Libmonster ID: U.S.-1325
Author(s) of the publication: E. I. USTINOV


Candidate of Historical Sciences

Keywords: Syrian crisis, ethno-confessional structure, socio-political dynamics, destabilization of the ethno-confessional balance

The multidimensional nature of transformational political processes in the Arab world dictates the urgent need for their careful study and analysis.

Recent events show that the ethno-confessional field is one of the areas where political, economic, informational, moral, psychological, and military tools of global, regional, and local players are intertwined. This fully applies to the Syrian Arab Republic( SAR), where the crisis situation has reached the level of a civil war.

A detailed examination of the ethno-confessional structure of this Arab country, the features and role of its most significant elements in the socio-political dynamics, the steps taken by the Syrian authorities to resolve the crisis, as well as the methods of ethno-confessional manipulation by external forces allows us to approach a more balanced assessment and understanding of the events taking place in the country1.

In the pre-crisis period, Syria enjoyed the status of one of the leading States in the Middle East. This position was supported by the foreign policy activity of the republic's leadership in consistently opposing Israel's aggressive policy in the region, the US plans for a separate settlement of the Middle East crisis, the development of partnership relations with Russia, close cooperation with Iran, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories.

The formation of the internal political situation in Syria is due to the influence of the multi-layered factor of its ethno-confessional structure.

The population of the SAR is about 21 million people (according to the UN 2011 data).2): Arabs - 15 million (Syrian origin - 14.2 million, Palestinian origin - 581 thousand, Lebanese origin - 100 thousand, Iraqi origin-60 thousand, Jordanian origin-40 thousand), Kurds-1.66 million, Turkmens-132 thousand, Armenians-73 thousand, Circassians-73 thousand, Persians-58 thousand, Turks - 3,3 thousand people. Groups of other nationalities are not numerous.

The dominant position in the religious composition of the population of this Arab country is occupied by representatives of Sunni Islam (15.54 million). In addition, there are significant communities of Shia-Pentecostals, Ismaili-Nizaris in Syria (exact data is not available).

Alawites (1.28 million) and Druze (474,000), who for a number of reasons cannot be fully attributed to the adherents of classical Islam, occupy a specific position in the religious structure of Syrian society.

Among the representatives of the Christian faith in the country are Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Gregorians, Greek Catholics, Maronites, Chaldeans, Syro-Catholics, Armenian Catholics, Nestorians, Jacobites, etc.

Instability and unresolved issues of interethnic and interfaith relations within the country dictated to the Syrian Presidents Hafez al-Assad (1971-2000) and his son Bashar al-Assad (2000-present) the need to pursue a tough course in this area. The emphasis was placed on strict control over ethno-religious groups, active socio-cultural Arabization and assimilation of the population, and preserving the territorial and political integrity of the country.

In recent decades, Syria has been characterized by an authoritarian form of government, a mobilizational model of building a society, the reliance of power on a powerful army, extensive security agencies and an extensive party and bureaucratic apparatus. This approach allowed the country's leadership to reliably and sustainably maintain the existing ethno-confessional balance in Syrian society.

At the same time, the absence of truly democratic institutions for decades has predetermined the difficulties that the current Syrian leader has had to face in implementing reforms of the political system and economy.3

Among the most acute ethno-confessional problems that permeate the security, economic, social and political spheres of activity of the Syrian society, it is worth noting: Sunni-Alawite differences, Kurds-

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the Palestinian and Druze factors, the displacement of Christian communities from the country, the fears of small diasporas (Armenians, Circassians, etc.), and the radicalization of the Islamic community.


In the historical context, the differences between Sunnis and Alawites have a long history. The emergence of the Alawites as a religious branch occurred as a result of one of the many schisms in Islam in the last third of the ninth century. Historically, the unifying factor for Alawites is the religious Nusayrit doctrine. Within its framework, the customs, rituals, and holidays of Alawites are influenced by the Koran, Torah, Gospel, and paganism. At the same time, Islam remains the main source of faith for them4.

Sunnis, being representatives of classical Islam, constantly criticized, attacked, oppressed and persecuted the Alawites for drinking wine, teaching about the transmigration of souls, for deifying Ali*, and forbade their women to marry them. Some Sunni Ulama described the Nusayrites as highly heretical.

