The men from the last Alawite family in the northern Syrian town of Darkush have been kidnapped twice. The Saleh men were fortunate both times: They were released by rebels who’d suspected them of being agents for the government of President Bashar Assad.
Their good fortune wasn’t shared by the rest of the Alawites who used to live here. They’ve all left, a pattern that’s been repeated across Syria and mirrors the demographic changes that war brought to its neighbors, Iraq and Lebanon, in past years.
That tension between various religious sects has become a driver of Syria’s civil war, a development that was at the center of a U.N. report released Tuesday that decried the sharp, savage turn in the country’s violence. “The parties to the conflict are using dangerous rhetoric that inflames sectarian tensions and risks inciting mass, indiscriminate violence, particularly against vulnerable communities,” warned the report, compiled by an international panel of inquiry on Syria for the U.N.’s Human Rights Council.
But those sectarian tensions have been building for months, and it’s difficult to imagine they’ll go away, no matter who ultimately triumphs in the civil war. Developments such as the fall of Qusayr to government forces after months in rebel hands – the rebels withdrew from the strategic city Wednesday – may only fuel the flames.
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“Who can control thousands of fighters who think about revenge day and night?” Abd al Hamid Zakaria, a spokesman for the Supreme Military Council, an umbrella rebel group that’s backed by the U.S. government, wondered a few days ago as the government siege of Qusayr was just beginning. “If Qusayr falls, we will wipe Alawite villages from the map.”
It remains to be seen whether the rebels will make good on the threat.
Syria’s boundaries encompass a number of religious groups and ethnicities. A main grievance of the country’s rebels, who are virtually all Sunni Muslim, is that they’ve long been oppressed by Alawites, a sect that’s an offshoot of Shiite Islam and to which the Assad family, which has ruled the country for more than four decades, belongs.
As the rebels have advanced, Shiites and Alawites have often fled majority Sunni areas such as Darkush. Likewise, Sunnis have left many majority Shiite and Alawite areas, particularly those around the Orontes River, which represents a front line in the conflict, which stretches from Syria’s northern border with Turkey to its border with northern Lebanon, about 100 miles to the south.
The moment for the Alawites in Darkush – some residents said there were about 10,000 of them living in the area – came in October, when a string of villages near the Turkish border fell to the rebels. Rebels in nearby Zarzour burned a Shiite mosque. As the rebels advanced west, some Christian villages emptied as well. Not long after, the men of the Saleh family were detained by rebels from the Nusra Front, a group with ties to al Qaida that promotes the establishment of an Islamic state in Syria. Known in Arabic as Jabhat al Nusra, it considers Alawites and Shiites to be heretics.
The family was released after more moderate rebels from Darkush intervened. Then last month, as Darkush was being shelled by pro-government forces, the family again fell under suspicion.
“There was a new leader for Jabhat al Nusra in this area and he asked why the shelling had gotten heavier, and someone told him there is a Nusayri family in this village,” said a Nusra member in Darkush, using a derogatory term for Alawites.
Members of the Saleh family declined to speak to a reporter about what had befallen them. Their ordeal was piece together from interviews with members of Nusra and other rebel groups, whose stories corroborated one another.
Again, more moderate rebels prevailed. The men were released after rebel groups allied with the local military council, which acts as an umbrella for rebel forces who advocate a civil state in Syria, threatened to attack Nusra fighters if the men weren’t let go.
Since the beginning of the rebellion more than two years ago, the government has sought to portray the rebels as sectarian fighters, Sunni chauvinists bent on driving minorities out of Syria. In turn, the rebels accuse the government of pre-emptively arming Shiite and Alawite villages across the country, creating tension and setting a self-fulfilling prophecy in motion.
For some, the undoing of Syria fulfills predictions that began when the U.S. military deposed Saddam Hussein in 2003, empowering the country’s Shiite majority and creating what the king of Jordan described as a “Shiite crescent” stretching from Iran to Lebanon.
As Syria’s civil war enters its third year, the army’s depleted ranks of largely Sunni conscripts increasingly have been supplanted by militiamen drawn primarily from Alawite villages, further stoking sectarian tension.
While some Syrians and analysts speak about a partitioning of the country along sectarian lines, the reality is already more like Iraq – which remains a single geopolitical entity although members of its different sects no longer live together – or Lebanon – where people mix regularly but largely live in separate enclaves, even if they might abut one another.
Kurds, who make up about 10 percent of Syria’s population and a majority of the people in the northeastern province of Hasaka, also are fleeing to majority Kurdish areas, and a Kurdish enclave with ties to northern Iraq’s semi-independent Kurdish region is emerging. Several small cities in northeastern Syria are under the control of a Syrian Kurdish militia that’s allied with the Kurdistan Workers Party, a Turkish group that backs Kurdish rights and autonomy across the region.
The heady days of March 2011, when demonstrators called for democratic reforms and more inclusive government, are long gone. Perhaps even more than Iraq, the Syrian state has been exposed as a construct held together by security services and fear. Before Iraq’s civil war divided communities there, intermarriage was common. It’s difficult to find Syrians who marry outside their sects, however, despite the government’s nationalist rhetoric.
The divisions are also evident in a minor explosion of news media in Syria, where it’s possible for the first time to publicly broadcast and print viewpoints that contradict the government’s. But many now complain that the outlets that have opened are just as limiting, refusing to criticize the rebels.
“Psychologically speaking, the separation exists,” said Firas Diba, a Syrian journalist now in exile in Turkey who’s spent months trying to find a backer for a TV station he says will present multiple viewpoints. “Practically speaking, we are taking the first step toward division.”