. government activities underway that touch on issues of interfaith understanding and religious tolerance.

However, more needs to be done. As United Nations and Arab League envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, said this week before the U.N. Security Council, the "sectarian dimensions of the crisis are perhaps more important to watch and understand," and "Syrians and international partners have every reason to be concerned over [the effects of extremism] on the present situation and on its possible long term influence." Al-Nusra, al Qaeda, and other domestic and foreign groups will continue to work to impose their extremist religio-political ideologies onto the Syrian people. Allowing the creation of a Taliban-esque legal system would threaten the future for human rights and religious freedom in a post-Assad Syria.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), where I serve as Director of Policy and Research, has become increasingly concerned about religious freedom conditions in Syria, both during the current crisis and in its aftermath. The commission recently released a preliminary report on "Protecting and Promoting Religious Freedom in Syria," which highlights how regime forces and affiliated militias have perpetrated religiously-motivated attacks against Sunni Muslim civilians and religious minority communities. It draws attention to the increasing sectarian divides, and how the conflict threatens Syria's religious diversity, with members of the smallest minority communities either fleeing the country or remaining to face an uncertain future. 

The USCIRF report provides a range of recommendations for U.S. government activity, such as: prioritizing projects that promote multi-religious efforts to encourage religious tolerance and understanding; working with the SOC to train local councils, courts, lawyers, and judges on international human rights and religious freedom standards; creating a working group among likeminded countries in the Friends of Syria group to focus on protecting religious and ethnic minorities in a post-Assad Syria; and working toward developing a constitution that respects freedom of religion or belief in full (not just freedom of worship), as well as minority rights, women's rights, and freedom of expression. Importantly, the report also recommends the United States engage regional partners -- such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar -- on their vision for a post-Assad Syria to reach agreement for how the international community will influence the direction of a new government and its system of law.

Finding a proper balance between religion and state is critical, especially in pluralistic societies like Syria. Countries providing civic space for inclusive and peaceful religious discourse are more prosperous and stable. So despite worsening conditions and an uncertain Syrian future, the United States should start laying markers for the shape of a future governing system.

Actors like al-Nusra are already exerting pressure on Syria's collapsing secular legal system, attempting to replace it with a government based on their interpretation of Sharia (religious law). Notably, fewer than half of the majority-Muslim countries in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) give Islam a legal role. While OIC member constitutions may reference Sharia, many maintain non-religious systems. Ensuring a new Syria has a civil legal system fully protecting the rights of members of all faiths would reassure Syriac Christians and Alawites, two key Assad constituencies, as well as Sunni Muslims who want the freedom to peacefully practice their faith.

As the USCIRF report states, "Syria's transition from armed conflict to a representative democracy under rule of law will be difficult, arduous, and remains uncertain." Non-state actors and terrorist organizations are bringing weapons, material support, and a religiously-based system of governance to Syria -- in effect, importing their version of government-in-a-box. While the fighting continues to rage, the United States and its allies must help shape a post-Assad Syria that protects its religious diversity and ensures respect for religious freedom and human rights.

Knox Thames is the Director of Policy and Research at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Any personal views expressed are his own and may or may not reflect the views of the commission. He can be followed on Twitter @thames22.


The Middle East Channel

U.S. says it believes Syria has used chemical weapons

U.S. officials have stated they believe that the Syrian government has used chemicals weapons, which may bring into question President Barack Obama's "red line" on Syria. In a letter to congressional leaders on Thursday, the White House stated that U.S. intelligence agencies assessed "with varying degrees of confidence" that the regime of Bashar al-Assad had used the chemical agent sarin gas on a small scale. Several officials went further to say that the intelligence agencies expressed medium to high confidence of their assessment. According to officials, the assessment was based on tests from soil samples and blood drawn from people who had been injured in the attacks in March near Aleppo and Damascus. The White House, however, is treading cautiously and said that "given the stakes involved" it would need "credible and corroborated facts" before Obama would take action. During his visit to Jerusalem last month, Obama said that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would be a "game changer" for U.S. involvement. U.S. administration officials said that the Pentagon has prepared a variety of options intended to secure chemical weapons stockpiles. A White House official said, "all options are on the table in terms of our response." The United States is joining Israel, France, and Britain in suggesting that the Assad regime has deployed chemical weapons. British Prime Minister David Cameron said there is "limited but growing evidence" that government forces have used chemical weapons, adding that "It is extremely serious, this is a war crime." 


