Syria: Minority militias stir fears of sectarian war

Damascus – For months, most of Syria’s minority sects stood warily on the sidelines of the revolt by the Sunni Muslim majority against President Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite-dominated rule.

But in Damascus, neighborhood vigilante groups are arming themselves in Christian, Druze and Shi’ite Muslim areas, throwing up sectarian borders across Syria’s capital in alliance with Assad’s forces.

“We protect our area from terrorists. We check all the cars coming in, and anyone we’re suspicious of,” says Sameer, 32, one of four men with rifles sipping tea under a stone archway in the Christian quarter of the historic old city.

By “terrorists” Sameer, a cab driver with the Virgin Mary and a cross tattooed on his arms, means the mostly Sunni rebels who have fallen back to an arc of suburbs on the eastern outskirts after fierce battles with Assad’s forces in July.

Residents fear that far from protecting them, the self-styled popular committees have merely made them targets.

“It’s not a matter of whether they become militias. They are militias already,” said a 20-year-old who lives in the old city.

Unwilling to be identified, he pointed to the scowling young men gathered around the candy and newspaper stands that dot almost every alley and street corner.

Residents say they are secret outposts for the committees – “lijan shaabiya” in Arabic, called “lijan” for short.

Larger checkpoints manned by young gunmen, sometimes teenagers, stand outside most districts home to minority sects, which had earlier been reluctant to offer more than tacit acceptance of Assad’s rule.

“Security forces are arming the minorities,” said the young resident. “They are preparing for a sectarian war.”

EXECUTION

Damascus is not the first city to see the lijan phenomenon. The pro-Assad “shabbiha” militias, which the opposition accuse of massacring Sunnis, grew out of neighborhood watch groups in other cities like Homs and Aleppo. They eventually began roaming provinces with security forces, joining raids and looting homes.

Shabbiha have so far been made up mostly of the Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam, whose members fear bloody retribution should the 17-month-old uprising succeed.

Residents say lijan from other minorities are now carrying out extra-judicial executions, creating a cycle of revenge killings in a conflict that has killed 20,000 people already.

The dangers are all too clear for Syria, whose neighbors Iraq and Lebanon have both been torn by sectarian conflicts that killed not tens but hundreds of thousands of people.

The Druze district of Jaramana has become a cautionary tale of what residents in other parts of Damascus want to avoid.

Amr, a young dentist, remembers the night several weeks ago when a volley of gunfire in the neighborhood woke him up. Gunshots, he sighs, are now common, but this was not.

“Security forces had brought in some guy from Ain Tarma, a Sunni suburb. They didn’t take him to the police. They took him to the lijan. They told the guys this man killed a Druze family in Jaramana. So what did the lijan do? They dragged him to the main square. They sprayed his body full of bullets,” Amr said.

His pale blue eyes stared blankly ahead: “Later, we heard the guy was just an activist.”

Now Jaramana has become a sectarian target. The activist’s death lead to a suspected rebel drive-by shooting that killed four Druze and two Christian lijan members. Two car bombs hit the district in one week, no one knows who was behind them.

Every few days, a Druze cleric can be heard driving through the streets, calling people to join the latest “martyr” funeral. Chanting crowds carrying a white shrouded corpse march past.

Many Damascenes place their faith in community leaders to soothe tensions between neighborhoods.

Others say official involvement in the lijan means it may be too late, saying their members got weapons permits from the security forces and in some cases weapons from police.

SECTARIAN FUSE

“Security forces created the lijan,” says a Druze resident of Jaramana, who goes by the name Nader. The 23-year old is secretly sympathetic to the opposition, even though his family supports Assad and some of them work for the security forces.

“They say the lijan help us protect ourselves, but really they just wanted to light the sectarian fuse in Damascus.”

For Amr, the dentist, the lijan are a source of fear. “They are thugs, pure and simple,” he said. “These guys are above the law.”

Lijan members say their communities are at risk as Syria slides into an increasingly militarized conflict.

