The Country That Is the World: Syria’s Clashing Communities

The population of Syria is so inharmonious a gathering of widely different races in blood, in creed, and in custom, that government is both difficult and dangerous.

— Sir Mark Sykes, Dar Ul-Islam: A Record of a Journey through Ten of the Asiatic Provinces of Turkey (1904)

The mufti recounted with fondness a drive he made with his wife from Montreal via Toronto to New York in 1994. Somewhere past Niagara Falls, the couple stopped at a McDonald’s. All the seats were taken. “I was dressed like this,” the mufti said, pulling at the lapel of his robes, “and my wife was in hijab.” An American man, aged about sixty-five, got up and offered them his table. When the mufti declined, the man insisted, “I’m an American, and I can go home and eat. You are my guest.”

The gesture impressed Ahmad Badreddine Hassoun, who became grand mufti, or chief Sunni Muslim religious scholar, of Syria eleven years later: “A good human being is a good human being. I don’t know if that man was Jewish, Christian, or Muslim.”

Mufti Hassoun belies the stereotype of the Muslim clergyman. He has preached in the Christian churches of Aleppo, Syria’s second city, and he has invited bishops to speak in his mosque. His official interpreter is an Armenian Christian. “I am the mufti for all of Syria, for Muslims, Christians and non-believers,” he says, an ecumenical sentiment placing him at odds with more fundamentalist colleagues among the religious scholars known as the ulema.

The contrast with many other Sunni Muslim clergymen is stark. Another Syrian mullah, Sheikh Adnan al-Arour, broadcasts regularly from Saudi Arabia with a different message: “The problem is actually with some minorities and sects that support the regime . . . and I mention in particular the Alawite sect. We will never harm any one of them who stood neutral, but those who stood against us, I swear by Allah, we will grind them and feed them to the dogs.” Another Sunni preacher, the Egyptian Sheikh Mohammad al-Zughbey, went further: “Allah! Kill that dirty small sect [the Alawites]. Allah! Destroy them. Allah! They are the Jews’ agents. Kill them all. . . . It is a holy jihad.”

“I don’t believe in holy or sacred wars or places,” Hassoun said. “The human being is sacred, whether Muslim, Christian, Jewish, or non-believer. Defend his rights as if you are defending the holy books.” His tolerance and acceptance of the secular state in Syria have earned the mufti condemnation as a mouthpiece for a repressive regime and threats from Salafist Muslims, whose interpretation of Islam excludes tolerance of atheists, Christians, and Shiites. Yet the mufti’s views are not atypical in Syria, where Islam and Christianity have co-existed for fifteen centuries, and which the Greek poet Meleager of Gadara called, in the first century BC, “one country which is the whole world.”

The world of communities dwelling in Syria includes its Sunni Muslim Arab majority alongside a multitude of minorities: Sunni Kurds; Armenian and Arab Christians of Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant denominations; Assyrians; Circassians; Kurdish Yazidis, with their roots in the teachings of Zoroaster; and the quasi-Shiite Muslim sects of Druze, Ismailis, and Ala-wites. The Syrian population included several thousand Jews, descendants of ancient communities, until President Hafez al-Assad lifted restrictions on their right to emigrate in 1992. The country is one of the few places where Aramaic, the regional lingua franca at the time of Christ, is still spoken. In one Aramaic-speaking village, Maalula, it was not unusual for Muslim women to pray with Christians for the births of healthy children at the convent of Saint Takla.


In April of this year, in both Damascus and Aleppo, the country’s two largest cities, three Sunni Muslim taxi drivers offered unprompted assessments of their Christian fellow citizens as we passed their churches. All of them said they were “very good people.” In my Damascus hotel one day, a young Muslim man was listening to the radio. “It’s not a song,” he explained, as the Lebanese singer Feyrouz and a choir chanted a cappella. “It’s church music. My name is Hussein, but I love this music.” These statements came not from officials, nor even in interviews, and indicated strong attachments to diversity within the country.

Everyone in Syria interprets phenomena and events through the prism of political loyalty. To regime opponents, all car bombs—including those that kill busloads of security forces—are planted by the regime. To its supporters, all killings—even from shells fired by artillery pieces, which the rebels do not possess—are opposition crimes. (Human Rights Watch reports offer evidence of murder and kidnappings by both sides, although the regime, with its greater firepower, has been able to inflict more damage.)

