How to avoid revenge killings in post-Assad Syria

The end appears near for the Assad regime in Syria. The opposition and world powers must do more to prevent the kind of post-conflict revenge – mainly against Alawites – that could ricochet in the Middle East.

A Free Syrian Army fighter aims his weapon during heavy clashes with government forces Wednesday in Aleppo, Syria.

Any day now, the world will likely watch as the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad falls to armed rebels. But there is one thing the world cannot afford to watch when that happens: the violent revenge on the country’s minority Alawite sect and others who passively supported Mr. Assad.

Mass revenge in a country of 23 million people would not be solely a human rights issue. Given Syria’s central role in the Middle East, such sectarian violence could spill over to nearby Muslim nations. World powers might be drawn in, creating ricochets for Israel.

Preventing revenge in a liberated Syria would give it a good start to forming a society based on rule of law. Feelings of retribution and retaliation must be channeled through legitimate institutions of justice.

Events are moving fast enough against Assad that this concern for eye-for-an-eye street justice in Syria needs to be addressed quickly. The pro-democracy political opposition has unified, as have many rebel groups. Russia seems to be withdrawing its support for Assad. The rebels are closing in on Damascus.

The United Nations special envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, says the world must be extremely careful not to let the end of this conflict conclude in revenge-seeking by Syria’s majority Sunnis. And the leading female opposition figure, Suhair al-Atassi, said last month that anti-Assad leaders should start now to offer reconciliation to Alawites and others.

“What will happen after the fall of the regime will be the harvest of what we plant today,” she said.

Revenge may seem natural to many Syrians who have stood up for democracy over the past 21 months. Nearly 1 in 12 Syrians has been displaced from their homes or forced to flee the country. And some 40,000 have been killed by an Alawite-led military or Alawite gangs.

In addition, the Sunni majority has resented the four-decade rule by the Assad family and its tight community of Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam that is seen as apostasy by many Sunnis. Opening a Sunni-Shiite conflict in Syria could ignite similar tensions across the region.

Fortunately, Syria’s pro-democracy movement began with chants of “All Syria is one.” A sense of national unity may help quell any postrevolution violence. A prominent Sunni preacher who heads the opposition, Moaz al-Khatib, has a record of seeking reconciliation between sects. He must assure Alawites now that their economic interests will not be taken away.

The United Nations and big powers can help support these tendencies in the way they work to ease Assad out of power, or in the conditions they set for aid to the rebels. The UN has already begun to keep track of specific war crimes in Syria, hoping to name their perpetrators.

But talks should begin on ways to set up a truth commission and a prosecution body to target those who directly committed atrocities in Syria. The victors in this conflict must not be allowed to do what Assad and his forces have done to his people: conduct collective punishment on entire groups of people, often wiping out entire neighborhoods or villages.

Revenge is an emotion that needs a countervailing action rooted in humanitarian law. Many countries, such as South Africa, have successfully avoided mass revenge after a long period in which one group suppressed another by force. Syria must be added to that success record.

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