The Syrian rebellion is turning hard-line Islamist, squeezing out Christians, Alawites, and Kurds who also hate Assad.
BEIRUT — A small group of young opposition activists makes its way through the pitch-black streets of the northern Syrian city of Raqqa, slowly approaching the Church of the Lady of the Annunciation. A few of them clamber onto the church's wall and hoist up a wooden cross, struggling under its weight, as they sing a tune from the early days of the revolution. "One, one, one. The Syrian people are one," they chant. "Syria belongs to Muslims and Christians."
The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), al Qaeda's Syrian franchise, had pulled down the church's cross earlier that day and had raised the jihadi black flag in its place. The activists' act of defiance lives on in a clip uploaded to YouTube in September -- but the church does not. The following day, ISIS fighters swiftly made their displeasure known by torching Raqqa's only two churches.
In the uprising's early days, members of Syria's religious and ethnic minorities played a prominent role in the camp opposing President Bashar al-Assad, organizing peaceful demonstrations alongside Sunnis and campaigning for civil liberties. Today, the war-wracked country is a particularly grim place for these Alawite, Christian, and Kurdish activists who tried to bridge Syria's sectarian divides. Not only do they face the regime's brutality, but they are forced to contend with Islamist militias that are harassing Syrian minorities with impunity.
Some activists have already turned the page, arguing that their acceptance of a movement effectively headed by radical Islamists, who clearly reject them as apostates, is akin to embracing self-dissolution and disappearance. Thaer Aboud, an Alawite activist whom the regime imprisoned early in the uprising and whose father was arrested by the Syrian authorities in the 1980s for being critical of the regime, sounds nostalgic for the early days of the rebellion, before some elements of the anti-Assad cause tried to write people like him out of the revolt.
"I was a Syrian person with a Syrian agenda in every sense of the word," he says. "I lost everything -- I mean real loss here -- for the cause of my people. Three years of suffering, of sacrifices, of being a vagabond, of trying to scrape a living … and now I feel like the revolution has made an outcast out of me."
When the Free Syrian Army (FSA) was established, Aboud quickly reached out to a Sunni colonel in Jabal al-Zawiya, Idlib province, who had defected from the army. Aboud attempted to keep lines of communication with Sunni fighters open, but growing sectarianism made it difficult for the groups to trust one another. He blames the regime for fomenting these divisions, arguing that it was the biggest benefactor of Syrians' inability to trust one another. As a result, he says, minority opposition activists are now an isolated and sorely disillusioned bunch.
"I have one Alawite friend who's still inside. He uses a fake name, but the situation has become unbearable there," he says. "If I were to risk my life to funnel food and medicine to people in destitute areas, but at the same time those people are swearing at me and threatening to slaughter me, a moment comes when I must ask myself, 'Why am I helping them?'"
But even as the uprising became militarized and Islamists gained strength, a few individual dissidents from minority groups carved out a space for themselves within the anti-Assad cause.
It can be a delicate topic. By their very nature, such activists are striving to get beyond Syria's sectarian divisions, and they bristle at being trotted out as the revolt's token minorities.
"This is a thorny subject among Christian activists," says a young Syrian priest from Aleppo who currently resides in Lebanon. "Some activists are annoyed that they have been reduced to appetizing fodder for the media and somehow portrayed as more exceptional than others."
These activists often speak of being socially ostracized from their communities, as their anti-regime stance is tantamount to treason. Given these social pressures and the violence of Assad's intelligence apparatus, they have little choice but to press on.
"Despite the formidable challenges they face in their own communities, and in the communities they chose to relocate to, they are very much aware that backing out, at this stage, is not an option," said the priest.
Loubna Mrie, a 22-year-old Alawite activist with a cherubic face, lost her own mother to the cause. She was only 19 when the uprising erupted, and she quickly became infamous in her hometown of Jableh for siding with FSA fighters. Her enraged father, embarrassed by his daughter's public betrayal and eager to prove his unwavering loyalty to the regime, abducted his own ex-wife, Mrie's mother, and executed her. In a video published by the Guardian, Mrie refers to her father as "an assassin" who used the brutal methods characteristic of the security apparatus against his own family.
