The majority of the Syrian population is Sunni Muslim, while the ruling Assad family comes from the minority Alawite sect. The Alawites were traditionally downtrodden in Syria. They've been careful to ally themselves with other minorities, including Christians and Druze since their rise to power in the mid-20th century. Historian David Lesch says they won't let go of power easily.
"It almost seems as if the Alawites now in power feel as though it's a duty to all of those Alawites who have raised their sect into a position of power in Syria," said Lesch. "That it would be betraying what they had done if they let go of power."
For all its faults, the Assad regime has cultivated a kind of secular pluralism that has allowed different religions to coexist relatively peacefully. And the protestors themselves have been calling for national unity.
But as the conflict between the protestors and the regime intensifies, so does the potential for exacerbating the differences that lie beneath the surface. Robin Yassin-Kassab, a London-based writer of Syrian descent, says there are two poles of Syrian existence and you can't ignore either one of them.
"One of them is the sectarianism, which is bad," Yassin-Kassab said. "It exists. We can't pretend it doesn't exist. Amongst some people it exists quite strongly. On the other hand, there's this ancient tradition, thousands of years old, before Islam and Christianity really, this ancient tradition of disparate groups living together in cities and coexisting. Syrian history kind of oscillates between these two poles."
Yassin-Kassab says the Syrian regime is stoking fears of sectarian conflict to shore up support. He says the regime wants to portray the demonstrations as akin to the violent tactics of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria in the 1980s.
The government's crackdown back then culminated in a massacre of 20,000 people in the town of Hama. It still haunts people today. But, Yassin-Kassab says the two situations are not the same.
"Now we've had Alawis and Christians and Druze and so on have been involved in the protests," said Yassin-Kassab. "There have also been people from all communities shot and tortured and the overwhelming majority of slogans are for national unity. People are calling things like "the Syrian people are One. It's not a sectarian uprising and the regime is trying to pretend that it is."
Yassin-Kassab shared an ominous anecdote to share about a friend from a prominent Alawite family unconnected to the regime.
"His parents are receiving threatening phone calls from anonymous numbers," said Yassin-Kassab. "People saying things like 'We know where you are, we're coming after you, your time is up.' His parents believe that these are Syrian Sunni Muslims, ordinary people, calling up and threatening what's going to happen to the whole community once this regime has fallen. I believe and my friend believes that it's actually more likely the Mukhabarat, the secret police, who are calling them up trying to scare them."
Historian Anne Alexander, a fellow at Cambridge University, also thinks the regime is trying to use sectarianism as a counterrevolutionary tool. She says the real differences in Syria are not ones of religious identity but of social class and geography.
"One view point that I fundamentally disagree with is the perspective that sees the Middle East as some kind of fermenting mass of people who all hate each other on religious grounds," said Alexander. "And that once you remove the strong state this will all fly apart into people trying to kill each other because their neighbor is from a different religion."
In fact, says Alexander, the history of the region shows that the gut reaction of national protest movements is to fight for unity, while time and time again, the gut reaction of regimes is to use any mechanisms they can to break that unity apart. In Syria's case that impulse could hasten the slide toward civil war.
Will you support The World?
There is no paywall on the story you just read because a community of dedicated listeners and readers have contributed to keep the global news you rely on free and accessible for all. Will you join the 314 donors who’ve stepped up to support The World? From now until Dec. 31, your gift will help us unlock a $67,000 match. Donate today to double your impact and keep The World free and accessible.