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The Syrian Sectarian Delusion

PRINCETON – As Syria’s 18-month-old rebellion has grown increasingly violent – exemplified by the recent massacre of rural villagers by the Syrian military and militias loyal to President Bashar al-Assad – long-standing sectarian divisions have become more pronounced. But, contrary to Western leaders’ perceptions, Syria is not embroiled in a war between clearly defined communities. While such cleavages do play a crucial role in Syrian society, other key factors should not be overlooked.

The West’s response to the violence in Syria has so far been shaped by the notion that Assad’s regime is overwhelmingly Alawite. Outsiders largely view the Alawites – a Shia Muslim sect that makes up just 12% of Syria’s population of 22 million – as a wealthy, elite segment of society. So the regime’s behavior, on this view, must be dictated by the desire to preserve the Alawites’ status and authority – and by fear of mass reprisals if Assad is toppled.

But some Alawites are prominent opposition figures. For example, the journalist Samar Yazbek has broken from the regime, documenting the revolution in her memoir A Woman in the Crossfire. Similarly, the writer and anti-corruption activist Maen Akel has published reports exposing the regime’s abuses. And the dissident Hassan Abbas has spoken publicly about the regime’s impending collapse (and, to be sure, the special abuse that he has faced for being Alawite). Indeed, early in the rebellion, Alawite and Sunni sheiks marched together in the streets of Latakia – the capital of the former Alawite state – to show their support for peaceful protest.

Moreover, some political and military leaders – including former Prime Minister Riad Hijab, long-serving former Minister of Defense Mustafa Tlass, and his son Manaf, a military officer – are Sunni. A substantial majority of provincial security chiefs are also Sunni. And Daoud Rajha, the defense minister who was assassinated in July, was an Orthodox Christian.