Diaspora and Disinvestment

Perspectives of Syrian Religious Minorities

March 2014

SREO expresses its gratitude to all those who enabled this study, including the Syrians who gave
their time to participate in interviews as well as members of the Gaziantep, Antakya, and Mardin
communities in Turkey, and the Sulaimaniya and Erbil communities in Iraqi Kurdistan.

SREO takes full responsibility for all omissions and errors.

The Research Team
The research team that contributed to this report consists of Kristine Anderson, Heather Hughes,
Melike Karlidag, Abdulhamid Qabbani, Daniel Seckman, and Matthew Trevithick.

This report was authored by Kristine Anderson and Heather Hughes.

About SREO
SREO is an independent, non-partisan research center based in Gaziantep, Turkey. SREO’s team of
researchers includes Syrians, Turks and Americans who have all spent signi!cant time in Syria and
the Middle East. Its researchers speak local languages and are dedicated to providing objective
analysis of what is transpiring inside of Syria as well as in the host communities of neighboring
countries. In addition, SREO provides monitoring and evaluation services along with needs
assessments and feasibility studies. Together, the SREO team has over 10 years of experience
working in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Turkey.

Contact: communications@sreo.org

Photo Credit: Michael Runkel / Getty Images

Title: Tomb of Sex Adi (Sheikh Adi Ibn Musa!r) in the Lalish capital of the Kurdish sect of the Yazidis in Iraqi Kurdistan, Iraq.
Yazidis tie three knots around the tombs while making a wish, and untie three other knots, which solves the problem or
grants the wish of a previous visitor.

www.sreo.org   2
Table of Contents

Executive Summary 4
Introduction to Minorities in the Syrian Con#ict 6
Sectarianism in Syria: A Socio-historical Background 8
Review of Literature 13
Methods 18
Key Findings 20
Perspectives on Pre-Con#ict Sectarian Relations: Narratives of
Coexistence and Intolerance 20
Sectarian Con#ict: Roots and Causes 23
Fear in Religious Minority Communities 29
Fluid and Reactive Identities 32
Conclusion: Whither Diversity in Syria? 40
Bibliography 41
www.sreo.org  3
Executive Summary

Despite alarmist media attention focusing on
the vulnerabilities of religious minorities in the
Syrian Con#ict, little research exists that
documents the viewpoints and experiences of
these groups. In light of this gap in knowledge,
the current study aims to shed light on the
perspectives of individuals from minority
religious backgrounds in Syria, examining how
these groups have been impacted by the Syrian
Con#ict, and considering the implications of
these impacts on the future of diversity in Syria.

Data was collected through qualitative in-depth
interviews with individuals from Christian,
Alawite, Ismaili, Druze, and Yazidi sects
originating from all major areas in Syria and
now l i vi ng i n di spl acement. I ntervi ews
addressed questions of inter-communal
relations prior to and after the start of the
Con#ict, individual and group identities,
political subjectivities, as well as perspectives
on the future of minority groups within a post-
Con#ict Syria.

While admitting that sectarian identities had
sharpened and that groups were increasingly
isolated, pre-Con#ict social relations were
usual l y port rayed by respondent s as
harmonious. Respondents, mostly Syriac
Christians from Hassakeh, described a Syria
where Christians and Muslims enjoyed positive
economic and personal interactions. Current
and past sectarian tensions tended to be
attributed to the regime or outside actors, such
as extremist foreign !ghters. Alternately, other
r e s p o n d e n t s h i g h l i g h t e d a l a c k o f
intercommunal relations prior to the Con#ict,
and suggested that the inability to address
religious and ethnic di$erences in the public
sphere had hindered genuine tolerance. The
isolation of some religious groups vis-a-vis
others was often attributed to fear, which
respondents claimed the Assad regime
promoted to keep minority groups subservient.

