The battle for the coast is different to the other battles raging on our soil in Syria. In some areas, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and other rebel factions are fighting a regular army dominated by a specific sectarian and religious group. This does not mean the FSA is fighting a specific sect or religion, but it does explain why the fight against the regime’s army has not turned into a civil war. The battles we are now witnessing are a struggle marked predominantly by their opposition to a totalitarian power rejected by wide segments of Syria’s diverse society, including Alawites, Christians, Druze and Ismailis, among others.
The situation along the coast is different, because of the dense Alawite population and the large number of people from other religious communities who have fled their homes. More than a million of them are now scattered across the coastal region. They stand as additional evidence that Syrians are not killing each other; rather, the people of Syria continue to coexist despite the difficulties they are facing, rejecting the government’s efforts to push them into a state of estrangement and hostility. These reasons render any friction in the coast potentially explosive and likely very bloody. In other parts of Syria, the battle is not directed against a certain demographic. However, on the coast any miscalculation or confrontation between people from different sects may lead to a national catastrophe that could eventually take the form of a long-term civil war. All of the atrocities and war crimes so far committed by the regime, its allies and the militants following its course, will be nothing compared to what might happen here.
Here in the coastal region, it is crucial that the rebels differentiate between civilians and the government. Civilians must be spared from the battle against the regime and its institutions, otherwise we all run the risk that unarmed civilians will be targeted. Civilians should never be harmed, even if they are loyal to the government. This war against the regime requires patriotism and a humanitarianism that respects and safeguards civilians’ lives, property, dignity and freedom. The rebels must differentiate between the people and the regime; through their actions they must convince non-combatant Syrians that the battle is not against them and that the future Syria will be as much theirs as it is the rebels’.
A guarantee to that effect should be given by all factions in the opposition in the form of a binding national charter to be supported by the FSA and other armed opposition factions, including the Islamist ones. Islamist rebels do not have the right to stoop to the level of the regime, and neither should they accept violence being committed with sectarian intent. They must declare that the new Syria will be as diverse in religious and sectarian terms as the old Syria: The new Syria must accommodate all Syrians regardless of their color, gender or birthplace. They also need to prove this intent during their battles against the regime. The coastal region is extremely sensitive after years of being under the regime’s sectarian policies, such as the disproportionate appointment of people from certain demographics to the military and security institutions. Such policies have given the false impression that the regime and these sects are one indivisible whole.
In light of such complexity, I have always expressed reservations about the term “the battle for the coast.” I thought it unnecessary to open a front along the coast; rather, the battles should take place in other parts of Syria. Winning our battle with the regime in areas beyond the coast would not have the catastrophic impact on the Syrian revolution that a victory on the coast could. Fighting in parts of Syria without this history will not lead us into an unprecedented civil war, which could happen if there was a concerted effort in the coastal region. Fighting for the coast will be a long, expensive, drawn-out battle, and it will make it easier for the regime to manipulate people’s emotions and stoke hatred, embroiling them without much effort in its criminal war against their fellow Syrians.
In other words, victory cannot and should not be in the coastal region. The struggle against the regime should also go through two stages. First, the battle should spread to the rest of Syria in order to undermine the regime’s ability to continue fighting. Doing so would protect the coastal region from the regime’s evil policies. Second, the people of the coastal regions should have a role in the struggle against the regime, and when signs of its collapse appear, they will be enough to convince its supporters to abandon it. Those signs will be so clear that the regime’s supporters will see their participation in the patriotic political process as being necessary to enable them to express themselves and voice their demands in the manner they choose.
Until this happens, rebels should refrain from attacking the coastal region. But that doesn’t mean we should hide and avoid addressing the people of the coastal region with a patriotic discourse based on reconciliation and respect. However, the regime should be prevented from recapturing liberated areas across Syria.
Liberating the coast would be a grave mistake that could plunge Syria into the abyss, leaving nothing intact. Such a civil war would very much reduce the chances of weakening, and eventually toppling, the regime. Instead, it will destroy what is left of our afflicted country.