“If the army doesn’t call me for reserve duty, I may volunteer. My brother was a soldier. The rebels in Homs killed him. These people are radical Islamist terrorists,” says Wael, a 33-year-old Druze carpenter sitting at a crossroads behind a rickety desk which serves as a checkpoint.

He was echoing Assad, who argues that the uprising, which grew from peaceful protests, is a foreign-backed “terrorist” movement.

The opposition disavows radicalism, but minority fears are exacerbated by rising sectarian tensions and growing support for the rebels from Sunni Islamist groups in the Gulf.

In a Shi’ite part of Damascus’s old city, Hassan, a chubby 26-year-old in flip flops, patrols a street that leads to the Sunni neighborhood nearby.

“They’re well-armed over there, thanks to the Gulf. We’re afraid they will penetrate our area. They want to break into our homes,” he says, wiping sweat off his shaved head.

“A few days ago we had a gunfight, three of our guys were wounded. We called security forces to back us up. But they never came. This just goes to show, we need to defend ourselves.”

Down the street, a Sunni cab driver complained about his Shi’ite neighbors. “They attack our houses and steal things,” he said. “We won’t let those Shi’ites take our land, we will defend our honor.”

THE LINES BLUR

Opposition factions share some of the blame for stoking the sectarian fire.

As explosions and gun battles rocked Damascus in July, some residents were panicked by reports circulated by activists that Alawite and Christian men were storming Sunni neighborhoods, butchering people in the streets with knives.

No evidence ever materialized to back their claims.

Later on, residents of Alawite and Christian neighborhoods said they had heard similar rumors, except they were told Sunni rebels were coming to kill them.

Rumors have a way of becoming reality. Two months on, sectarian kidnappings have become common, and sometimes end with mutilated bodies being dumped in the street.

“That’s the thing that really scares you right now, wherever you live. You’re afraid to drive around at night. People get taken for ransom, to trade for other hostages,” said Rula, 30, a Sunni resident of Damascus.

Like most Damascenes, she is convinced the kidnappings are a vicious circle perpetuated by the lijan, the rebels, and the secret police. “What distinguishes them is just a title, I honestly don’t see them as any different.”

Soldiers in the city often wear T-shirts or casual clothing now, just like the lijan, and residents say they take turns to man many of the checkpoints.

What makes the lijan stand out is their aggressive questioning of people entering a neighborhood, says Ayman, a student in Damascus. “They make you feel you’re on their turf.”

But the line between the vigilantes and the official security forces seems increasingly blurred.

“One night, I was driving to Jaramana with friends. It was dark,” said Ayman, adding that residents told him rebels had infiltrated the area.

“Gunmen were searching the streets. We watched them for a while, and I realized something: I couldn’t tell which of them were the soldiers, and which were the lijan. Now, it is impossible to know.”

(This story was reported for Reuters by an independent journalist, whose name is withheld for security reasons)

Chicago Tribune/Reuters

  • Constantin7

    This is really bad. The above article is very alarming. New “Lijans” in Damascus neighborhoods who are armed and executing people just because they are of a different opinion. I think all minorities in Syria should not be armed at all and should stay neutral to the conclict or join the rebels. Arming the minorities is a death sentence to these minorities, because the majority is going to win sooner or later and everybody who sided with Assad is going to be eliminated. The alawites can withdraw to the costal region where they have a majority enclave, but the rest of the minorities will suffer a lot. Especially the christians who are all over Syria. If the Syrian christians hold arms against the Syrian rebels they are playing Assad’s game and they are dreaming that he will prevail. The christians should not arm themselves at all and let the government fight the rebels. I am very confident that the rebels will not harm civilians from any sect they are, unless these are fighting with Assad, and that the government is playing this fear tactic to have the support of the minorities and divide the country. What a dirty regime is this ? I only hope the rebels are wise enough to understand the fears of the minorities and start the communication process with these in order to appease their fears. Fear is dangerous and can create irrational defensive behaviour that could be deadly to all, especially to the minorities. This Assad is gambling with his country, his people, the unity of Syria and the wonderful secular system that Syria had up til a year ago, just to remain as a President. What a selfish bastard is this man ? 

    • Moe2000

       Most Christians are in Latakia near the Alawites, Look at a ethnic map of Syria.

