Looking Forward to a Free Syria

Syria will only know freedom if religious strife is brought to an end.

This Wednesday, June 5, 2013, file photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA shows Syrian soldiers loyal to President Bashar Assad in the town of Qusair, near the Lebanese border, in Homs province, Syria.
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While the highly-touted international meeting to negotiate a peace settlement in Syria has already been postponed until July, the world remains riveted on the Middle Eastern country's travails. Concerns are mounting over how to manage a crisis featuring the use of chemical weapons, the inflow of fighters from neighboring countries and from Hezbollah and al-Qaida, the tremendous cost in human lives and suffering, and the risk of hostilities expanding beyond Syria.

Missing from the radar, however, is a sober consideration of Syria's future, especially how to deal with an alarming sectarian divide among the country's religious groups.

One day, the war will cease and the task of rebuilding will begin. Syria will need to reconstruct not just its buildings and roads, but its entire governing framework.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Syria.]

While today's focus is on an end to the violence, the international community must consider this broader challenge. Governments must throw their full weight behind those favoring a future Syria that promotes the rule of law and protects the human rights -- including the right to religious freedom -- of every Syrian.    This is essential to reversing the dire effects of the government's misrule, including the unraveling of Syria's multi-religious society due to President Bashar Assad's divide-and-conquer policy.

Prior to the conflict, Assad's government tolerated the country's smallest religious minority groups, including Christians, insofar as he permitted them to worship freely. Yet toleration does not mean liberty and no community under Assad ever enjoyed full religious freedom.

Damascus outlawed any group it deemed "Muslim extremist," and arrested, tortured and killed alleged members. The regime still bans Jehovah's Witnesses, requires all government-approved religious groups to register, mandates that Jews receive permission to travel, monitors every religious group's activity and restricts conversion, particularly to Christianity.

[Take the U.S. News Poll: With Chemical Weapons Confirmed, Must Obama Intervene in Syria's Civil War?]

In other words, Assad's regime has treated its people not as individual Syrians with equal rights under the law, but as members of competing sectarian groups which are granted or refused privileged status based on their level of collaboration with the government.

In spite of this corrupt, divisive system, Syrian religious communities coexisted peacefully. Prior to the civil war, a society that was 75 percent Sunni Muslim, 13 percent Shi'a Muslim, including the ruling Alawites, and 10 percent Christian managed to hold together. But once the civil war began, Assad's forces stepped up efforts to pit Syrian against Syrian by turning these groups violently against each other. 

On the one hand, they issued dire warnings of a Sunni blood bath against religious minorities should Assad fall. On the other hand, they targeted and attacked civilians because they were Sunnis, according to the December 2012 report of the U.N. Human Rights Council's Independent International Commission of Inquiry. This has triggered assaults on Alawites, with Christians pressed to take sides. The sooner the conflict ends, the better it will be for Syria and its people.  The longer it continues, and the more embedded extremist groups become, the more dim the future appears. But ignoring or downplaying the rising sectarian strife could empower extremists to shape a post-war Syria in ways that are antithetical to freedom and stability alike.

Thus, any actions to end Syria's civil war must include plans to encourage the development of a post-war government that not only condemns and works to end sectarian violence, but replaces the divisive and destructive system of sectarian group privileges and restrictions with the full equality of every Syrian, regardless of religious identity. It must also reject those within the rebel forces who would impose religious intolerance on Syria and crush religious minorities, including Christians.