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Sectarian discours, to justify “jihadist brigades’” attack on Alawite villages and committing massacres against civilians, embarrasses the Syrian National Coalition

The element of surprise was not the only feature of the armed Syrian opposition’s attack on villages in Latakia’s countryside. It was also characterized by sectarian incitement that called for and justified the “jihadist brigades’” attack on a number of Alawite villages, where they committed massacres against civilians, just because the latter belonged to the same Alawite sect as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The secretary-general of the internal opposition’s National Coordinating Committee (NCC), Rajaa al-Nasser, asserted in a telephone interview with Al-Monitor the NCC’s condemnation of these massacres against civilians, as well as its stance against any sectarian targeting of Alawites or other Syrian citizens.

[Prior to the attacks,] the Salafist Sheikh Anas Airout, who is a leader in the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front, had, on July 1, 2013, called on fighters of the dissident “Free Army” to concentrate their war effort on the strongholds of the Alawite sect to create a “balance of terror” that would change the course of the conflict.

Airout, also a member of the Syrian National Coalition, addressed opposition forces through Reuters by saying, “We must concentrate on their villages, their homes, their strongholds. We must strike at their infrastructure, and prevent them from living a normal and peaceful life.” He added, “They will turn on [Assad] if we attack their strongholds. We have to drive them out of their homes. The battle cannot be won unless this is accomplished.”

This scandalous sectarian discourse embarrasses the Syrian National Coalition, which presents itself as a regime substitute that recognizes all factions of the people, strives to reassure religious minorities — among them the Alawites — while affirming that its battle is with the Assad regime and not against any particular sect.

And so, two weeks later, Airout issued a statement through the coalition, in which he denied inciting the attacks against Alawite strongholds in Syria. He further said that he rejected any form of sectarian or religious incitement against a particular faction, while stressing his “full commitment to the principles of the Syrian revolution, and to complete equality among all Syrians.”

Some opposition leaders and pundits think that targeting the Alawites could lead to pressure being put on the regime and Assad by the Alawites themselves, which might compel Assad to agree to political concessions, or even drive the Alawites into considering abandoning their president and dissociating their fate from his. Some also think that the battle for the coast is two years late, and that Alawites should have been targeted in their heartland from the very first day of the revolution; for they were living in safe areas oblivious to the war raging in other areas where cities and villages were being destroyed and people killed.

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Member of the opposition Syrian National Council, Saleh al-Mubarak, told Al-Monitor that he endorses the opposition’s attack on Latakia’s countryside “so that the battle may be moved to the ruling family’s heartland, and the Alawites be given notice that they cannot be safe if the rest of the people are unsafe.” Mubarak refused to describe the battle as being religiously motivated. He pointed out that the “battle for liberation encompasses all of Syria; so why would Latakia and Baniyas be different from Damascus and Aleppo?” He added that the previous months’ developments signaled the possible formation of an Alawite State.

As for the kidnapping of the elderly Alawite cleric Sheikh Badr Ghazal, Mubarak said, “He is a prisoner and was not killed. He is a criminal if he supports the regime with his fatwas, just as Mufti Ahmad Hassoun does.”

Conversely, Syrian dissident Nidal Nuaiseh told Al-Monitor in a telephone interview that “what occurred is part of the war scenario that is being waged on Syria. The coastal region is particularly sensitive because its inhabitants predominantly belong to one sect. Perpetrating these massacres is an attempt to foment sectarian strife and provoke sectarian rhetoric, in order to maybe achieve what the terrorists have protractedly longed for. Salafist calls for the murder of Alawites are not new, but are at the core of the Salafist ideology, and have been at its core for hundreds of years. The difference now is that there are regional and international powers that are trying to exploit this legacy in the Syrian war.”

The military situation has grown more intense as a result of the great support received by the militants, and the Saudis entering the fray to open new military supply routes.

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The escalation witnessed in Aleppo, Khan al-Asal and Latakia occurred after the failed visit of the Saudi head of intelligence, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, to Europe and Russia, and once hopes for international involvement in the war against Syria went unanswered. As a result, Bandar’s disappointment and anger manifested themselves on the ground, once the Saudis were officially given control over the Syrian file and Qatar was isolated and removed from its position of prominence.

A Syrian source living in Latakia revealed that military developments in the battle for Latakia’s countryside were expected to occur within days; not only to liberate some of the large farms and small villages that the opposition had overrun as a result of the treachery of some “weak souls”, but also to attack the town of Salma. The latter has become a significant stronghold for “terrorist” gunmen, and is the location of important command and control centers being run by European, Saudi and Qatari experts.

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