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Horrors on the Syrian Coast: Sectarianism, Savagery, and Silence

PicassoGuernicaby Elie Chalala. After watching and reading coverage of Assad’s Shabiha massacre of more than 360 people in Banias, Ras al-Nabeh, and the village of Bayda, and after comments by some people who apparently enjoyed hearing the news, I felt all the more saddened. As the killers paraded and humiliated their victims before pro-Assad sympathetic crowds, their euphoric reaction displays the alarming rise in the sectarian hatred in Syrian society.

Abd al-Hamid Suleiman’s distressing account of the slaughter on the Syrian coast appeared in the Lebanese electronic newspaper Al Modon on May 7, 2013. The title of Suleiman’s article roughly translates to “On the Margins of the Massacre,” meaning not an account of the actual massacres but rather their effect on the nearby communities. He comments on the thousands who are displaced, and the large numbers massed on the highway connecting Tartus and Latikia as families gathered to flee the massacres occurring in the southern suburbs of Banias, Bayda, Ras Al Nabeh, and other nearby places. The pro-Assad instructions to the well-protected loyalist towns were “not to allow under any condition the ‘entrance of the Sunnis’ from Banias to Tartus.” Those allowed in were greeted by sectarian curses, while those who could not find refuge spread along the the sides of the streets without much sympathy from the neighboring Alawite villages.

The Sunni residents received warning of the price they would have to pay if they joined the “battle of the coast.” Suleiman ominously observed that, though some Alawite residents felt self-consciously silent, a public satisfaction with the violence seemed to be the dominant emotion. As for the Sunnis, their silence embodied an attitude perhaps betraying a “feeling of helplessness and anticipation.”

The chilling post-massacre narrative began when the killers returned, hands still stained with blood from the prior day’s massacre as they paraded their captives on a Friday, inccluding women and children. Perhaps the most distressing scene was when the women in the town uttered zaghradat (cries of joy or cheering shouts) while watching the humiliating parade of the victims. The Alawite residents, aware of the massacre well before the massacre reached television screens, gradually altered their attitudes from a dominant feeling of “arrogance” to “silence,” coupled with self-serving and “irrational” justifications such as it was “Chechnayans” who came to Banias and committed the massacres!

In the absence of strong evidence to the contrary, it is Assad and his men who organized and implemented the mass slaughter of the Sunnis in parts of Banias, Bayda and others, with one aim in mind: the necessary destruction Syrian society’s social fabric in order to pave the way for a future partitioning of Syria. While many Assad “progressive” and “pan-Arabist” supporters in Lebanon shamelessly blacken out the news of the massacres in their newspapers and TV stations (unless as they used to blame the victims of being the perpetrators), they forget the demographic composition of Syria which prohibit an Alawite state without a “sectarian genocide,” which could claim hundreds of thousands of Syrians, both Alawites and Sunnis as well as others.

Other commentators highlighted another troubling dimension of the massacres. Hazem al-Amin wrote of “the pandemic of the massacre,” referring to its purposeless and absurdist nature. In comparison to the religious massacres and killings of the Medieval period, which arguably held theological roots, today’s killings in Syria are mindless, and “cultureless.” One killer, said to have come from Iskenderun (historically part of Syria but today is a district in the Turkish province of Hatay) and whom press reports describe as secular, non-native speaker of Arabic, indifferent to Assad‘s regime, while other press accounts describe him as Marxist-Leninist, but still professed a willingness to kill for the Syrian leader. Al-Amin goes on to state that in the Medieval period, killers killed for a purpose, however flawed, but that today’s killings are like an epidemic, where death is easy and meaningless.

To some this senseless killing has become a match to cheer on by some Lebanese. “The pictures of children’s limbs burned while alive juxtaposed with the team fans hailing the killer,” wrote al-Amin in the Beirut-based electronic website NOW.

Another important column hammered on the disgraceful silence. “In an idealist world, there would have been mass demonstrations in the Syrian coastal towns condemning the massacres which were committed by the Assad loyalist sectarian gangs in Bayda Village and in the city of Banias,” wrote Hussam Itani in Al Hayat newspaper.

Itani’s opening sentence evoked memories of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the subsequent massacres in Sabra and Shattilla where the actual killers were right-wing Lebanese groups, but the Israelis controlled the entrances to the camps while occupying the Lebanese capital. Nonetheless, more than 400,000 Israeli protesters came to the streets protesting the massacres. While the Israeli protests could not resurrect the dead, they did show public dissatisfaction. While a majority of the Alawite community remains indifferent, as of yet no demonstration in the Arab world has condemned the massacres of Banias and Bayda, like what took place in Tel Aviv after Sabra and Shatilla.

Itani dismisses the claim that Syria is free of sectarianism and that Bayda and Banias occurred at the hands of “terrorists.” The ideas of Arab nationalism and mumanaha (rejectionism) further promote the myth that the Baath Party succeeded in removing sectarianism and replaced it with nationalism, which transcends parochial loyalties. After so many massacres, each one more gruesome than the other, it is time to finally acknowledge that the sectaraian question remains far from being resolved in Assad’s Syria.

If there is such a “conspiracy” as claimed, it is “sectarianism.” Itani makes it clear, without explicitly saying so, that the future of Syria and Lebanon will be determined by killers’ knives and not by the shady analysis of the “rejectionist” media.

This point leads to another implication: accountability. Once unleashed, the beast of sectarianism will result in destructive consequences. The brutal massacres will invite an in-kind response, and the history of the region, namely Lebanon and Iraq, offers an unmistakable lesson.

The horrors on the Syrian coast sums up a tragic fact: Syria will not breakdown into a failed state, it already is. The past two years of unparalleled violence applied by a government against its own people makes this fact painfully clear and the only truly comparable government to the Assad regime is that of Nazi Germany, which targeted a segment of its own population. Hopefully, we have learned something since then.

This essay appears in Al Jadid, Vol. 17, no. 65

© Copyright 2013 AL JADID MAGAZINE

Featured image, Guernica by Pablo Picasso (1937).