After Syria gained independence in 1946, under fundamentally new political conditions, the Alawites, being the poorest and most oppressed, and at the same time a relatively closed ethno-confessional community, began to get involved in the sphere of big politics. Their representatives, along with natives of other small communities in Syria, managed to penetrate the highest power structures in a decade and a half, and later occupied dominant positions and key positions in the leadership of the Arab Socialist Renaissance Party (PASV, or BAATH), the army, law enforcement and security agencies.

As a result, the country was headed not by a representative of the confessional majority - Sunnis, but by an Alawite, a native of the Numailatiya clan from the Matawira tribe - Hafez Asad.

The head of state, charismatic party leader and commander-in-chief was popular with the people and respected by internal and external enemies. However, this circumstance created conditions for internal and external opposition, in particular, members of the Muslim Brotherhood organization.

The Islamist opposition accused Kh. Assad, and then Bashar al-Assad, in support of the secular, but not Islamic nature of the state, the implementation of the leading role of Ba'ath in the political life of the country, and the unjustified maintenance of the state of emergency for many years on the basis of current legislation, which could indicate attempts to "usurp" power.

At the same time, it should be emphasized that during the presidency of X. In the future, the principle of representation of almost all communities was a characteristic feature of the party and state building of the SAR. Thus, during the reign of X. Assad's Sunni supporters included Vice President Abdel Halim Haddam, Chief of the Joint Staff of the armed Forces Hikmat Shihabi, Defense Minister Mustafa Tlas and Ba'ath Secretary General Abdullah al-Ahmar.

Under Bashar al-Assad, the involvement of representatives of various ethno-confessional structures in the country's political and military circles continued: during the crisis, Sunni A. Safar was appointed as the new Prime Minister of the SAR. To this it is worth adding that B. Assad and his brother married girls from Sunni families, and their marriages were arranged in a Sunni court.

Representatives of the business circles of Damascus and Aleppo, who control the economic life of Syria and, of course, support the current president of the country, are mostly Sunnis.

These provisions allow us to conclude that there is a somewhat erroneous assessment of the political system of Syria, which is supposedly narrowly confessional, national or tribal.


The Kurdish issue should be considered among the serious factors destabilizing the situation in Syria. Kurds are the second largest non-Arab ethnic group in Syria (according to various estimates, from 9 to 11% of the population). Most profess Sunni Islam. A small part of them belong to the Yezidi and Christian groups. In Kurdish society, tribal affiliation is still a very important component in social relations. Mostly they are engaged in cattle breeding and lead a semi-nomadic lifestyle; they live in the north-east of the country. Among the Kurds living in Damascus and Aleppo, there are many entrepreneurs, representatives of scientific, technical and creative intelligentsia.

For many years, this ethnic group has been affected by Arabization policies, regime restrictions, and economic harassment. One of the most painful issues for the Kurds was the issue of official citizenship. This problem has existed since 1962, when Decree No. 93 established a special qualification in the province of Al-Jazeera, now Al-Hasakah (bordering Turkey), which deprived about 120 thousand Kurds of citizenship. The official goal of this step was to find out the number of Kurds illegally crossing the border. In fact, the decree was a way to establish more complete control over the north-eastern (oil-bearing) part of Syria and at the same time an element of the general policy of Arabization.5

It should be noted that the socio-political and economic interests and goals of the Syrian Kurds have their own specifics.-

* Ali Ibn Abu Taleb al-Qureishi - the fourth righteous Caliph, cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad.

** Adel Safar - Syrian politician, Prime Minister of Syria from April 2011 to June 2012. ed.).

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a feature that distinguishes them from their counterparts in Turkey, Iran, and Iraq.

For them, the solutions of applied tasks within the framework of the new constitution on recognizing the Kurdish identity, consolidating the right to cultural autonomy, recognizing the Kurdish language as the second official language, ensuring guaranteed rights, and compensating for material and moral losses for many years of discrimination are relevant.

These attitudes, as well as the hostility of the Syrian Kurds towards Turkish machinations during the crisis, allowed them not to support radical Islamists in the confrontation with Bashar al-Assad. In this regard, it is worth mentioning the readiness of the Kurds to defend their interests in the areas of their compact residence by force of arms as part of the armed People's Self-Defense units, as evidenced by the measures taken to counter Islamist radicals during the crisis years.


