Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Syrian Rebels Target Christian Areas of Damascus

By Matthew Barber, writing in Joshua Landis' blog Syria Comment. Read the entire report on sectarianism in Syria, the fall of Raqqa, etc. here.


The Christian District of Damascus
The Christian districts of Damascus now come under daily fire from Syrian rebels. Mortars are fired from Jobar, Qabun, and the area east of Zabladani. The targets are Qasaa’ and Bab Tuma. Within the past few weeks, multiple churches have been attakced. The Chaldean Orthodox [?] church-building was hit by one such projectile, and another nearly-hit the Latin Catholic church. Also in February, two mortars were fired into the French hospital in Qasaa’. Christian-owned businesses in Qasaa’ and Christian homes around George Khuri park have all been hit by various projectiles. One homemade mortar damaged three houses in one shot, terrorizing the entire neighborhood. These attacks are not new; they’ve been occurring for some time. They are now increasing in frequency, however, and currently around two mortars per day are hitting Qassa’. This is in addition to bombings that have targeted Christian areas, such as the October 21st bombing in Bab Tuma that killed 20 people. In the provinces of Homs, Idlib, and Aleppo—regions lacking effective regime protection—numerous churches have already been destroyed.

Rebels have attacked Christian villages, with broad-daylight killings in streets. Monasteries and places of pilgrimage have been bombed and hit with rockets. Each day al-Jazeera airs images of rebels in Jobar pushing toward ‘Abbassiyiin Square, depicted with heroic sensationalism, as if to boost morale and drive them on. On the other side of that front, Christians tremble like peasants behind a crumbling castle wall, hoping that Syrian troops will manage to keep out the advance. Considering recent vigilante justice on the part of rebels in Yarmouk (hanging Palestinians accused of collusion with the regime and executing police at point-blank range), their fear seems warranted.
The Damascene Christians have formed some local militias to try to protect their areas, though they mostly do not carry weapons and are reluctant to display a public presence. They are trying to learn the lesson of the traditionally Druze suburb of Jeremana, where six local Druze patrolmen were attacked and killed. Jeremana was hit several times by car bombs, rockets, etc. When locals erected checkpoints, they effectively created visible targets, something that the Christians are now trying to avoid. The Christian ability to protect themselves is quite limited, however, especially in Qasaa’ which is most vulnerable, having no walls and being surrounded by streets on all sides. The places for launching the attacks are so obviously nearby that the opposition’s tired argument that “the regime is attacking its own supporters to keep them loyal through fear” is no longer convincing.

Many people are terrified of the rise of Islamist power in Syria, and with regular assaults on minority civilian communities, it should not be difficult to understand why they side with the regime, even though many of them have despised the regime their entire lives. When I recently brought up the regime violence in Idlib and Aleppo with one of my Christian friends in Qasaa’, pressing him about the fact that the majority of the FSA are ordinary Syrians from ordinary families, he said, “Look, I know that. But we’re worried about the minority of extremists. 2% of the FSA can kill all the Christians in Syria.”

The idea that sectarian tensions didn’t simmer from the beginning of the conflict—or even before—is absurd. A Christian friend climbed into a taxi in Jobar in the first few weeks of the uprising. The driver asked him what sect he belonged to. He replied, “I’m Syrian” (a typical Ba’thist response, favored by minorities who would prefer to be “Arab” or “Syrian” than feature their vulnerable label—but then that’s what the Ba’ath party is all about…). The driver replied, “Well, at least you’re not one of these Alawi who are oppressing us,” a typical attitude in the uprising’s moments of birth among—not all—but many. And while yes, in general the oft-touted statement that “all groups live together in peace in Syria” was true, anti-Christian sentiment is not new. Aleppine Armenians remember a time prior to Hafez al-Assad (and the brutal suppression of sectarianism so characteristic of Assad rule) when men in trucks with La ilah illa Allah painted on the sides terrorized Armenian neighborhoods with threats that they would kill the inhabitants, shouting the taunt “Ya Arman maskiin, tahat as-skiin!” (Poor Armenians, under the knife-blade!).


From the (very pro-rebel) Daily Star, here.

Rebel fighters have tried in the past to establish bridgeheads in the capital, but were pushed back to the Damascus suburbs by regime forces. Recent rebel mortar fire on civilian targets signals a new tactic in trying to loosen Assad’s grip on his main stronghold.

In the latest attacks, four mortars bombs hit Bab Sharqi, a predominantly Christian area known for its old churches. One fell in a park, two near an ice cream shop and a fourth hit a house nearby, a government official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.


No comments: