As the battle lines in Syria have hardened, there is growing consensus that long-feared sectarian divisions are being played out in a military arena viewed by combatants as a zero-sum game for survival. The Alawi minority has been described as returning to a tried-and-true playbook from the Islamist uprising of the late 1970s—relying on sectarian solidarities to carry out violent military and paramilitary campaigns—while the Sunnis have been described as (finally) rising up against minority rule. Syria has suffered historically from multiple ethno-sectarian wounds—Kurdish exclusion, Druze uprisings, the Armenian genocide and diaspora, Palestinian expulsion, Shia invisibility, Sunni downward mobility. To understand why sectarianism is often essentialized as the fundamental explanation for the massive scale of violence currently enveloping the country, it is necessary to untangle Syria’s complex roots of sectarian resentment. 

The Assad regime dealt with ethno-sectarian wounds through a combination of policies that—unsurprisingly—elevated its own minority community and filled the broader sectarian milieu with paranoia and distrust. One can understand the ruthlessness of the shabeeha militias only in the light of Alawi historical memory: of poverty, underdevelopment, labor migration—its dependence on colonial and military institutions for social integration and its experiences of second-class citizenship. These memories (and fear of an unknown future) have helped lead to the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians during the current conflict, in which an important segment of Syria’s Alawi community has been instilled with fear of annihilation.

When the Baathists came to power in the sixties, they did so with the vast support of the population of the Syrian countryside; land reform broke apart large (mostly Sunni) landowners’ plots—clearing the way for smaller minority ownership—while educational and military institutions were opened up to minorities as avenues for upward mobility. The door was thus unlocked for Syria’s rural minorities—then previously excluded because of their geographic origins and heterodox creeds—to play a central role among the country’s political-economic elite. 

How can the sectarianism inflamed by the civil war be ameliorated? To begin, a ceasefire must be implemented to bring an end to the violence and prevent the accumulation of new vendettas among communities. An open dialogue of reconciliation must be pursued, the likes of which were never possible under the Assad regime. Father Paolo Dall’Oglio reminds us that in order to approach national reconciliation Syrians must reciprocally acknowledge and validate their tangled historical memories. He warns against Syrian negationism of each others’ pain and the wounds of each others’ ancestors—wounds which remain fresh even today, years afterwards. The rebuilding of intersectarian trust is contingent upon this process of acknowledgment and validation. 

Ethno-sectarian minorities in Syria carry the patrimony of the historically autonomous political, military, and social institutions particular to their own geographic territories that made these groupings into organizing social forces—even among those that might not fully subscribe to their group’s belief system. Unsurprisingly, whenever a power vacuum has ensued, identity politics have often played a key role in generating the ideologies, actors, and structures which arise to fill them. The major combatants thus have strategic interest in generating their own self-fulfilling prophecies of a “sectarian cataclysm”—not necessarily a catastrophic inevitability, but a narrative expedient to the interests of Alawi and Sunni groupings. Regional history indicates that sect will continue to compete with secularism on the political stage during any resolution, but it remains to be seen whether sect will be further institutionalized through a new constitution (as in Lebanon), or used to unequally distribute political spoils (as in Iraq). At the same time, it is important to note that sectarianism is only part of the explanation for the all-consuming violence of the civil war. Face-to-face relations at the grassroots level between members of varied Syrian sects have been deep, meaningful, supportive, and even life-saving. But without the organizational structure to buttress and maintain these relations, individuals and families become isolated while more fragile cross-cutting relationships with friends, colleagues, and neighbors are relegated to past memories.

Lindsay Gifford is a National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Research Fellow at UCLA and a Visiting Scholar at the University of San Francisco. She studied in Damascus as a Fulbright-Hays Research Fellow during 2006-2007. This article is dedicated to her friend Tamer Alawam, a Syrian activist filmmaker who died in Aleppo on September 9, 2012.