  • The Israeli military reported Thursday it shot down a drone off its northern coast near the border with Lebanon, bringing suspicions upon Hezbollah, which has denied responsibility.
  • Iraqi soldiers have retaken the Sunni town of Suleiman Beg after gunmen retreated; meanwhile a roadside bomb killed four people outside a Sunni mosque in southern Baghdad, in four days of escalated violence.
  • After nearly three decades of fighting, which has caused the deaths of about 40,000 people, the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) has said it will withdraw from Turkey beginning May 8.
  • Jerusalem's district court ruled Thursday that women could not be arrested for praying at the Western Wall wearing prayer shawls, a practice Orthodox Jews say is reserved for men.
  • Egypt's Pope Tawdros II, in his first interview since eight people were killed earlier this month in Muslim and Christian sectarian violence, said the Muslim Brotherhood led government is neglecting Christians

Arguments and Analysis

Algeria's big secret (Borzou Daraghi, Gulf News)

"Algerian intellectuals like to spin a narrative in the smokey cafés of the graciously rotting capital. In hushed tones, they tell of the bright, ambitious elites who left the coastal cities for the densely forested mountains to fight against the French occupiers in the 1950s. But the commanders rebuffed the clever young men, dispatching them instead to Paris, Lyon or Lille to finish their studies and prepare for the day when the French would head home and they would run the country.

In Europe, they were recruited into one of several secretive Algerian exile groups that connived against each other and fought bloody internecine wars. Once the French left, the young men returned home trained not to run the country but to build the sophisticated security networks that run Algeria's foreign and domestic affairs and, critics say, prevent it from making progress.

"In Algeria, power likes to hide," says a political scientist in Algiers. "The military and security forces have come to the conviction that they have to work in a hidden way, that they have to practise power but never in the light, and they try to resolve all domestic and international problems using secret services rather than going through public institutions."

The intellectuals' story of the origins of the old men who run Algeria goes some way towards explaining the intensity with which the country's murky elite remain absorbed in their own power games. It also explains why such a wealthy and vast country is unable to break from its history, build on its energy revenues and take a leadership role in the region."

Like Israel, Palestinians must also learn the lessons of South Africa (Gideon Levy, Haaretz)

"PRETORIA - Not only Israelis but Palestinians, too, must learn the lessons of South Africa. The struggle of the black population focused on one issue: universal vote. Nelson Mandela's demand for "one person, one vote" was more than a slogan, it was a strategic goal. It became reality on April 27th, 19 years ago, when the first multiracial elections were held. Ever since, democracy has been safeguarded, elections are held regularly and the new constitution is upheld and guides this state, despite its hardships and complexities.

... Of no less importance was the dissidents' unity. The Palestinians, so far, have failed on that score. But the most important factor in South Africa's success was the agreed-upon goal - one person, one vote. It is about time the Palestinians adopt this goal. It is time for them to understand that the two-state dream is becoming impossible. That the occupation is stronger than them, that the settlements are already too large and that the Palestinian state, even if established, will be no more than a group of Bantustans separated by the "settlement blocs" that grew to monstrous proportions and have won consensus approval from Israelis and the international community.

It is time, dear Palestinians, to change strategy. Not to fight the occupation or the settlements; they're here to stay. It is time to follow the South African example and demand one basic right: one person, one vote. "

--By Jennifer T. Parker and Mary Casey

AFP/Getty Images