Militant rise galvanizes Assad's camp in Syria war

By Lee Keath

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Dec. 13 2013 12:00 a.m. MST

That vision largely discounts the demands for reforms that fueled the first protests against Assad in 2011. It also seems to downplay the difficulty of healing profound hatreds opened up among Syrians by a war that has killed more than 120,000 people, sent millions fleeing from their homes and has seen brutalities and massacres by both sides. Opposition activists blame the government's bloody crackdown on the early anti-Assad protests for the chaos, saying that by choosing to crush dissent it forced the opposition to take up arms.

Luay insists that reconciliation is not an issue. "We Syrians don't have a problem with each other," he said. "Reconciliation with whom? With other Syrians? We don't need that. Most of those fighting in Syria are not Syrians."

Luay is a member of the Alawite minority, the Shiite offshoot sect to which Assad belongs and which makes up the firmest backbone of his rule. The community has profound reasons to fear extremists among the mainly Sunni Muslim opposition, since Islamic extremists consider Alawites heretics.

But fear of militants also keeps some in the majority Sunni community close to the government.

Sheik Maamoun Rahmeh, a Sunni cleric, says the fight is no longer about demands for freedoms or reform.

"Syrians are just killing each other," he says. "This crisis has cost us the most valuable thing we had, security. Now we have lost that freedom." He calls the conflict a "war for existence," blaming "those people of strife who call for jihad."

In January 2012, Rahmeh was kidnapped by gunmen in his home village of Kfar Batna, in the countryside east of Damascus — because, he said, he was urging worshippers not to join the uprising.

His abductors rammed him with a car as he drove his motorcycle, piled him into their vehicle, took him to a secret location and tortured him for three hours. They cut off his ear and shot him through the jaw and in the leg. He says he heard his captors, thinking he was dead, debate whether to dump his body in a sewer or outside his own mosque. In the end, they chose the latter.

Five months ago, still recovering from his wounds, the 41-year-old cleric was named the imam at Syria's most prominent mosque, the historic Umayyad Mosque in Damascus' Old City. Friday sermons from the mosque are aired live on state TV, making it a crucial pulpit for the government to the Sunni community.

"Since the start ... I have told people in my sermons that reform is a great and beautiful demand, but the path to it is not through killing, crime and destruction," he told AP, lifting his cleric's cap to show the stump where his right ear was severed.

Reconciliation, he says, will come easily once Syrians "realize the threads of conspiracy that have been woven, aiming to take us back to the Stone Age."

"If you really call for freedom as you claim, then let's put our hands together and say, 'Freedom comes from respecting each other's rights and preserving each other's blood. Freedom means bringing even greater security than we had before,'" he said.

The loss of security has been a major shock for Syrians. Under the tight grip of the Assad family rule the past four decades, violence and crime were almost non-existent. Government supporters talk with nostalgia of the pre-war days, contending that the country's multiple sects and ethnicities lived peacefully together and that religious extremists are to blame for unleashing sectarian hatreds.

Khaled Mahjoub, a prominent industrialist, says Syria is fighting terrorism "on behalf of the world" — and that the United States and Europe should recognize this if they want the coming negotiations, known as "Geneva 2," to succeed. Like other government supporters, he accuses Saudi Arabia, Turkey and other Gulf countries, which have been the main backers of the rebellion, of sending Muslim extremists to impose Saudi Arabia's strict Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam.

"They came here to kill," he said. "Those guys are not pro-democracy. They are against democracy and want to have Shariah law."

Mahjoub, a Syrian-American who was an old school friend of Assad's late older brother and who has organized reconciliation initiatives, says a two-track approach can resolve the crisis: a reconciliation program to bring Syrians back together, backed by a type of "Marshall Plan" project to rebuild the country, aimed at bringing prosperity.

"We don't give a damn who started it. People are dying. We need to have a solution that will bring a safer today and better tomorrow," he said.

"Reconciliation is: We promise you will get a better tomorrow, and we forgive and forget."

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