Syria is somewhat an anomaly in the Shi’i context because it is a Sunni majority state that is being ruled over by an authoritarian Shi’i regime. It would be worthy to mention here a fact that is overlooked in much of the current discussion on Syria that the Syrian rulers belong to the Alawi sect of Shi’ism which is quite distinct from the mainstream Twelver Shi’ism. Although the current uprising is predominantly seen as a Shia-Sunni sectarian issue, the truth is that the Assad regime does not even have manifest or widespread support from the Shi’i community either. This much I gathered during a visit to Syria recently, through my interaction with Shi’i people in Damascus and it’s vicinities.
The current regime is repressive and ruthless towards almost any dissent coming from any group. The Shi’i people have faced the wrath of the Assad regime because they face pretty much the same socio-economic constraints that the Sunni population faces, leading them to protest against the unfair policies of the dictatorship. As a result the Shi’i sections of the society are as deprived and backwards as their Sunni coutnerparts. However ironically there is a very strong anti-Shia sentiment within Syria at present which stems from the fact that it symbolizes the brutality of the Assad regime and also because the Sunni population is excessively ostracized because it constantly questions the legitimacy of the current dictatorship.
Academic Vali Nasr recently spoke about the sectarian tensions in the current violence in Syria.
Recently at one of my classes at SIPA, journalist Nir Rosen spoke about the current situation in Syria where he has been based over the last few years. He presented an interesting insiders’s perspective , one which does not necessarily correlate with th official Western narratives of the region. This is one of his latest interviews which cover most of the issues he spoke about at Columbia.
It will be interesting to see how the current situation resovlves itself ultimately. The Syrian government is trying its best to appease the discontent but its attempts are largely seen as being superficial, as a feature in the New York Times points out today.