    • Moe2000

       Just like the Iraqi Christians, Does Iraq still have any Christian churches left?

    • $31060015

      No matter what Assad does, your hate will over shadow what he is really trying to do. Free his country form the Zionist owned animal terrorist These Free Syria Terrorist will never accept any minorities, that is unless they convert to their fake religion. To say you hope the rebels are wise enough to understand the fears of the minorities only shows how uninformed you really are relating to what is really going on in Syria. Do you think that it is any surprise that all the minorities religious leaders have sided with Assad. As for the terrorist not harming any minority unless they side with Assad, what happen to freedom of opinion. It is quite clear people like obviously don’t who lives and who dies in Syria, ass long as Assad falls. Which by the way will never happen. I think the world now see’s this. You need to understand that if Assad fall, them Russia, China, Iran and most importantly Hezbollah will also fall. This is something that will never happen. So I suggest you get use to this.      

      • Constantin7

        I am not sure why you are so attached to the man (Bashar) ? What is more important: That Syria stays united and the war stops or Bashar remaining in power ? This is one man against the rest of the world (ok except Iran and Russia). The minorities are afraid because he is causing this fear in them so that they side with him and now he is arming them so that the situation becomes even more dangerous and messy. I don’t hate the man as much as I hate his insistance to stay in power no matter what. The whole country is suffering only because Bashar wants to stay in power. Isn’t it enough 40 years in power ? Is Bashar worth all these deaths, injured and destruction in Syria ?
        You say the fall of Assad will never happen, I say it much closer than ever, why ? Because Assad is much weaker than what he was a year ago, and much weaker than what he was 6 months ago, he is asking the reserves to pitch in for help and Iran is openly offering help. If he was not getting weaker he would not ask for the reserves and would not ask for Iran’s help. Now every day  bombs are exploding in Damascus and other cities in Syria, which was not the case 3 months ago, do you think this means that Assad is getting stronger or weaker ? The end of this man is coming no question asked and sooner than ever, but he wants to make things upside down in his country and the region before he leaves not caring about the country or the people or anybody. Now don’t accuse me of being pro wahhabis and terrorists because I am not at all, but I cannot see this mad man killing innocents and people who want him out of power after 40 years in power and be one of his supporters, even though I am very worried about the minorities in Syria after his fall, but his actions are fueling the extremists and giving them amunition to want to get rid of the minorities who supposedly support Assad. Minorities do not support Assad or any individual, they support the regime that gives them stability and security. Now Syria is out of stability and out of security and Bashar is no more the garantor of these 2 requirements of the minorities. So all his actions now are going to harm the minorities and not protect them, because no matter what happens the majority will be the winners in Syria, and the minority should be aware of that. This is the reality unfortunately. Presidents and rulers come and go and countries and people remain for ever. Now is the time for Assad to go, his presence is the problem and not the solution.

        • dateam

          i understand where your coming from and your concerns…however the problem in syria is that it has become so murky and ugly noone relly knows what is happening…there is no real access to verified information…i mean look at the article above…This story was reported for Reuters by an independent journalist, whose name is withheld for security reasons)
          Chicago Tribune/Reuters…the article contradicts itself by admitting the minorities are facing a real problem but because its bias its trying to blame the regime….the mainstream media is no longer a reliable source of information…we have to look at facts and dissect them…the other day i posted an article from mail online in britain that says mi6 is looking for over 200 pakistani born brits that have gone to syria to fight their own mini jihads…i know for a fact that over 400 australian young men as young as 16 recently have gone to syria…2000 from canada..their coming from everywhere being paid by the khalij to not fight assad but to kill shia…its being turned into an ugly fitna…it has been hijacked this is the real fear especially for the minorities….i also can tell you from friends of mine in the druze community that they are supplying monjey and weapoons from their community around the world to teach and arm the druze their so they can defend themselves because the country has basically become lawless…the rebels unfortunately are not united and acting as one each has their own agenda….if the west could trust the so called opposition wouldnt they have intervened by now? whether he stays or goes is a matter for time to tell,,,,if he stays where will all these so called rebels go? ( back to lebanon is my fear and wel have a naher elbared part 2)