Fears and anxieties related to minority status
were readily mobilized by the Assad regime
during the Con#ict, particularly as the Con#ict
became more violent and the opposition more
visibly Islamist. Many interviewees expressed
fear for the futures of their communities in
Syria, indicating that these communities were
caught between religious extremists and an
authoritarian regime that did not protect
minority interests. Although many of the
interviewees left Syria due to the threat of
violence by extremist groups, a number also
left due to their political activities against the
regime. Several interviewees reported that they
were wanted by factions from both sides, an
indicator of the sharply polarized sociopolitical
climate imposed on these vulnerable groups.

Fear and feelings of being threatened were
reported to have led to increased group
isolation. While such instances were dependant
on geographic location and local demographics,
respondents from various groups reported
experiencing more rigid group boundaries
between religious communities, increased
labelling practices which categorize people as
members of groups, and growing mistrust of
people from outside their respective groups.

Group and individual identity emerged as an
important factor interactive with the Syrian
Con#ict. Minorities articulated their identities
along political, sectarian, and national lines,
and interviews revealed a plurality of political
vi ews and group and i ndi vi dual sel f -
perceptions. The question of a national identity
f eat ured promi nent l y i n t hi s cont ext :

www.sreo.org  4
i nf ormant s across al l sect s i dent i !ed
themselves as “Syrian,” with many privileging
this identity over other co-occurring markers.
However, the criteria that constituted this
“Syrian” national identity was often inconsistent
or ambiguous. Many informants also described
how the Con#ict had brought about an
involuntary politicization of their religious
identities, problematizing their social relations
and in some cases exposing them to danger,
which was widely reported by Christians and
Alawites. The sum of the challenges faced by
minority groups have impelled many to feel
disinvested in the country for which they
express deep l oyal t y, and many f eel
dispossessed of a future in Syria.

In short, many religious minorities feel that
their existence in a current and post-Con#ict
Syria is fundamentally threatened, and are
resigned to a life in diaspora. This withdrawal of
religious minorities from the country holds
long-term implications for both the direction of
the ongoing Con#ict, and the eventual
sociopolitical landscape of a post-Con#ict Syria.

www.sreo.org  5
Introduction to Minorities in
the Syrian Con#ict

The ongoing Syrian Con#ict represents the
most violent and complex armed con#ict of the
21st century, resulting in more than 140,000
casualties and displacing more than 3 million
from their homes. While thousands of Syrians
living inside their country or in displacement
remain under threat of violence and starvation,
members of religious minority groups have
been considered particularly susceptible to
harm. Since the beginning of the Con#ict in
2011, the international media has shown great
interest in the role of Syria’s minority groups,
often pointing to the country’s ethno-religious
diversity as a point of vulnerability and a
divisive or complicating variable that has led to
the sectarianization of the Con#ict. With the
rise of ISIS and other Islamist militant groups in
the country in 2013, the media has referenced
the particular vulnerability of Christians and
other religious minorities, focusing on security
threats to Christians remaining in Syria and
warning of the end of Syria’s pluralism.
response to reports of increased attacks on
Christians, western governments have voiced
concern over Christian communities, with the
United States Department of State issuing a
press release decrying the abuse su$ered by
Syrian Christians in March 2014.

While the alarmist nature of such reporting has
raised international concern over the safety of
these groups - and the future of Syria’s
demographic diversity - it has also highlighted
the lack of in-depth information on minority
groups and sectarian issues in Syria prior to
and after the start of the Con#ict. Indeed, a lack
of of non-biased research on sectarian issues in
Syria has forced governments and policy
makers to rely on often speculative media
reports and uncon!rmed rumors. In short,
despite the great interest in the well-being of
Syrian religious minority groups, there exists a
signi!cant gap in knowledge on the viewpoints
and experiences of these communities, which
both undermines the richness and complexity
of their perspectives and disregards what these
ideas may entail for the future of Syria.

