|"Syrian children at a playground last week at a refugee camp in Zaatari, Jordan. Many speak of exacting revenge on the Alawites when they get back home." (Moises Saman/The New York Times)|
By David D. Kirkpatrick
The New York Times, September 3, 2012
"Like all the small children in the desert refugee camp here, Ibtisam, 11, is eager to go home to the toys, bicycles, books, cartoons and classmates she left behind in Syria. But not if that means living with Alawites, members of the same minority offshoot of Shiite Islam as Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad. 'I hate the Alawites and the Shiites,' Ibtisam said as a crowd of children and adults nodded in agreement. 'We are going to kill them with our knives, just like they killed us.' If the fighters seeking to oust Mr. Assad sometimes portray their battle as a struggle for democracy, the Sunni Muslim children of the Zaatari camp tell a much uglier story of sectarian revenge. Asked for their own views of the grown-up battle that drove them from their homes, child after child brought up their hatred of the Alawites and a thirst for revenge. Children as young as 10 or 11 vowed never to play with Syrian Alawite children or even pledged to kill them. Parroting older relatives -- some of whom openly egged them on -- the youngsters offered a disturbing premonition of the road ahead for Syria. Their unvarnished hatred helps explain why so many Alawites, who make up more than 10 percent of the Syrian population, have stood by Mr. Assad even as the world has written him off. They see him as their best protection against sectarian annihilation.
The children's refusal to share a playground or a classroom with Alawites dramatizes the challenge of ever putting together a political solution to the conflict. And the easy talk of blood and killing from such young children illustrates the psychic toll that the revolt and repression are taking on the next generation of Syrians. 'We hear it all the time from the kids, but also from the parents -- that this is not political at all, and not a call for democracy, but is about people fed up and angry at rule by a minority, the Alawites,' said Saba al-Mobaslat, director for Jordan of the nonprofit group Save the Children, which provides toys to refugee children and tries to teach them understanding. 'There is a concern that this is a whole generation that is being brought up to hate, that can’t see the other's side.' The roots of the animosity toward the Alawites from members of Syria's Sunni Muslim majority, who make up about 75 percent of the population, run deep into history. During the 19th-century Ottoman Empire, the two groups lived in separate communities, and the Sunni majority so thoroughly marginalized Alawites that they were not even allowed to testify in court until after World War I. Then, in a pattern repeated across the region, said Joshua Landis, a Syria scholar at the University of Oklahoma, French colonialists collaborated with the Alawite minority to control the conquered Syrian population -- as colonialists did with Christians in Lebanon, Jews in Palestine and Sunni Muslims in Iraq. The French brought Alawites into the colony's military to help control the Sunnis. And after Syria's independence from France, the military eventually took control of the country, putting Alawites in top government positions, much to the resentment of the Sunni majority. 'Now the Alawites believe -- possibly correctly -- that the Sunnis are going to try to kill them, and that is why the Alawite Army now is killing Sunnis in this beastly way,' Professor Landis said. 'The Alawites feel justified in brutality because they fear what may be in store for them if they lay down their guns.' 'I don't see any way out of that,' he said, 'except to say that we are in for a long, difficult ride, and you pray that the Syrians are going to get over this somehow.' [...]"