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  • Writer's pictureKnox Thames

Syria's Fight After the Fight

The bloody struggle playing out in Syria has taken on increasingly sectarian tones, with dangerous implications for the future of this important country and the region. Protests originally focused on governance, political rights, and human freedoms. President Bashar al-Assad and his regime responded with violence, torture, and abuse, labeling opponents as "terrorists" and emphasizing sectarian differences. Two plus years into this increasingly protracted struggle, Assad's actions have helped create what he feared -- armed anti-government elements seeking his overthrow, with violent foreign religious extremists importing their dangerous worldview and political agenda.

Considering the diverse set of actors fighting the Assad regime, there will be another war for control of Syria once he leaves the scene. It will pit onetime rebel allies against each other, with alignments along sectarian lines or divides over secular versus religious governance. These cleavages are already starting to show, such as with the recent announcement by al Qaeda and Jabhat al-Nusra of the establishment of an Islamic State in Syria.

Therefore, for the future of Syria, the fight after the fight may be as important as the first.  The secular nature of the Syrian state prior to the conflict protected religious minorities and provided a modicum of freedom of worship. This is crumbling, and forward looking planning is needed about the future structure of governance. The U.S. State Department has stated that the Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC) is working to include "opponents of the Assad regime from across the political and ethno-sectarian spectrum." The State Department's decision in December 2012 to blacklist al-Nusra as a foreign terror organization linked to al Qaeda in Iraq was another step to limit its influence in a future Syria. There are also a range of U.S. government activities underway that touch on issues of interfaith understanding and religious tolerance.

However, more needs to be done. As United Nations and Arab League envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, said this week before the U.N. Security Council, the "sectarian dimensions of the crisis are perhaps more important to watch and understand," and "Syrians and international partners have every reason to be concerned over [the effects of extremism] on the present situation and on its possible long term influence." Al-Nusra, al Qaeda, and other domestic and foreign groups will continue to work to impose their extremist religio-political ideologies onto the Syrian people. Allowing the creation of a Taliban-esque legal system would threaten the future for human rights and religious freedom in a post-Assad Syria.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), where I serve as Director of Policy and Research, has become increasingly concerned about religious freedom conditions in Syria, both during the current crisis and in its aftermath. The commission recently released a preliminary report on "Protecting and Promoting Religious Freedom in Syria," which highlights how regime forces and affiliated militias have perpetrated religiously-motivated attacks against Sunni Muslim civilians and religious minority communities. It draws attention to the increasing sectarian divides, and how the conflict threatens Syria's religious diversity, with members of the smallest minority communities either fleeing the country or remaining to face an uncertain future. 

The USCIRF report provides a range of recommendations for U.S. government activity, such as: prioritizing projects that promote multi-religious efforts to encourage religious tolerance and understanding; working with the SOC to train local councils, courts, lawyers, and judges on international human rights and religious freedom standards; creating a working group among likeminded countries in the Friends of Syria group to focus on protecting religious and ethnic minorities in a post-Assad Syria; and working toward developing a constitution that respects freedom of religion or belief in full (not just freedom of worship), as well as minority rights, women's rights, and freedom of expression. Importantly, the report also recommends the United States engage regional partners -- such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar -- on their vision for a post-Assad Syria to reach agreement for how the international community will influence the direction of a new government and its system of law.

Finding a proper balance between religion and state is critical, especially in pluralistic societies like Syria. Countries providing civic space for inclusive and peaceful religious discourse are more prosperous and stable. So despite worsening conditions and an uncertain Syrian future, the United States should start laying markers for the shape of a future governing system.

Actors like al-Nusra are already exerting pressure on Syria's collapsing secular legal system,attempting to replace it with a government based on their interpretation of Sharia (religious law). Notably, fewer than half of the majority-Muslim countries in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) give Islam a legal role. While OIC member constitutions may reference Sharia, many maintain non-religious systems. Ensuring a new Syria has a civil legal system fully protecting the rights of members of all faiths would reassure Syriac Christians and Alawites, two key Assad constituencies, as well as Sunni Muslims who want the freedom to peacefully practice their faith.

As the USCIRF report states, "Syria's transition from armed conflict to a representative democracy under rule of law will be difficult, arduous, and remains uncertain." Non-state actors and terrorist organizations are bringing weapons, material support, and a religiously-based system of governance to Syria -- in effect, importing their version of government-in-a-box. While the fighting continues to rage, the United States and its allies must help shape a post-Assad Syria that protects its religious diversity and ensures respect for religious freedom and human rights.

Knox Thames is the Director of Policy and Research at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Any personal views expressed are his own and may or may not reflect the views of the commission.

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