The presence of the Palestinian factor adds to the complexity of assessing the situation around the Syrian crisis. The presence of Palestinians in Syria is connected with the results of the Arab-Israeli conflict - the occupation of Palestinian territories by Israel and the emergence of the refugee problem. There are 10 refugee camps in Syria. The largest of them - the Yarmouk camp, located south of Damascus, is home to about 140 thousand people.

An essential feature of the situation of the Palestinians is the heterogeneity of their international status. The Arab States (with the exception of Jordan) abandoned the practice of granting their citizenship to those Palestinians who found refuge in their territory and had no legal status.

Based on the fact that the Palestinians are actually stateless and not refugees, Western States refuse to grant them asylum on their territory. At the same time, Palestinian children born in third countries are denied naturalization. Having lost the opportunity to enjoy the protection of the mandate - holder State, the Palestinians did not acquire either the status of a stateless person, or the status of citizens of States of asylum, or full-fledged refugee status.6

Until 2003, a number of Palestinian organizations operated on Syrian territory. Later, under pressure from the United States, due to accusations of complicity in Palestinian extremism, their operation was suspended.

Events during the crisis have shown that each of the opposing sides tried to win the Palestinians over to their side. It was also taken into account that, despite internal differences, the Palestinians have combat experience and the ability to survive in difficult situations. But more important in modern conditions is that Palestinian functionaries have broad information opportunities to attract public opinion to their root problems. This circumstance reinforces the desire of both the Syrian leadership and the opposition to manipulate the Palestinian factor in their own interests.

The Druze aspect is also important for assessing the situation around the Syrian crisis. The Druze are an Arabic-speaking religious group living mainly in the southeastern part of the country. According to orientalists, the roots of the formation of the Druze religious sect are connected with a branch from the Shiite trend and go back to the beginning of the XI century. Druze believe in one God, his successive incarnation in seven righteous men, each of whom complements the teachings revealed to people by his predecessors; in the transmigration of souls. In general, they tend to hide the details of their religious beliefs from outsiders. According to them, it is impossible to become a Druze, they must be born.

There is almost no intermarriage among Druze people with other nationalities. They are intolerant of interference in their lives. Among the Druze, as among the Ismailis and Alawites, the principle of mental reservation (takyyah) allows a believer who finds himself in a hostile environment to accept the external rules imposed by the environment, hiding his true faith and even denying it in words. In turn, this religious rule contributes to their successful adaptation and adaptation to the environment.7

Representatives of this religious group also live in Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, and the countries of North and Latin America. Throughout modern and contemporary history, their main priorities have been: political neutrality, isolation, close cohesion, energy in defending their interests, focusing on self-defense, and protecting the land and property interests of the community.

In recent decades, urbanization, the expansion of communication opportunities, and the development of world economic relations, despite the conservatism of the Druze community, have eroded its unity. Some Druze families are leaving their villages and moving to cities; they are moving from farming to working in the administrative apparatus, cultural and educational spheres, business, military and security services.

The crisis in the country showed that the Druze community, despite the marked trends of erosion of its unity, remained steadfastly loyal to the Government line. To protect its own interests, people's committees to fight terrorism were formed in its ranks. Their activities were closely coordinated with the Syrian army.


Syria is the cradle of Christianity. Damascus was od-

page 32

It is one of the first regions where the Apostle Paul preached this religion. Today, the situation of Christians in this Arab country is causing serious concern to world public opinion.

In the pre-crisis period, Christians in Syria were distinguished, by local standards, by a fairly high standard of living and material well-being, concentrated in the largest cities. Relations with the Assad regime were cooperative. Thanks to their traditional desire for education, hard work, and group solidarity, they held strong positions in business, the administrative apparatus, the army, and local law enforcement agencies. At the same time, Christians, as well as representatives of a number of other minorities, experienced certain restrictions in their rights: disproportionately low representation in Parliament, and a legally fixed lack of opportunities to hold senior leadership positions in the system of state bodies.8

During the crisis, representatives of Christian circles were subjected to increased brutality and mass persecution by militants of radical Islamist structures associated with Al-Qaeda. Extremists have shelled and destroyed Christian churches, taken priests hostage and killed them, forced Christians to convert to Islam, and committed other atrocities. The result of these negative processes in the last year and a half has been a massive outflow of Christian Arabs from the country (according to rough estimates, from 10 to 20% of the Christian population).