  • Constantin7

    This is really bad. The above article is very alarming. New “Lijans” in Damascus neighborhoods who are armed and executing people just because they are of a different opinion. I think all minorities in Syria should not be armed at all and should stay neutral to the conclict or join the rebels. Arming the minorities is a death sentence to these minorities, because the majority is going to win sooner or later and everybody who sided with Assad is going to be eliminated. The alawites can withdraw to the costal region where they have a majority enclave, but the rest of the minorities will suffer a lot. Especially the christians who are all over Syria. If the Syrian christians hold arms against the Syrian rebels they are playing Assad’s game and they are dreaming that he will prevail. The christians should not arm themselves at all and let the government fight the rebels. I am very confident that the rebels will not harm civilians from any sect they are, unless these are fighting with Assad, and that the government is playing this fear tactic to have the support of the minorities and divide the country. What a dirty regime is this ? I only hope the rebels are wise enough to understand the fears of the minorities and start the communication process with these in order to appease their fears. Fear is dangerous and can create irrational defensive behaviour that could be deadly to all, especially to the minorities. This Assad is gambling with his country, his people, the unity of Syria and the wonderful secular system that Syria had up til a year ago, just to remain as a President. What a selfish bastard is this man ? 

  • Constantin7

    This is really bad. The above article is very alarming. New “Lijans” in Damascus neighborhoods who are armed and executing people just because they are of a different opinion. I think all minorities in Syria should not be armed at all and should stay neutral to the conclict or join the rebels. Arming the minorities is a death sentence to these minorities, because the majority is going to win sooner or later and everybody who sided with Assad is going to be eliminated. The alawites can withdraw to the costal region where they have a majority enclave, but the rest of the minorities will suffer a lot. Especially the christians who are all over Syria. If the Syrian christians hold arms against the Syrian rebels they are playing Assad’s game and they are dreaming that he will prevail. The christians should not arm themselves at all and let the government fight the rebels. I am very confident that the rebels will not harm civilians from any sect they are, unless these are fighting with Assad, and that the government is playing this fear tactic to have the support of the minorities and divide the country. What a dirty regime is this ? I only hope the rebels are wise enough to understand the fears of the minorities and start the communication process with these in order to appease their fears. Fear is dangerous and can create irrational defensive behaviour that could be deadly to all, especially to the minorities. This Assad is gambling with his country, his people, the unity of Syria and the wonderful secular system that Syria had up til a year ago, just to remain as a President. What a selfish bastard is this man ? 

    • Moe2000

       Most Christians are in Latakia near the Alawites, Look at a ethnic map of Syria.

    • Moe2000

       Just like the Iraqi Christians, Does Iraq still have any Christian churches left?

    • AntiFSA

      No matter what Assad does, your hate will over shadow what he is really trying to do. Free his country form the Zionist owned animal terrorist These Free Syria Terrorist will never accept any minorities, that is unless they convert to their fake religion. To say you hope the rebels are wise enough to understand the fears of the minorities only shows how uninformed you really are relating to what is really going on in Syria. Do you think that it is any surprise that all the minorities religious leaders have sided with Assad. As for the terrorist not harming any minority unless they side with Assad, what happen to freedom of opinion. It is quite clear people like obviously don’t who lives and who dies in Syria, ass long as Assad falls. Which by the way will never happen. I think the world now see’s this. You need to understand that if Assad fall, them Russia, China, Iran and most importantly Hezbollah will also fall. This is something that will never happen. So I suggest you get use to this.      