The disjunction is equally clear when it comes to minority communities. Defenders of the Assad regime claim the government protects the minorities, especially the Assads’ fellow Alawites and the Christians, against Muslim fundamentalists who would expel or oppress them if they came to power. Michel Samaha, a Lebanese politician with strong public links to the government in Damascus, calls the revolution against President Bashar al-Assad “a Salafist awakening.” Opponents insist the minorities’ security is part of the historical nature of Syria rather than the gift of the regime that came to power with Hafez al-Assad’s bloodless coup of November 1970. A Christian woman, who spent several months in prison for unspecified political crimes a few years ago, told me, “It’s wrong to say the government was helping the minorities. They are using the minorities.”

Anwar al-Bunni, a crusading lawyer released from prison in May last year after five years as a political prisoner, is a Christian whose opposition to the regime is total. His family has a tradition of resistance to dictatorship. He told me that he, his four brothers, and his sister have spent a combined sixty-five years in prison. Bunni’s offense was publicly to condemn the torture that his clients suffered. “There are thirty-seven ways to torture people in Syria,” he said in a basement office he has borrowed from a legal colleague because he cannot afford one of his own. “You cannot imagine the beatings, putting people in cold water. The German chair. This is a security force term. To crush the back, they fasten the hands and feet from behind.” He demonstrated this by contorting his arms behind his chair. “They make people stand for a week with their hands in the air.” He demanded a change of regime, saying it is too late for the regime to change itself. “I see suffering,” he said, referring to his clients. “I touch the torture. I need my children’s life not to be like mine.”

Unusually for a Christian, he did not fear Muslim fundamentalists’ taking power. “In the history of this country, there was no time Islam ruled this country,” he said, speaking of the post-Ottoman period. “In 1954, the Muslim Brothers lost the election.” Other Christians feared that, if genuine elections were held now, fundamentalists might win and deprive them of their religious and social freedoms.

When Bunni and I left the office, we drove by a vast sports complex. He told me it had recently been transformed into a security center, where some of the thirty-five thousand dissidents he believed the regime was holding were detained. It is difficult to know whether his figure is accurate. As Human Rights Watch has declared, “The exact number of those being held in incommunicado detention is impossible to ascertain given the lack of access to detention facilities.” The regime has granted the International Committee of the Red Cross access to the central prisons in Aleppo and Damascus, but other detention centers remain out of reach of international scrutiny.


Fear forces people into the ostensible safety of sectarian or ethnic enclaves, repeating a pattern established during the civil war in Lebanon and the American occupation of Iraq. Mixed neighborhoods, so prominent a feature of Syrian life now and in the past, are making way for segregated ghettos where people feel safe among their own. Nabil al-Sammam, an engineering professor in Damascus, recently wrote in Syria Today, “The current crisis proves that you cannot depend on the government, but only on your immediate family, your tribe, and other’s charity.” Some Christians who fled from Homs following vicious fighting there between the army and the dissident Free Syrian Army blamed Muslim fundamentalists for seizing their houses to use as firing positions, while others left because of the violence or the threat of kidnapping, rape, and murder. Alawites loyal to the regime in and around Homs stand accused of killing Sunni men and raping Sunni women, while the rebels are blamed for committing the same crimes against Alawites. The effect has been the same: to drive each out of the other’s areas and into tribal laagers that further divide the country into armed and hostile camps.

Assad’s use of the military to deal with the opposition may be working, but it has cost him support among those inside and outside the country who had hoped that he would liberalize the ossified system he inherited from his father in 2000. Shortly after the rebellion began last year, prominent Syrians in London went to Damascus to urge him to make significant reforms that would both preserve his regime and respond to the opposition’s legitimate demands for change. His subsequent speech to Parliament, in which he made no concessions, left them disappointed and baffled. The loss of their support appears less important to him than the alliances with Russia, Iran, and Iraq that he is relying on to maintain power and preserve the economy from the worst effects of sanctions.