The current study aims to address this gap by
providing an in-depth examination of the
perspectives of members of all of Syria’s major
religious minority groups by considering
questions of group and individual identity,
community social relations inside and outside
of Syria, and their sense of belonging in Syrian
society. Our research questions revolved
around three primary objectives: !rst, we
hoped to assess how the Syrian Con#ict has
impacted pre-existing minority group identities
and internal community dynamics. Second, we
aimed to to determine whether and how group
identities and historical memory a$ect each
group’s way of relating to the Syrian regime, to
their host communities, and to other Syrian
citizens. Finally, this study sought to gain an
understandi ng of how mi nori ty groups
www.sreo.org 6
88C news Agencles. (2014, lebruary 13). Syrla conßlcL: 'Surge' ln ñghung deaLh Loll. !!" $%&'( 8eLrleved from
8rlan, ChrlsLa Case. (2013, uecember 22). WhaL Lhe Mlddle LasL would be llke wlLhouL Chrlsuans. ")*+',-.
/0+%.0% 12.+32*( 8eLrleved from hup://www.csmonlLor.com/World/Mlddle-LasL/2013/1222/WhaL-Lhe-Mlddle-
unlLed SLaLes ueparLmenL of SLaLe. (2014) ºChrlsuans under 1hreaL ln Syrla." [Þress SLaLemenL]. 8eLrleved from
conceptualize their collective future in light of
the challenges they face inside their country
and in displacement.

By examining these themes, this study
ultimately aims to identify key indicators of
vulnerability that play into minorities’ decisions
to leave Syria and their plans of returning, as
well as to determine how these factors may
impact the demographic landscape of a post-
Con#ict Syria.
www.sreo.org 7
Sectarianism in Syria: A Socio-
historical Background

Pri or to exami ni ng i ssues of rel i gi ous
sectarianism in the Syrian Con#ict, it is
important to place sectarianism in Syria in a
social and historical context. Despite the
sectarian lens through which the Syrian Con#ict
is often viewed, Syria has long prided itself as
being a secular country. The ideology of the
Ba’ath Party, of which current president Bashar
Al-Assad is adherent, is !rmly secular. A clause
stipulating that the President of Syria should be
Muslim was added to the Constitution in 1973
in response to popular protest,
but otherwise
references to religion or sect in public or
political life remains taboo. Indeed the
Constitution expressly forbids “incitation to
religious strife.” Sectarian identity is not noted
on identity cards, though it does play a role in
issues including marriage and divorce, as these
matters are often handled by religious courts.

Despite this alleged secularism, various factors
demonstrate the longstanding presence of
sectari ani sm. For exampl e, the Assad
government has long been derogatorily
referred to as an “Alawite state” or “Alawi
which has thrown into dispute the
alleged secular neutrality of the government,
and caused divisions and resentment. This has
been augmented by the fact that the same
family has been in power since 1970: Hafez Al
Assad was succeeded by his son Bashar in
2000. Furthermore, the state has often used
Islamic symbols and has also presented its own
form of state-sponsored Islam through
mandatory religious education in schools,
which highlights the connection between
religion and state.

While denying the presence of religious
di$erence,the Assads have adopted a rhetoric
of protecting minorities, particularly Christians,
as a way of proving their legitimacy. As
government spokesperson Buthayna Shaaban
stated early on in the Con#ict, “it is obvious that
Syria is the target of a project to sow sectarian
strife to compromise Syria and the unique co-
existence model that distinguishes it.” The fact
that sectarian violence similar to that in
Lebanon or Iraq, which both border Syria, had
not occurred in Syria has been used as proof of
the power of this secular vision. However, the
narrative of protecting Christians has been built
on threats and dangers regarding the Muslim
“other,” and not one of inclusiveness or
solidarity, thereby showing the state’s sectarian
approach with both majority and minority
www.sreo.org 8

4( 567 /0)-%89%*7 !( :;<6=>( "2.'3*?0,.@ -. AB%.,3C 8%3&%%. D*-8+'E -.B A'9-EF G)% H*?I%' +. /C*+-( G)% 1?'9+E
J2*9B7 6<=(
Þ. 92. Ceros, Þ. (2008). uolng lleldwork wlLhln lear and Sllences. ln P. ArmbrusLer & A. Laerkes (Lds.), G-K+.@
/+B%'F L3)+0'7 429+,0' -.B M+%9B&2*K +. D.3)*2N292@C (89-118), 8ergahn 8ooks.
Þ. 138, Moksnes, P. and Melln, M. ed. 8abo, A. (2013) Þerspecuves on Cender and Cluzenshlp ln Syrla before Lhe
Arab Sprlng. M-+3) +. "+O+9 /20+%3CF P%9+@+2?' D032*' -' H*+O%*' 2Q ")-.@%( uppsala: uppsala CenLer for SusLalnable
Þ. 71, Schaebler, 8.
Landls, !. (2003). lslamlc Lducauon ln Syrla: undolng Secularlsm. unpubllshed conference paper avallable aL
(2011, March 26). Assad advlser warns of secLarlan sLrlfe ln Syrla. P%?3%*'. 8eLrelved from hup://uk.reuLers.com/
populations. Additionally, the state has often
tried to manipulate or in#uence religious
leadership of minority groups,
treating sects as political units.

In e$ect, the Assad regime has operated with
many contradictions to both erase and
encourage di$erences among sectarian and
ethnic groups since the Ba’ath Party came to
power. Di$erences were fostered prior to the
Syrian Con#ict, and have been utilized by the
Assad regime throughout the Con#ict as a way
of consolidating power. Today, these groups are
caught in the middle of a relentless con#ict
between a supposedly secular regime and a
largely Islamist opposition.

Sects Examined in This Study

Syria's diversity is reflected by the presence of
many ethnic and religious minorities, many of
which claim a longstanding history in the area.

Migration patterns have also contributed to the
richness of Syria, as it has long been a
destination for religious groups #eeing
persecution in surrounding areas such as
Turkey and Iraq. Figure 1 provides a summary
of the !ve major groups examined in this study.


The Alawite sect is a branch of Shi’a Islam
dating to the 8th century. A traditionally
esoteric and socially isolated community,
www.sreo.org 9
Christians* Alawites Druze Ismailis** Yazidis
1.9 million 2.1 million 580,000 386.000 10,000
Percentage of
10% 11% 3% 2% Less than .5%
Hassakeh, and
Western coastal
areas including
Lattakia and
Sweida Salamiya Afrin area of
*Figures include Greek Orthodox, Syriac Orthodox, Maronite, Syrian Catholic, Roman Catholic, and Greek
Catholic. Armenians number 323,000.
**Figures include Twelver Shi’ites.
Figure 1 : Religious minority groupings in Syria
See Schaebler, 8. (2013).
See 8abo, A. (2012) and Schaebler, 8. (2013).
AlLug, S. (2011). /%03-*+-.+'E +. 3)% /C*+-. R-I+*-F "2EE?.+3C7 9-.B -.B O+29%.0% +. 3)% E%E2*+%' 2Q J2*9B J-* A
-.B 3)% M*%.0) E-.B-3% :6S6TU 6S=S>. 8eLrleved from hup://dspace.llbrary.uu.nl/handle/1874/203821.
Alawites have been marginalized for much of
their history. The rise to power of Hafez Al
Assad in the 1970s placed many from the
Alawite community in positions of political
power, and the sect has been considered
privileged under Assad family rule. Prior to the
Con#ict, Alawites formed approximately 11% of
the Syrian population,
and were heavily
concentrated in the western coastal and
mount ai n areas. Al awi t es have been
particularly stigmatized since the beginning of
the Con#ict as being pro-Assad, and have been
seen as the most endangered sect should the
Assad regime fall.


Christianity represents the second largest
religious minority in Syria, with Christians of all
denominations - including Greek Orthodox,
Greek Catholic, Armenian Apostolic, and Syrian
Orthodox - forming an estimated 10% of Syria’s
population prior to the Con#ict. Christianity
has held a presence in the Levant and
Mesopotamia region almost since its inception
i n the !rst century CE, and Chri sti an
communi t i es were hi st or i cal l y f ound
t hroughout Syr i a, wi t h concent rat ed
populations residing in Hassakeh, Aleppo,
Damascus, and the Damascus countryside.