Threats of this kind remain relevant to Circassian ethnic groups as well. The migration of a significant part of the population of the North Caucasus to the Middle East in general and to Syria, in particular, is associated with the problem of muhajirism (from the Arabic "hajar" - "to resettle"), which dates back to the second half of the XIX-early XX centuries.

The annexation of the North Caucasus to the Russian Empire during the Caucasian War of the 19th century, the claims of Great Britain and France to expand their zones of influence, and the activity of the Ottoman rulers to maintain their positions in this region led to serious changes in the geography of the peoples of the Caucasus. A significant part of the indigenous population of the North-Western and North-Eastern Caucasus emigrated to the territory of the Ottoman Empire. A new ethno - cultural entity has emerged in the Middle East-the Circassian diaspora, which has been joined by representatives of different peoples of the North Caucasus.

Currently, Circassian diaspora groups hold strong political and economic positions in the country, have certain information opportunities and protest potential, and maintain contacts with their fellow tribesmen in the United States and Western Europe.

In the current crisis in the country, the Circassian diaspora has been active in order to draw the attention of the international community to solving the problem of their return to their ancestral homeland and recognizing the so-called "Circassian genocide". Representatives of Circassian ethnic groups have repeatedly stated that the threat to their security from the rebels is increasing due to their deep integration into the military and power structures of Syria. Youth organizations of foreign and Russian Circassians, for their part, used the information resources available to them to appeal to the authorities of the Russian Federation to take urgent measures to repatriate Circassians from civil war-torn Syria.


In recent years, the trend of religious radicalization of society and the widespread spread of extremist trends have been added to the number of elements that form the destructive ethno-confessional situation in Syria.

Socio-economic difficulties, a decline in the standard of living of the population, unemployment, and an increase in the flow of refugees from neighboring Iraq (according to some sources, more than 1 million people) contributed to the aggravation of the situation. Against this background, Islamists, taking advantage of a certain loosening of control by local special services, stepped up work to expand the network of illegal cells in the country and create schools at mosques to educate young people in a fanatical religious spirit.

A part of the Sunni community in Syria has joined the radical trends of Islam. Islamists have made efforts to infiltrate their supporters into the country's State institutions and the Ba'ath leadership.

Foreign Muslims living in the country, many of whom are very radical, have become fertile ground for extremist religious propaganda in the SAR. At the same time, some representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood organization who returned from exile to Syria with the permission of the authorities launched subversive work.

The work carried out through the Ministry of Waqfs and other state structures to counter the process of radicalization of Islamic society was not effective enough, since most of the population perceived it as party propaganda and preferred to trust Islamist preachers who were not related to the state, both local and foreign.

The dynamics of the development of the Syrian crisis relative to this factor showed that in March 2011, i.e. a month after the beginning of the demonstrations of the democratically-minded intelligentsia, there was an active involvement of armed Islamist groups supported from abroad in the conflict. In the future, they gained weight, influence and became in fact one of the main participating parties

page 33

conflict resolution. Their widespread use of Sunni religious rhetoric has led to an increase in sectarian sentiment across the country.

The activities of jihadist groups were characterized by increased aggressiveness and unjustified cruelty towards their opponents. Information, military and financial support from the United States, some Western European countries, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, as well as the participation of thousands of mercenaries with combat experience from Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq, Egypt, Turkey and other countries contributed to their activity.

Recently, the conflict has begun to take on the features of transformation into a peaceful course. This trend was facilitated by the fact that groups of the Syrian population that showed sympathy for radical armed groups in the first stage of the conflict changed their assessment of their prospects and capabilities as a positive alternative to the existing government and suspended support for the opposition. In the context of the crisis, on the one hand, the problem of choosing between authoritarian and democratic forms of government has largely lost its relevance for Syria's ethnic and religious minorities. But on the other hand, the question of survival in the course of ethno - confessional clashes has become acute for them.


