The Syrian conflict has magnified threats to minorities with long-term implications both within and beyond Syria’s borders. The deployment of excessive firepower by the Russian and Iranian-backed Assad regime, and the concurrent rise of Islamic extremism have had both direct and indirect impacts on minorities. Local, regional, and international actors have weaponized minority groups to bolster their influence, further intensifying schisms in the Syrian social fabric and in the international community as a whole. The flow of one million Syrian refugees to Europe between 2015 and 2016 strengthened an already powerful wave of anti-immigration, nationalist populism throughout the continent and across the Atlantic. As an openly Islamophobic and, more implicitly, anti-Semitic movement, the wave has contributed to widening the scope of the Syrian conflict’s schismatic effects beyond the country’s borders.
Major regional players – such as Turkey, Iran, Russia, and the United States – have utilized minorities as a tool of influence, thus jeopardizing both the social fabric of their societies and the existential security of these threatened groups. This weaponization has entailed mobilizing, arming, and deploying minority individuals to achieve political objectives. The role of these regional powers should be seen as a further extension of the authoritarian playbook in the Middle East, where fear and communal violence have often provided regimes with legitimacy as the sole protector of disadvantaged groups. Such policies, in turn, replicate the Syrian regime’s sectarian politics. Dubbed the “protector of minorities,” Hafez al-Assad–– an Alawite Muslim himself and father of current president Bashar ––structured his regime around a network of loyalist Alawi officers in the country’s army and security services. With their support, father and son have dominated Syrian politics for more than four decades by brutally crushing secular and Islamic opposition forces alike, as when Hafez bloodily repressed the Muslim Brotherhood-led uprising of the early 1980s. The Assad regime weaponized Syrian minorities and quelled all forms of dissent under the guise of secularism.
Traditionally, Syria has been home to several Christian and Muslim minorities, including Ismaili, Druze, and Shia Muslims; Armenians, Orthodox, and Catholic Christians; and ethnic Kurds, Turkmen, and Circassians. Seven years after the outbreak of civil war, however, these minorities have largely diminished in number. Syria’s population of Christians, totaling to 2 million before the conflict, has declined to 450,000. Many resettled in Europe and the United States, but remaining minorities continue to suffer from the conflict and its consequences. The Druze community, historically present in Jabal al-Summaq in the Idlib province, for example, suffered persecution under the then al-Qaeda affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra (Nusra Front) and were forced to flee en masse as a result.
International influence has further contributed to minority persecution. The Iranian and Russian interventions, specifically, have exploited their Shiite and Christian Orthodox connections, respectively. Since 2012, Iran has mobilized thousands of Syrians from the country’s small Shiite minority, which comprises 2-3% of the population, establishing institutions and local militias in Homs and Damascus. Such Iranian actions will have long-term implications on Syrian Shiite communal relations with the country’s Sunni majority. By the same token, Moscow’s intervention deployed Christian Orthodox symbols, which they have used since the onset of the conflict, in an attempt to influence the local Orthodox Church and its community of followers that has historically remained independent from Russia’s church.
The minority experience in Syria is inseparable from the overall toll of the broader conflict. More than eleven million Syrians – out of a population of twenty-two million – have fled their homes, and the country has recorded a staggering death toll of four hundred thousand since 2011. Since then, the forced relocations and resulting deaths of minorities have permanently damaged the country’s social fabric and inter-communal relations. This new reality is compounded by the fact that the expected return of Syrian refugees from neighboring countries is unlikely to include minorities, many of whom have relocated to the West, where most will remain for the foreseeable future.
In addition to Syrian minorities, the conflict has drawn thousands of militants and in some cases, their families, who belong to minority groups in their home countries, such as Xinjiang Uyghurs from China, and Chechens from the Russian Federation. In the case of the Uyghurs, Turkey — a historical supporter of their national cause — has been accused of facilitating the smuggling of young recruits and their families into Syria. Chinese sources even accuse Turkey’s embassy in Thailand of providing one-way "Republic of Turkey Emergency Aliens Travel Documents," to help Uyghur recruits reach Syria via Turkey.
Similarly, Uyghur militancy in Syria has critically affected the minority’s status in China, providing alibis for persecution and shifting global attention away from the ethnic group’s perception as a predominantly peaceful cause. The Uyghur fighting force in Syria, the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), is an affiliate of the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which actively fights alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan. While the ETIM’s Afghan presence dates back to the 1990s, the TIP was established later in the conflict in Syria, drawing thousands of Uyghurs, including women and children.The TIP’s Syrian experience, however, has been at odds with the Uyghur struggle back home, one that was often associated with the Tibetan movement’s peaceful means. Rabea Kadir, the U.S.-based leader of the World Uyghur Congress, remains the face of the cause worldwide but she has been banned from traveling to Turkey and remains vocal against the TIP and the Islamification of the movement. Despite Kadir and others’ best efforts to distance themselves from the Islamist TIP, the accusation of terrorism is now easily levied against Uyghurs in China and beyond, as demonstrated by recent reports that Chinese authorities have been incarcerating hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs in re-education camps in Xinjiang. By coalescing the largely peaceful Uyghur activism with the militant TIP, China has introduced these extreme measures under the pretext of combating extremism and radical ideologies.
Turkey’s minority politics have also tarnished relations between Syrian Turkmens and their Arab and Kurdish neighbors. Following the Euphrates Shield operation on August 24, 2016, during which Turkey controlled Syrian territories across the border, Turkmen groups and professionals – seen as favorable partners by Turkish authorities – occupied the forefront of the new order in the now Turkish-controlled areas in northern Syria, partly due to their shared heritage and language. Among many Arabs and Kurds, however, Turkmens are referred to as the “new Alawites” of the region, a reference to the Syrian ruling minority’s status in regime-controlled areas and a testament to Turkmens’ new social status under the rule of their ethnic brethren in northern Syria.
The international community must pay more attention to the implications of these detrimental state-driven policies, which have impacted minorities in Syria, damaged the country’s social fabric, and reverberated beyond borders. Critically, they should formulate new international norms with the goal of seeking to prevent the exploitation of minorities in conflict, particularly within the context of regional power struggles. A new convention on the exploitation of minorities in multi-ethnic and religious contexts, would serve well the Middle East, where regional power struggles are leaving their marks on the post-conflict order.
Mohanad Hage Ali is the author of “Nationalism, Transnationalism and political Islam: Hizbullah’s Institutional Identity” (Palgrave, New York). Mohanad taught politics and journalism at the Lebanese American University and has an Msc. and a PhD in Comparative Politics from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).