In Syria’s commercial capital, Aleppo, posters plastered across the city tell the story of a community which, until recently, has been largely voiceless in the violent events of the past year.
The posters say opposition to the Intifada, or uprising, does not mean support for the regime.
This objection resembles one in the capital Damascus last July, when Christians, who have thus far not joined the protest movement en masse, covered walls in the Bab Tuma neighbourhood with posters denouncing the “Friday celebrations” by regime loyalists, which took place while both security officers and civilians were being killed.
Since March 2011, what began as peaceful protests against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have increasingly turned into an armed rebellion.
Many Syrians, including dissidents, have opposed the nearly one-year popular uprising not because they support al-Assad, who has been accused by the UN high commissioner for human rights of possible crimes against humanity in the crackdown on protesters, but because they fear for the future of their country without him.
These people, so-called loyalists, describe the uprising as a crisis, or `azmah’ in Arabic: a challenging phase to be overcome by the government eventually.
As the international community increasingly turns against al-Assad, analysts say a consistent proportion of Syrians have maintained a detached, if not hostile, position towards the “opposition”. Their reasons range from a desire for stability, regardless of its authoritarian enforcement, to the perception that elements of the opposition are inherently violent and radical. Ethnic minorities view the uprising through a survivalist lens, fostered by the narrative of the regime and some personal accounts. This has further polarized versions of the events and reduced the possibility of any reconciliation. IRIN hears from these segments of the population whose voices have often been drowned out by the protests and the gunfire.
In its violent response to the uprising, the Syrian government has framed the situation for those Syrians abstaining from protests as a choice between stability (`istiqrar’) and chaos (`fawda’), the “unknown” ensuing from its collapse, analysts say.
“Even if the revolution was peaceful, Alawis wouldn’t accept the overthrowing of the regime, as it would bear negative consequences for all Syrians,” said Aref*, a 26-year-old artist from a village on the outskirts of the western port city of Latakia, who belongs to al-Assad’s minority Alawi sect.
Many of Syria’s Christians point to the stories of the more than one million Iraqi refugees - many of them Christians - who fled to Syria after sectarian violence in their country as an example.
“Without dialogue Syria will become a new Iraq,” the Chaldean Bishop of Aleppo said this month.
Recent reports about al-Qaeda and various Sunni jihadist groups coming from Iraq to join the armed struggle against al-Assad have further worried Syrian minorities, some of whom have already started fleeing in fear.
A mid-December poll by The Doha Debates found that 55 percent of Syrians wanted al-Assad to stay in power, in large part out of fear for the future of the country. (The poll surveyed 1,000 respondents, 46 percent of whom were from the Levant).
About 11 percent of the Syrian population, including the ruling family, follows Alawism, an offshoot of Shia Islam. The minority Alawis have ruled the majority Sunni country since 1970, when Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, took power in a coup.
Worried about its future in a post-Assad Syria, the majority of this sect has either brushed aside protests or stood against them.
“Alawis generally remember positively the days of Hafez al-Assad, as someone who brought stability to a chaotic country,” points out Fadwa*, a 27-year-old Alawi maths graduate from Salhab, near the central resistance town of Hama. Her words point to a willingness to put stability before human rights: Syrians enjoyed wider freedoms in the “unstable” 1950s, before merging with Egypt in the United Arab Republic in 1958.
Stability is also crucial to the interdenominational beneficiaries (`mustafidin’) tied to the regime, as is clear from the loyalty of the Sunni-Christian bourgeoisie in Aleppo and Damascus. Ensuring the support of urban traders has been a persistent feature of Baathist rule even under Hafez al-Assad, who managed to prevent the Damascene mercantile classes from joining the Islamist uprising in the 1980s by co-opting the head of the Damascus Chamber of Commerce, Badr al-Din al-Shallah.
But there are signs of waning support among the middle-upper classes, with the first mass demonstrations in the wealthy Damascene neighbourhood of Mezzeh on 18 February. As shortages of bread and fuel increase, private bank assets decline, tourism drops and the inflation rate doubles, Sunni and Christian urban traders are increasingly being affected.
Perception of violence
But a widespread perception of the opposition as radical and violent still has many worried.
The opposition is composed of several divergent groups with the same goal but different approaches. The so-called Local Coordination Committees of Syria are groupings of loosely affiliated activists who organize protests on the ground; the Syrian National Council is the main political opposition group outside Syria; and the Free Syrian Army is a group of defectors and other civilians who have taken up arms. While this may sound cohesive and hierarchal, analysts say much of the opposition is not. And they do not discount the possibility that outside terrorists are taking advantage of the unrest, as the government claims.
Aref, for one, believes the FSA to be a cloak for other armed groups, a concern highlighted by the International Crisis Group (ICG) in its latest report on Syria.
Photo: Germano Assad/IRIN