Syria, once a land of pluralistic coexistence in the Arab world, is now irreparably fractured between competing factions. There isn’t a single group that can claim to speak for even a modest majority of Syrians. Syria itself has become a catchment for foreign jihadists whose ambition goes far beyond toppling the secular dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad.
In Damascus alone I met fighters from more than half a dozen countries, some from places as far as Afghanistan, dreaming of transforming Syria into a theocratic state. Secular opponents of Assad, always a minority, have from the beginning found themselves in the impossible position of having to counteract the foreign fighters in Syria while also preserving themselves from the state’s overwhelming power. Unable to win at home and neglected by the world, their own ideological complexion gradually altered, and many embraced the foreign jihadists in their midst. What could have turned into an Egyptian-style mass uprising dissolved instead into a series of local insurgencies in which religious minorities, particularly Christians, became targets of fighters sympathetic to or affiliated with Al-Qaida. Ancient communities were cleansed from their homes in the province of Homs. Churches were bombed. Dissenters, in a phenomenon alien to Syria, were beheaded. And women, who had traditionally enjoyed greater freedoms in Syria than in most other parts of the Arab world, were forced into the veil.