Assessing the steps and measures taken by the Syrian leadership to stabilize the conflict situation in the country, one cannot agree with the actions of the opposition and a number of external forces to "demonize" Bashar al-Assad.

In this regard, it should be noted that the Syrian President was aware of the need for long-overdue reforms of the state structure. Fundamental decisions on the implementation of some of them were made at the Tenth Baath Congress in June 2005. Even then, Bashar al-Assad took separate measures to soften the regime and democratize society. However, in the face of growing pressure from the "old guard" of the Baath leadership, he did not dare to initiate a radical restructuring of the political system and tried to avoid sharp turns in domestic politics.

As the conflict escalated, the Syrian leadership met a number of opposition demands and took serious steps to democratize the existing system and implement political and economic reforms.

On March 24, 2011, by the decision of Bashar al-Assad, those arrested during the suppression of protests in Daraa were released. On March 26, an amnesty was announced for 70 political prisoners who were being held in a high-security prison in Saidnaya, near Damascus. On March 27, the Syrian authorities amended Article 8 of the Syrian Constitution, which defines the Baath Party as a leading and guiding force in society and state administration, and adopted a new media law protecting the rights of journalists. On March 29, amid ongoing unrest, Bashar al-Assad dissolved the government. A month later, the state of emergency that had been in effect since 1963 was lifted.

On August 4, the President signed a decree on the introduction of a multi-party system in the country. On November 15, the Syrian authorities released 1,180 people from prison.9

As for the Kurds, on April 7, 2011, Bashar al-Assad made a legislative decision to grant national citizenship to Kurds in the northeastern province of al-Hasakah. This measure largely stopped the discontent of opponents of the regime and reduced the possibility of using the "Kurdish factor" to sway the internal political situation on an ethno-confessional basis.

In 2012, the reforms continued. On February 26, a referendum was held in Syria on the draft of a new constitution. Paragraph 1 of Article 3 of the new draft constitution established the provision on the Islamic character of the presidential republic; paragraph 2 stated that the main source of legislation would be Islamic jurisprudence; paragraph 3 declared that the state respects all religions and ensures freedom to perform rituals that do not violate public order; paragraph 4 approved the protection of the status of religious communities.

Article 8 (1) stipulated that the political system of the State would be based on the principle of political pluralism and the exercise of power through democratic voting; article 4 prohibited participation in any political activity on a religious, sectarian, tribal, or professional basis, as well as discrimination based on gender, origin, race, or skin color.10

The next major step in reforming the political system was the parliamentary elections to the People's Council of Syria, held on May 7, 2012 on a multi-party and competitive basis.

In addition, the Syrian authorities sent a decision on an official truce on April 12, 2012, as well as an appeal from the Syrian Interior Ministry, which promised to release from prosecution all those "who voluntarily lay down their weapons, and on whose hands there is no blood of civilians."

However, despite the adoption of a broad package of the above-mentioned measures, opponents of the current regime rejected the course proposed by Bashar al-Assad to solve internal problems through liberal reforms. The radicals took a confrontational position, thereby depriving the authorities of an alternative to using force to restore order in the SAR.


Developments around the Syrian crisis are very clear

page 34

They showed that significant efforts to activate it were made by external forces from among regional and world-class players. The United States and its Western allies played a crucial role throughout the conflict.

The United States, pursuing the goals of ensuring free access to the energy resources of the Middle East and North Africa, establishing strict control over them, is following the path of minimizing the influence of Russia and China in this region, creating political instability, dismantling undesirable political regimes and imposing on Arab countries their own principles for building socio-political and economic life.

The current US administration still considers the Middle East as a zone of its vital interests. A characteristic feature of the activity of American foreign policy and security agencies in achieving global leadership is the use of multidimensional approaches to solving local ethnic and religious contradictions, which are based on the proven principle of "divide and rule".

