The civil war in Syria looks increasingly likely to descend into a battle between religious denominations, warns the Syrian sociologist Huda Zein in an interview with DW. She sees only one way out of the dilemma.
DW: Ms. Zein, at the moment it appears that not only secular civilians and deserters, but also religious extremists are all fighting against Assad. That doesn't bode well for the future of the country. How high do you think the risk is that the violence could continue, even after Assad's resignation?
Huda Zein: I think the risk is extremely high. That is not just down to the Syrians, but also because there are many regional and international players active in the country. We know that the troops operating under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army are splintered and are not controlled by any centralized commando. Many fighters are acting alone, without connections to unarmed opposition groups. That's a problem, of course. It's dangerous when the military arm of the insurgency doesn't have any political leadership. That could mean that in the period following the collapse of the regime, violence could escalate further.
So that means there is no united front against Assad?
No. The situation is tremendously complicated. On the one hand there are the deserters, naturally, who have left the regular Syrian army because they didn't want to shoot at the civilian population. Likewise, civilians who are defending themselves and their families also belong to that. Both of these groups are operating entirely independently and without any external guidance. For them it is about liberating themselves from Assad's regime. On the other hand, there are groups who are trying to exploit the situation to further their own interests. That also has a lot to do with Syria's geographically strategic position. Because of that, Syria has become a stage for regional and international interests.
Which interests do you have in mind?
Those of Saudi Arabia, for example. The country has instrumentalized the situation in Syria. It is consciously fuelling the violence in order to bring down the Shiite-Alawite Assad regime. It's actually all about the conflict with Iran which is being dragged-out in Syria. Even the conflict between Russia and the USA is playing into the situation in Syria. Likewise, there are Salafist groups who are coming over the border. They're also, in part, supported by Saudi Arabia and Qatar and other countries.
Is the war also split along religious denominational lines?
Unfortunately yes. Until now, this development was just beginning to emerge and there weren't too many cases of inter-denominational violence. But many Syrians fear that this development could bring the country to a civil war between opposing religious denominations. The multi-denominational and multi-ethnic fragmentation of Syria is actually a very beautiful thing. Culturally, Syrian society is very rich. But the regime has confronted the general population with severe brutality and has consciously provoked them. By doing that, the regime has provoked the opposition to take revenge and retaliate along denominational lines. And it's very likely that this provocation against the population will continue. Political opposition groups have repeatedly warned against that. Assad can only survive if society divides and allows itself to be driven into a civil war.
Most Syrians are currently exposed to great danger, fearing for life and limb. In such a situation, are they even capable of seeing through the government's strategy?
In reality it's not actually a question of will or awareness. The mood in Syria is highly charged at the moment, so it's hard for anyone to predict what will happen in the next few days. It is more dependent on whether or not the opposition works on a political and civil-societal level. It needs to devise a strategy to prevent such a development from occurring. Until now, the Syrian opposition has failed to deliver on that issue. But in this regard, the international community could have agreed upon preventive measures. But they didn't do that. Now, the Syrians are even more reliant upon civil-societal groups which they could turn to to prevent a civil war.
What do you currently see as being the most pressing task facing the opposition?
Both opposition groups - the armed and the unarmed - should sit down at the table and devise a common program. Then they can exert influence on the international forces in Syria. Then maybe the international community could also be moved to provide greater assistance. It's important, though, that the political element of the opposition takes command of the armed groups. Only then can the conflict be resolved in a peaceful manner, if the armed groups are integrated into the political opposition and abide by their orders.
Dr Huda Zein is a sociologist and academic fellow at the University of Marburg Center for Near and Middle Eastern Studies. She is a member of the Guiding Council of the Syrian opposition National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change (NCC).
Interview: Kerstin Knipp / hw