In the six-minute interview, Mrie delves into the painful details of the story, as tears stream down her face. "I have to contribute with this [revolution], because my mom died for this," she said matter-of-factly. "And I feel like now it's a personal cause. It's not like a country's cause."
To the dismay of her colleagues in the nonviolence movement, Mrie has wholeheartedly embraced the militarization of the revolution. She continues to interact with fighters in hard-core Islamist battalions and has close friends within Jabhat al-Nusra, which has been designated by the United States as an al Qaeda affiliate, and the Salafi group Ahrar al-Sham.
"The Western media portrays Islamists as a boogeyman, a terrifying specter threatening to engulf us all, but Syrians should know better," she says. "At the end of the day, those so-called 'extremists' … they are just Syrians to me."
Mrie has armed herself with an abundance of anecdotes that unsettle claims that minorities can no longer travel safely in rebel-held areas. She tells of one time when she unknowingly ventured into the line of sight of a government sniper while walking in Aleppo, taking pictures. A fighter quickly grabbed her and ran by her side, shielding her as best as he could to ensure he would get hit if the sniper fired a shot in their direction.
"In that moment, I feel those guys will rebuild Syria one day. I'm not afraid for my country," she says defiantly.
Much of Mrie's success in bridging these divides has been due to simple persistence. The first time she ventured to a front line in Aleppo to greet some hardened fighters, she said, they simply glared at her. The following day, during the holy month of Ramadan, she went back bearing a tray of sweets at sunset when the fighters were breaking their fast. She hung around in silence for a few days until they eventually warmed up to her.
"There is a truth which people conveniently ignore," she says. "When a fighter sees others with him in the same deep trench, knowing they could die with him at any moment, he stops caring whether they're Alawite, Sunnis, or Christian."
Nevertheless, the rise of al Qaeda-linked groups has undeniably limited the ability of members of Syria's minorities to participate in the anti-Assad cause. Mayada al-Khalil, another Alawite activist, had been working with a group of underground opposition activists since 2003, when she was a student at the University of Aleppo. In February 2012, while Khalil was working at the Violations Documentation Center, a Damascus-based opposition group that tracks the conflict's violence, she was detained by security forces.
Khalil was kept in prison for 83 grueling days. It was the fear of dying at the hands of prison guards that drove her to temporarily leave Syria. She found herself entertaining two options: She could either go into hiding in Ghouta, the besieged Damascus suburb where the notorious Aug. 21 chemical attack took place, or make a more drastic move to the liberated areas in northern Syria.
"I thought of going to Raqqa to see what I can do there to help, but the latest developments and the growing presence of the ISIS made me rethink this option," she says.
It's not only Syria's religious minorities who are suffering -- members of its ethnic minorities also bemoan how Assad has played on old divisions to pursue a strategy of divide and rule.
Hozan Ibrahim, a Kurdish-Syrian activist currently living in Germany, was jailed by the regime a decade ago for pursuing demands for Kurdish rights, including that Kurds be allowed to teach their own language in schools. Now, he says, Assad is using Kurdish organizations to his advantage: The Syrian regime realized it couldn't keep a strong grip on every corner of the country, he says, so it relinquished control of Kurdish areas to a local militia that it knew it could co-opt. He says the group -- a local affiliate of Turkey's Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) -- skillfully exploited the troubled relationship between Kurds and Arabs to drive a deeper wedge between the two communities and put an end to any stirrings of dissidence among Kurds.
"The activists who stayed in Syria are now intimidated by the PKK, with whom the regime struck some sort of agreement with," said Ibrahim. "Once the PKK became the sole authority managing Kurdish areas, keeping in line with the regime's methods of repression, activists had to choose between joining the PKK, which is essentially a regime puppet, or staying home."
Ibrahim was just 19 when he was thrown in jail. During his imprisonment, he was kept in solitary confinement for interminable stretches of time, until the ideals he fought for started fading from view. His experience of losing the initial spirit that drove him to rebel in the first place would no doubt ring true for some of today's beaten and beleaguered activists.
"I wasn't the same person when I finally got out of prison. I had so much aggression in me. I don't think I felt normal again until I left Syria for good," he said.
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