The United States, in order to reform Syria's foreign policy towards subordination and manageability, tried to break the regime of Bashar al-Assad. In solving this problem, the Americans resorted to the use of such methods in the ethno-confessional sphere:

- artificially provoking and stimulating Sunni-Shiite differences;

- fueling Islam-Christian contradictions;

- deepening the Kurdish problem;

- slowing down the resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

As offensive principles of the US activity, they used:

- legitimation before world public opinion and US citizens by developing annual reports on religious freedom in countries around the world (in accordance with the law on International Religious Freedom adopted by the US Congress in November 1998) and appropriating the right to independently choose "international violators" in the religious sphere, taking measures against them of their own choosing impacts;

- the imposition of non-traditional religious or socio-political innovations for Middle Eastern societies that ignore the traditional way of life, but lead to an aggravation of internal political conflicts within the Arab states;

- manipulation of public consciousness at the international level with the "right to self-determination", when the right to self-determination of the people is ignored in favor of the right to self-determination of individual minorities;

- informational emphasis on mistakes in the national policy of the country to purposefully incite national and religious discord between individuals, groups, and parties;

- selectivity of economic, military, informational and foreign policy support for certain ethno-confessional partners during the conflict. Granting some of them socio-political and economic privileges and preferences;

- large-scale support of the opposition to the legitimate authorities.

* * *

In conclusion, it seems appropriate to note that a distinctive feature of the situation in the Syrian Arab Republic is the multi-factor combinatorics of interaction and confrontation between a wide range of world and regional forces for maintaining their own positions in the Middle East region.

The degree of influence of ethno-confessional confrontation on the effectiveness of the local law enforcement and security system allows us to objectively analyze the activities of a wide range of external and internal forces in the region, as well as more effectively search for ways to solve Middle Eastern problems from the perspective of Russia's economic and political interests.

1 For more information, see: Shchennikov A.V. Alavity // Asia and Africa Today, 1993, N 11 (in Russian); Kushkhabiev A.V. Conflict in Syria and the Circassian Diaspora / / Asia and Africa Today, 2012, N 7 (Kushkhabiev A.V. Konflikt v Sirii i cherkesskaya diaspora / / Asia and Africa Today, 2012, N 7) (in Russian); Fakhrutdipova N. Z. And was there an "Arab spring"? // Asia and Africa Today, 2013, N 5 (Fakhrutdinova N. Z. A byla li "arabskaya vesna"? // Asia and Africa Today, 2013, N 5) (in Russian); Fedorchenko A.V. Prodolzhenie "arabsky revolutsii: "siriyskiy scenariy / / Asia and Africa Today, 2013, N 8 (Fedorchenko A.V. Prodolzhenie" arabsky revolutsii: "siriyskiy scenariy / / Asia and Africa Today, 2013, N 8) (in Russian)

2 Etnoconfessional maps of the countries of the Near East -

3 See: Akhmedov V. M. Sovremennaya Syrie: istoriya, politika, ekonomika [Modern Syria: History, Politics, Economy]. 2010, с. 219 - 225 (Akhmedov B. M. Sovremennaya Siriya: istoriya, politika, ekonomika. M., 2010) (in Russian)

Friedman Y. 4 The Nusayri-Alawis: An Introduction to the Religion, History and Identity of the Leading Minority in Syria. Leiden. Boston. 2010. P. 5 - 16.

Sinicina V. 5 Ethnic factor in the political space of Syria in the second half of XX - beginning of XXI centuries // middle East and modernity. 2008, N 35. С. 34 - 44 (Zinkina Yu.V. Etnicheskiy faktor v politicheskom prostranstve Sirii vo vtoroy polovine XX - nachale XXI veka // Blizhniy Vostok i sovremennost. 2008, N 35) (in Russian)

Avilov K. A. 6 Mezhdunarodno-pravovoe polozhenie palestovykh [International legal status of the Palestinians]. 2003. N 20. С. 70 (Abilov K. A. Mezhdunarodno-pravovoe polozhenie palestintsev // Blizhniy Vostok i sovremennost. 2003, N 20) (in Russian)

Salibi K. 7 Druze History // Druze heritage foundation -

Christian C. Sahner. 8 Among the Ruins: Syria Past and Present. Hurst Publishers. 2014. P. 8 - 30.

9 See: Snezhanova L. N. The conflict in Syria: Russia's efforts to prevent the destabilization of the Middle East and the Middle East / / National Institute for the Development of Modern Ideologies, Moscow, 2012 -

10 Project of the Constitution of Syria -


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