Nabil Sukkar, a World Bank economist from 1969 to 1972 who manages a consultancy in Damascus, believes the regime is holding up economically: “We had good rainfall this year. Agriculture is twenty percent of GDP. The most important crop is wheat. We are almost self-sufficient, overall almost eighty percent self-sufficient, in food.” In addition, he says, the country’s external debt of $7 billion is only ten percent of GDP, a proportion Greece, Spain, and Italy could envy. With foreign reserves of $17 billion, the country, in his view, could go on importing for another ten months. Syria is receiving assistance from Russia, Iran, and Iraq, which helps further to ease the burden. In any case, as in Iraq from 1990 to 2003, the sanctions are affecting the populace more than the regime. Further harming the people and the economy is the endemic corruption of some within the regime, who have treated the state as their personal business enterprise to be looted at will.

Hatred of Assad’s cousin Rami Makhlouf as the primary symbol of economic corruption is not confined to the opposition. Even some of Assad’s strongest supporters have called on him to curb Makhlouf’s activities. That he has not done so to placate public opinion disturbs them as much as his initial failure to arrest the officials responsible for torturing children involved in the March 2011 demonstrations in Deraa that sparked the uprising. One impoverished man in Latakia, for the most part a regime stronghold, told the humanitarian group Khobz wa Meleh (Bread and Salt) that he would not accept their food donations, saying that “if this is from Rami Makhlouf, we do not need it.” Makhlouf lives with his wife in the Palm Springs of Syria, Yaafour, west of Damascus. Guards protect his walled estate, but when I drove past one afternoon, his wife looked like any California matron in shorts and golf cap, walking unguarded with her personal trainer on the tree-shaded streets of the luxurious suburb.

Mufti Hassoun criticizes the system that permits such unearned wealth. “A huge number of people want a change,” he says. “I don’t believe in a one-party state.” Yet his criticism of the opposition has been stronger than his criticism of the state. He has received death threats. “When I refused to leave Syria,” he says, “they threatened me on my cell phone,” referring to callers whose numbers were in Saudi Arabia. “They left messages.” When he did not answer, his enemies took their revenge. On October 2, 2011, his twenty-two-year-old son Sariya and one of his professors were driving from their university in the countryside to Aleppo when armed men fired on their car and killed both men. When the mufti recalled the murder in our conversation, he wiped tears from his cheeks: “He was twenty-two years old, a student at the university. What did he do to be killed? At his funeral, I said I forgive you all. I expected them to show remorse. They said we don’t need your forgiveness. We are going to kill you. They say this on television in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Britain. They say the mufti of Syria speaks of Christianity in a positive way. He believes in dialogue, even with Israelis and non-believers. He goes to churches. They say I do not represent Islam. When you say a mufti does not represent Islam, it’s a fatwa to kill him. This is the Arab revolution.”

In Damascus, I asked a friend involved in the peaceful opposition about Hassoun. She said that Hassoun’s son was, in fact, in the opposition. She assured me that the regime had killed him. When I told her that a childhood friend of his had told me Sariya supported his father and his secularism, she admitted she might have been wrong. It was only what someone had told her.

The May massacres in the Houla region near Homs of as many as forty-nine children and an estimated fifty adults, sparked accusations from both sides that the other was responsible. Because the victims were Sunni, it appeared more likely that the perpetrators were Alawites from the surrounding villages and possibly some shabiha militiamen working for the government. (The government strenuously denied this.) Although Major General Robert Mood, commander of the UN Supervision Mission in Syria, called the circumstances “unclear,” the escalation of the conflict and its increasingly sectarian coloring points toward more killings of unarmed civilians by both sides—effectively, the Lebanization of the conflict.

The unwillingness of both the regime and the armed opposition to compromise is plunging the country deeper into war. Their history has taught Syrians the danger of extremes. During the centuries of productive co-existence, there were only two outbreaks of sectarian conflict that resulted in massacres. Both took place in the mid-nineteenth century, when Christians were accumulating wealth thanks to their association with Christian businessmen from Europe. In the first, a minor incident in Aleppo in 1850 sparked a Muslim massacre of Christians and the burning of several churches. No more than a dozen Christians were killed, but many more lost property to looters and vandals. Ten years later, a similar incident in Damascus led to the massacre of eleven thousand Christians. Nineteenth-century Christians were close to the Europeans who came to dominate the country’s economic life, and today’s Christians and Alawites are seen as too close to a regime that many Sunni Muslims detest as much as their ancestors did the Europeans. Those who have done well out of forty-two years of Assad family rule now fear the revolution may end with that bloody history repeating itself.

Charles Glass was the chief Middle East correspondent for ABC News from 1983 to 1993. His travel narrative on Syria, Tribes with Flags, will be reissued this year.

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