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Ethnic Minorities: Tipping the Scales in Syria?

Church next to a mosque in Hama, Syria. Photo: fchmksfkcb/flickr

Last month’s assassination of Kurdish activist Mashaal Tammo has put the spotlight on Syria’s almost forgotten Kurdish minority. Their involvement in the uprisings had been considerably low up to this point, propelled by fears that the regime of President Bashar al-Assad would ruthlessly put down Kurdish participation in the protests. But after the death of Tammo, a prominent opposition figure and founding member of the Syrian National Council, a wave of outrage has swept across the Kurdish population. This brought about the most intense protests and demonstrations of this ethnic minority since the beginning of the uprisings in March and might just mark a tipping point for the highly fragmented Syrian opposition.

While opposition movements of the Arab Spring have been characterized as heterogeneous and unstructured, Syria’s opposition seems particularly patchy. Approximately 40 percent of the population do not belong to the Sunni majority. Shia Muslims, Christians, Alawites, Druze, Jews and Ismaelites all have their own political agendas. One of the main reasons why Assad has managed to remain in power for so long is because he was backed by the country’s minorities. In exchange, he implemented laws and policies to secure the minorities from the Sunni majority.

Speaking to Christian Syrians in Hama, it becomes clear that they will continue to support Assad because they feel secure under his rule. They are able to go to church and to pursue their religious beliefs without fear of prosecution or discrimination. Many of them see those rights and privileges at stake in a post-Assad era.

With Syrian security forces stepping up their presence in the Kurdish districts of Damascus and Aleppo, the ultimate response of the regime remains to be seen. Optimism that recent events will unite the population and strengthen the opposition movement may quickly evaporate if Syria’s government steps up the violence and starts exploiting ethnic divisions.

In order for the opposition to become an effective political force it needs to be inclusive and demonstrate to Syria’s minorities that they will have a voice in the new system. Only then can the movement be seen as a viable alternative to the Assad regime and prevent the country from descending into civil war caused by increased sectarian tensions.


Assad’s government has just signed a peace plan proposed by the Arab League. But is he really committed to implementing the agreement or just trying to buy time? To answer this and other questions, and for a wealth of background information, check out the Syria keyword in our Digital Library.

A few highlights:

Syria at a Crossroads? In this ISN Podcast, David Butter, Regional Director for Middle East and North Africa at the Economist Intelligence Unit, discusses political and economic developments in Syria – as well as the state of Syria’s relations with its neighbors and its role as a power player in Lebanon and the wider Middle East.
The Kurds in Syria: Fueling Separatist Movements in the Region This USIP report assesses the situation of Kurds in Syria. It explains that they have been denied basic social, cultural and political rights given the Syrian state’s refusal to grant them citizenship, and further discusses Kurdish political activity in Syria.
Unrest in Syria: Political Forces and Scenarios The small scale of the protests in Syria, the fragmentation of the opposition, the consolidation of the regime’s forces, the sectarian character of the society and external actors’ interests make it unlikely that the protests will turn into a national rebellion — unless the army switches sides.
Syrien: Gefährliches Patt zwischen Regime und Opposition This report (only available in German) analyzes the dangerous stalemate between the ruling Baath regime and its opposition.
Envisioning Syria’s Political Future: Obstacles and Options This publication is a transcript of speeches on Syria given by three experts from Harvard University, the University of Arkansas, and the National Initiative for Change.