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. 

Although the conflict has been simplified elsewhere as Sunni versus Alawi, Syrian society encompasses a complex ethno-sectarian mosaic. The Alawis and the Druze diverged from Shia Islam during the medieval period with their own distinct practices, beliefs, and— in the case of the Druze—their own sacred text, the Rasa’il al-Hikma (The Epistles of Wisdom). Syrian Isma’ilis - a major worldwide mystical branch of Shia Islam - are centered around the town of Salamiyya. Christian communities span Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant denominations, and some Christian villages continue to speak neo-Aramaic. Ethnicity, language, and sect are intertwined for groups such as the Armenians, who follow Armenian Orthodox Christianity, and the Kurds—who are largely Sunni, but also bear an ancient syncretic tradition of their own (Yazidism). Many sects and denominations are fundamentally esoteric (such as the Alawis and the Druze)while others, including Sufi orders, have an esoteric organizational pyramid—making knowledge about beliefs and practices accessible to only a select few.

As minorities integrated from the periphery during Assad rule, Alawis in turn began to see themselves less as heterodox minorities and more as mainstream Muslims—even being recognized as Shia by several fatwas from high-ranking clerics. As they integrated into broader Syrian society, Alawis (traditionally self-styled as religiously liberal) gradually adopted greater measures of traditional Islamic orthopraxy—and as intermarriage between Alawis and Sunnis rose (a strong indicator of social integration, and previously unknown in the region), the relations between the two communities were woven with threads of both resentment and solidarity.

A number of policies unfortunately collided under the Assad regime that would increase the potential volatility of sectarian relations. Open dialogue on sectarian interactions was forbidden; the regime controlled all manner of public discourse through its media outlets and state-appointed institutions such as state mosques and the Ministry of Culture. Independent community leaders, activists, and intellectuals were continually barred from speaking about sectarian relations – even if only to build them – through the state’s innumerable mechanisms of coercion. Father Paolo Dall’Oglio of the Deir Mar Musa monastery—an Italian Jesuit priest who became a community leader working to foster positive Christian-Muslim relations over the past 30 years—and Sheikh Jawdat Said of the Syrian Golan are some of the most prominent public figures who experienced sharp retribution for their work on intersectarian dialogue under the regime, including arrest of the latter and expulsion of the former. Followers of these leaders have also been detained and persecuted. More surprisingly, Salah Kuftaro, director of the state-sponsored Abu Nur Mosque (colloquially thought of as the national mosque) and son of the late Grand Mufti Ahmed Kuftaro, was arrested on June 29, 2009 and detained on multiple charges, including those related to his collaborations on religious tolerance with Christian and international leaders—only to be released on August 26, 2010.

For years, these activities had been permitted and even rubber-stamped by the regime, but eventually became too much of an ideological challenge. Autonomous community institutions were also banned from taking up the issue of sectarian relations; The Baathists and their auxiliary divisions were deemed sufficient to keep communal relations in good health. In reality, sectarian civility was severely stunted throughout the Assad years precisely because the state co-opted previously vibrant institutions that cut across society (like the labor, student, and women’s unions) under the party banner. Rather than deal with sectarian tension in a constructive manner, the regime willfully evaded the issue through superficial political declarations and exercises; lip service was paid to sectarian harmony in local election campaigns and state-sponsored interfaith holiday concerts—only to be banned from the public sphere as a serious social issue meriting public debate and ongoing community action.

These tensions were something of a guarded “public secret” under the Assads: something that everyone knew but was forbidden to talk about. But sectarian hatred is now becoming an acceptable public discourse among refugees, the internally-displaced, and combatants on both sides. For others, such as the Assad regime and army, the Free Syrian Army—even the Syrian National Council—this discourse is taking place behind closed doors but is not palatable as an official line. The New York Times recently reported that Syrian children in refugee camps understand the conflict in stark sectarian terms and seek to avenge Sunni kin by retaliating against Alawis. Aid workers suspect that Alawis in camps are hiding their identities for their own safety. Other ethno-sectarian groups are also being drawn into the imbroglio: the recent August 28 car bombings in Damascus’ majority-Druze suburb of Jaramana have been cited as attempts to generate communal fears and inspire the formation of self-preservationist Druze militias. Faced with shallow institutional organization, it is very difficult for voices of a unified Syria to be heard over those of deeply embedded sectarian-minded groups.

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.