In the lush farmland of northern Lebanon, a Syrian woman sobs, her shoulders shaking. “God damn Bashar,” she says. “God damn the Alawites.”
She had escaped over the border after a crackdown on anti-government protesters. She said militias from the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam to which Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad belongs, had committed atrocities in her mainly Sunni town.
The outburst by the woman, who did not want to give her name, is unexpected, given that Syrians do not usually define themselves by their religious identity. Most Syrians are Sunni but the nation also has Alawites, Christians and other groups. Syria has been seen as a good example of intercommunal tolerance, in spite of power being concentrated among the Alawites, who make up about 12 per cent of the people.
As the regime struggles to keep control despite a popular protest movement almost three months old, however, the violence appears to be provoking tension between communities. That is an outcome the government has promoted as it seeks to present itself as the only guarantor of social unity.
“Three months ago, no one mentioned sect or background,” an educated Sunni said in Damascus, “Now everyone’s talking about it.”
“Syria used to be a beautiful tapestry,” said another. “Now people are talking about Alawite versus Sunni.”
The Alawite region is the second most underdeveloped in the country, and some Alawites oppose the regime. But most of the people directing and, in many cases, executing the crackdown are Alawite, while most protesters – reflecting the demographic balance – are Sunni.
According to Nikolaos van Dam, author of The Struggle for Power in Syria, the dominance of the Alawites, built up by the president’s father Hafez al-Assad, has “nothing to do with religion”.
“To safeguard itself, the regime has people it knows [in positions of power],” he said. “And it knows them because they come from the same region and that region happens to be Alawite.”
That means the forces the regime trusts enough to subdue protest centres by force, such as the 4th armoured division, led by Bashar al-Assad’s brother Maher, have often been Alawite. Reports are persistent, if unconfirmed, of clashes between Alawite units and Sunni units that sympathise with the protesters. People from Jisr al-Shughour believe this was the cause of the incident this week in which the regime claims 120 members of the security forces were killed.
The regime has also been using the Shabbiha, an Alawite militia, to enforce the crackdown, amid reports Alawite civilians are being militarised.
This has created the perception that one sect is persecuting another. “If the UN don’t get involved they are going to kill all Sunni in Syria,” said one man from Tel Kalakh, near the Lebanese border. The threat of a sectarian war that the regime has exploited could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Many in Damascus blame the government for stirring up sectarian fears in order to stem support for the protests.
Alawites and Syria’s Christians fear that the uprising is being driven by fundamentalist Sunni Islamists. “Most of the protests have Muslim extremists behind them,” said a Christian man in his forties. “In Hama now it is the Muslim Brotherhood. They have the money, organisation and guns.”
“[Christians] are very nervous and tense,” says another, who supports the protests. “The Christians are anxious about change. Everyone knows what happened in Iraq and they are terrified that the Islamists will come.”
Opposition activists have worked hard to present a non-sectarian message. Video footage of protests in the Damascus suburbs shows protesters carrying posters with the crescent of Islam beside the Christian cross. Even exiled representatives of the Brotherhood, banned in Syria, have avoided sectarian discourse.
As fresh bloodshed raises the stakes, the risk rises of the struggle for Syria turning more sectarian. “It’s not what the opposition wants,” said Mr van Dam, the author, “but it’s a danger.”
Additional reporting by an FT reporter in Damascus