At the Great Umayyed Mosque of Damascus
Michael Pizzi and Nuha Shabaan

AMMAN - The majority of Syria’s 25 million-strong population is Sunni, and while activists increasingly blame the Alawite-led shabiha Ba'ath operatives and mercenary Hezbollah forces for keeping the Assad regime in place, it is in fact the Sunni population that is quietly propping it up.

Whether out of fear, genuine ideological support or financial interest, Sunni Syrians who support the regime see some benefit in doing so.

Some benefit from the regime on a smaller scale, acting as low-level informants for modest payouts. “They’re very few, but dangerous, like snitches and double agents,” says Abu Yousef, a Hama-based activist.

In Deir e-Zour, the media office director Abu Qays tells how an unknown Sunni “of poor morals” reported him for running the media operation from his house. When his name was reported to authorities, his father stopped receiving retirement payments, and his family found itself in dire financial straits. “Bashar and the regime are taking advantage of these Sunnis and turning them against us,” he says.

Abu Qays has no way of knowing who reported him, nor can he prove it was a Sunni, but he vows retribution.

“If I knew who it was, I’d kill him myself,” he said.

Sunnis in the military

The internecine Sunni-Sunni divide grows everyday on the battlefield, activists say. But even with the ongoing stream of defections from the Syrian armed forces, Sunnis continue to fight in the regime’s military.

Defection is not so simple, however. Every defecting or captured soldier must stand for an ad hoc trial in a Free Army military court. These courts are neither highly organized nor consistent in how they rule or operate, but most apply some version of Islamic jurisprudence.

“We question defectors about what they did, and why they defected,” explains Abu Qays, speaking about the FSA court in Deir e-Zour.

The very real possibility of execution, however, looms for those who have committed “crimes” on behalf of the regime. Abu Qays explains that certain prisoners in FSA custody will pay the price for their involvement in the regime’s brutality, an almost certain deterrent to defection for those Sunnis who feel they may be implicated.

Sunnis remain active in all branches of the Syrian military and political leadership. Ali Mamlouk heads the Syrian National Security Bureau, while Farouq al-Sharaa has been a fixture in Assad circles for decades, despite persistent rumors that he has defected. Walid Mouallem remains as Foreign Minister.

In particular, Sunnis have a long history of service in Syria’s Air Force, dating back to the early Hafez al-Assad regime.

“The Air Force Intelligence is the most important branch of Syrian intelligence,” says Assad al-Zu’bi, a Sunni pilot from Damascus who graduated from the Aviation Academy in Aleppo in 1974 and served in the Air Force until he defected last August. Al-Zu’bi currently lives in Jordan, but he continues to consult with the FSA on military strategy. He says that Sunnis long constituted a majority of Air Force pilots, but in the 90s, the regime began to reverse its policy in order to ensure Alawite dominance. Today, Al-Zu’bi estimates that Sunnis comprise 30% of the Air Force.

“There is communication between the defected and non-defected officers,” Al Zu’bi says. “The non-defected officers are afraid to lose their financial status, their ability to support their families, if they join the revolution.”

As with many Sunni merchants who are loyal to the regime, Al-Zu’bi says that there are also officers in the Syrian armed forces who believe that Bashar al-Assad will survive this uprising, and that defection is therefore ill-advised.

“Some of them consider themselves traitors to the revolution and to their people, but they still work for the regime because Russia supports it, and they think the regime will stay.”


Accusations of betrayal haunt Sunnis who remain aligned with the Syrian regime. Naser Abu Anis, the Sunni merchant from Damascus, is aware that there is a price to be paid for defection.

“Not all Sunnis with the regime are traitors,” he says, “because some of them fear the regime’s cruelty and retribution if they appear to be with the revolution.”

Others, he says, “stand with the regime and kill alongside it because they are traitors.”

“Now, there’s no room for half solutions,” says Um Raghad, who explains that the revolutionaries are fed up with trying to win over unconvinced Sunnis. “You’re either with the regime or against it.”

The tide may be turning for pro-regime Sunnis. Turkish media reported on Friday that 73 Syrian Army officers had defected and requested refuge across the border in Turkey. With last week’s announcement that the United States is finally going to arm the Syrian rebels, activists say, pro-regime Sunnis will feel added pressure to reconsider their support of Bashar al-Assad.

They may be too late, however.

“We will hold everyone accountable who assisted the regime,” promises Wael Al-Khatib, the defected Army captain from Homs.

“They will be severely punished, and Sunnis will be sentenced before the others."

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Boris Johnson tells France — not so eloquently — to prenez un grip

Bertrand Hauger


PARIS — I'll admit it straight away: As a bilingual journalist, the growing use of Franglais by French politicians makes my skin crawl.

Not because I think this blend of French and English is a bad thing in and of itself (it is!), or because the purity of the French language should be preserved at all costs (it should!) — but because in a serious context, it is — at best — a distraction from the substance at hand. And at worst, well …

But in France, where more and more people speak decent English, Anglo-Saxon terms are creeping in everywhere, and increasingly in the mouths of politicians who think they're being cool or smart.

Not that long ago, Emmanuel Macron was dubbed "the Franglais president" after tweeting "La démocratie est le système le plus bottom up de la terre" ...

Oh mon dieu

They call it Frenglish

It is much rarer when the linguistic invasion goes in the other direction, with far fewer English-speaking elected officials, or their electors, knowing more than a couple of words of French. (The few Brits who use it call it Frenglish)

Imagine then my horror last night watching British Prime Minister Boris Johnson berating France over the recent diplomatic clash surrounding the AUKUS submarine deal, cheekily telling UK media from Washington: "I just think it's time for some of our dearest friends around the world to prenez un grip about this and donnez-moi un break."

Cringe. Eye roll. Facepalm.
Here's the clip, in case you haven't had your morning cup of awkward.
Grincement de dents. Yeux au ciel. Tête entre les mains.

First, let me offer a quick French lesson: Sorry, BoJo, you needed the "infinitif" form here: "It's time for [us] to prendre un grip about this and me donner un break."

But that, of course (bien sûr), is not the point in this particular moment. Instead, this would-be bon mot is not just sloppy and silly, it is incredibly patronizing, particularly when discussing a multi-billion deal that sparked a deep diplomatic crisis in the Western alliance.

The colorful British politician is, alas, no stranger to verbal miscalculations and linguistic gaffes. He's also (Brexit, anyone?) not necessarily one who cares about preserving relationships with longstanding partners. This time, combining the two, even for such a shameless figure as Mr. Johnson, only one word came to my bilingual brain: Vraiment?

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