      • Constantin7

        I am not sure why you are so attached to the man (Bashar) ? What is more important: That Syria stays united and the war stops or Bashar remaining in power ? This is one man against the rest of the world (ok except Iran and Russia). The minorities are afraid because he is causing this fear in them so that they side with him and now he is arming them so that the situation becomes even more dangerous and messy. I don’t hate the man as much as I hate his insistance to stay in power no matter what. The whole country is suffering only because Bashar wants to stay in power. Isn’t it enough 40 years in power ? Is Bashar worth all these deaths, injured and destruction in Syria ?
        You say the fall of Assad will never happen, I say it much closer than ever, why ? Because Assad is much weaker than what he was a year ago, and much weaker than what he was 6 months ago, he is asking the reserves to pitch in for help and Iran is openly offering help. If he was not getting weaker he would not ask for the reserves and would not ask for Iran’s help. Now every day  bombs are exploding in Damascus and other cities in Syria, which was not the case 3 months ago, do you think this means that Assad is getting stronger or weaker ? The end of this man is coming no question asked and sooner than ever, but he wants to make things upside down in his country and the region before he leaves not caring about the country or the people or anybody. Now don’t accuse me of being pro wahhabis and terrorists because I am not at all, but I cannot see this mad man killing innocents and people who want him out of power after 40 years in power and be one of his supporters, even though I am very worried about the minorities in Syria after his fall, but his actions are fueling the extremists and giving them amunition to want to get rid of the minorities who supposedly support Assad. Minorities do not support Assad or any individual, they support the regime that gives them stability and security. Now Syria is out of stability and out of security and Bashar is no more the garantor of these 2 requirements of the minorities. So all his actions now are going to harm the minorities and not protect them, because no matter what happens the majority will be the winners in Syria, and the minority should be aware of that. This is the reality unfortunately. Presidents and rulers come and go and countries and people remain for ever. Now is the time for Assad to go, his presence is the problem and not the solution.

        • dateam

          i understand where your coming from and your concerns…however the problem in syria is that it has become so murky and ugly noone relly knows what is happening…there is no real access to verified information…i mean look at the article above…This story was reported for Reuters by an independent journalist, whose name is withheld for security reasons)
          Chicago Tribune/Reuters…the article contradicts itself by admitting the minorities are facing a real problem but because its bias its trying to blame the regime….the mainstream media is no longer a reliable source of information…we have to look at facts and dissect them…the other day i posted an article from mail online in britain that says mi6 is looking for over 200 pakistani born brits that have gone to syria to fight their own mini jihads…i know for a fact that over 400 australian young men as young as 16 recently have gone to syria…2000 from canada..their coming from everywhere being paid by the khalij to not fight assad but to kill shia…its being turned into an ugly fitna…it has been hijacked this is the real fear especially for the minorities….i also can tell you from friends of mine in the druze community that they are supplying monjey and weapoons from their community around the world to teach and arm the druze their so they can defend themselves because the country has basically become lawless…the rebels unfortunately are not united and acting as one each has their own agenda….if the west could trust the so called opposition wouldnt they have intervened by now? whether he stays or goes is a matter for time to tell,,,,if he stays where will all these so called rebels go? ( back to lebanon is my fear and wel have a naher elbared part 2)

  • 5thDrawer

    The dentist is right. “They are thugs, pure and simple,” he said. “These guys are above the law.”
    But where is ‘law’? And in whose minds is it being formed?
    In the ‘Old West’ people joined ‘posses’ which were little different. Modern city-gangs exist too – usually to get money. The most brave are those who work hard throughout life, not those who steal.
    The most brutal-thinking little despot leads a ‘gang’ of people in fear … whether justified or not, they will target what they think they need to fear, but fear the leader most. And humans gather naturally, in their similarities, when there is no societal law being enforced.
    In a war, there is always a return to basic human instinct. Kill or be killed.
    And the first to die are those who have no desire to be doing it.

  • 5thDrawer

    The dentist is right. “They are thugs, pure and simple,” he said. “These guys are above the law.”
    But where is ‘law’? And in whose minds is it being formed?
    In the ‘Old West’ people joined ‘posses’ which were little different. Modern city-gangs exist too – usually to get money. The most brave are those who work hard throughout life, not those who steal.
    The most brutal-thinking little despot leads a ‘gang’ of people in fear … whether justified or not, they will target what they think they need to fear, but fear the leader most. And humans gather naturally, in their similarities, when there is no societal law being enforced.
    In a war, there is always a return to basic human instinct. Kill or be killed.
    And the first to die are those who have no desire to be doing it.