Open-mindedness another casualty in Syrian fighting
SALMA, Latakia, Syria—The village of Bayt Swalkha in the coastal province of Latakia bears the physical scars of the Syrian civil war. Piles of stones are all that remain of rows of houses. Municipal buildings have been reduced to blackened skeletons. But while the destroyed infrastructure will eventually be rebuilt, it is the emotional wounds that are irreparable. For in villages like these throughout Latakia, the sectarian harmony that prevailed for decades has been shattered by a civil war that has increasingly taken on a religious bent.
Of all of Syria’s provinces, Latakia best reflects its religio-ethnic mosaic. A Shi’ite offshoot known as Alawites make up about 70 percent of the population. Christians and Shi’ites comprise another 15 percent. The Sunnis who dominate the country and the greater Arab world represent only 15 percent of the population. The various sects and religions give this northern province bordering Turkey a diverse flavor, imbibing its inhabitants with a dose of tolerance largely absent in the Arab world. Today that open-mindedness is being destroyed like everything else in the war-torn country.
Nowhere is that truer than in Bayt Swalkha, where Alawites and Sunnis lived side by side in peace. For decades, the orthodox Sunnis did not seem to mind that a Shi’ite offshoot that composed only 12 percent of the population ruled the country. But rebels from the Free Syrian Army do, and they have descended on the province like wolves in search of prey.
Marwan Sidqi scrounged through the rubble of what was once his house. The 61-year-old Sunni carpenter lost everything when regime forces bombed FSA positions in the city. On a chilly day he was rummaging for his tools but could only seem to find charred stones. “We lived so well before,” he explained. “We will never have that again.”
Sidqi reminisced about better days when he would invite his Alawite neighbors to smoke water pipes and sip sweet tea. “Politics was never for us,” he said. “We only wanted to have good lives.”
That good life has been destroyed like the buildings around him by the FSA. Since the group is mostly composed of fighters from rural areas in neighboring provinces, they never appreciated the mosaic that prevailed in Latakia. Instead, they have injected the conflict with a sectarian element that has people here angry.
“Their agendas have ruined us,” complains 72-year-old Hamid Suleiman in the village of Salma a dozen kilometers away. “These groups come in and bring their hatred.” One group in particular has Suleiman and others on edge. Jabhat al-Nusra, a jihadist organization the United States designated a front for al-Qaida in Iraq, has angered them. The Jabha’s fighters are largely foreign veterans of campaigns stretching from Iraq to Afghanistan. Their hardened creed, which rejects all forms of Islam except their own puritan strand, has slowly gained traction among FSA units. Among the Jabha’s most extreme ideas is that Alawites are heretics worse than Christian and Jews. Unlike the latter religions, which are allowed to live in Islamic lands as second-class citizens, the Jabha decrees the fate of Alawis to be death.
Suleiman has heard stories of Alawites captured by Jabha fighters. He moves his index finger across his throat to indicate how they are killed. “They don’t give them a chance,” he says.
Even FSA fighters lament the organization’s bloodthirsty resolve. “They don’t seem to have the same goals as us,” explains a fighter who goes by the name Abu Hamza. “They just want to kill Alawites. And that gives us a bad name.”
Others, however, are satisfied with the FSA’s program. “The Alawites controlled everything—the government, the economy. How can a minority of so few dictate to the majority?” asked Badri Shuqri, 51, of Salma. “They got what they deserved.” Vocal hostility such as this has left many residents on edge, fearing that once the sectarian genie is released from the bottle, it will be impossible to return it. “This talk will only lead to more killing that will never end,” says Suleiman.
Throughout Latakia, the FSA’s exploits have left the population sour. In the Christian village of Jdida in the eastern part of the province, the rare remaining resident has nothing but scorn for the rebels. “Everything was good before they came,” Boutrous Aziz, 64, said in the deserted village. “We don’t need the changes they want. We have peace. We have a good life.”
Like most of the villages in the region, Jdida looks like the set from “Saving Private Ryan.” The houses are gone, replaced by mounds of stones. Cars have been stripped bare. Shop windows are shattered, their contents ransacked. Pools of dried blood are everywhere.
Despite the carnage, Aziz prefers to remember more prosperous days. “We had good lives with quiet. Maybe we can get that back.” But with sectarian hatred on the rise, it is doubtful his nostalgic paradise will ever be rebuilt.