Following the tragic episode of 1915 in Turkish-
Armenian history, the Hassakeh province
absorbed a signi!cant number of Christians
#eeing persecution. Prior to the Con#ict,
prevailing attitudes in Syrian society viewed
Christians as economically advantaged over
other sects and favored by the Assad regime,
although in reality socioeconomic status varied
considerably according to geographic region. In
the Syrian Con#ict, Christians have been largely
cast by the international community as being
anti - opposi ti on, an assumpti on whi ch
undermines the plurality of views held across
Chri sti an communi ti es.
Nonethel ess,
Christians have found themselves the targets of
multiple factions, and reports indicate that
many are seeking refuge abroad.

www.sreo.org  10
ColdsmlLh, L. (2011) ºSyrla's AlawlLes and Lhe Þollucs of SecLarlan lnsecurlLy: A khaldunlan Þerspecuve",
CrLadogu LLuLlerl. = :6>(
MlnorlLy 8lghLs Croup lnLernauonal. (2011) J2*9B H+*%032*C 2Q 1+.2*+,%' -.B A.B+@%.2?' 4%2N9%' U /C*+- F
VO%*O+%&( 8eLrleved from hup://www.refworld.org/docld/4934ce3ac.hLml.
MlnorlLy 8lghLs Croup lnLernauonal. (2011) J2*9B H+*%032*C 2Q 1+.2*+,%' -.B A.B+@%.2?' 4%2N9%' U /C*+- F
VO%*O+%&. 8eLrleved from hup://www.refworld.org/docld/4934ce3ac.hLml.
Mousa, S. (2012). 1o ÞroLesL or noL Lo ÞroLesL: 1he Chrlsuan ÞredlcamenL ln Lhe Syrlan uprlslng. /C*+-. /3?B+%'
D''20+-,2. !?99%,.( 65 :;>(
AlLug, S. (2011).
Cpen uoors lnLernauonal. (2013) vulnerablllLy AssessmenL of Syrla's Chrlsuans. (2013). 8eLrleved from hup://
See for example (2013, CcLober 16). Syrla ConßlcL: Chrlsuans 'Leavlng Pomes'. !!" $%&'( 8eLrleved from hup://
www.bbc.com/news/world-mlddle-easL-24347263, and ?ackley, A. (2014, lebruary 29). Cenerauons on, Chrlsuans
ßeelng Syrla reLurn Lo 1urklsh homeland. P%?3%*'( 8eLrleved from hup://www.reuLers.com/arucle/2014/02/28/us-

The Druze faith is an o$shoot of Ismaili Islam,
originating in Lebanon in the 11th century. A
traditionally closed community, the Druze
religion is a monotheistic faith characterized by
esotericism and a belief in reincarnation. Pre-
Con#ict estimates number the Syrian Druze
population around 580,000, with signi!cant
communities found in Sweida, a city with a
historical Druze majority south of Damascus.
The Druze community has been largely
considered to be loyal to the Assad regime,
with reports of Druze militias !ghting with the
Syrian army.



Ismailis represent another branch of Shi’a
Islam, tracing their origin to the split between
Shi’a and Sunni Islam in the 7th century. Prior
to 2011, the Ismaili community in Syria
consisted of approximately 300,000 people,
and has traditionally been concentrated in the
city of Salamiya in western Syria.
Since the
inception of the Con#ict, the sect has largely
avoided being stereotyped as pro- or anti-
regime and has received little media coverage
in the west. Though there is a lack of reliable
data, anecdotal reports collected by SREO
indicate the Ismaili community to be split
between support for the Assad regime and
support for the opposition.


The Yazidi faith is an ancient monotheistic
r e l i g i o n b o r r owi n g e l e me n t s f r o m
Zoroastrianism, Su! Islam, and other faiths
pract i ced t hroughout t he hi st or y of
Mesopotamia. The Yazidi faith is strongly linked
to Kurdi sh ethni ci ty, and Yazi di s were
traditionally spread throughout the Kurdish
areas of modern day Turkey, Syria, and Iraq.
Their religion is not recognized by the Syrian
state; as such, the Yazidi community in Syria
has been twice marginalized, due to prejudicial
policies against Kurds and as members of an
uno%cially recognized religion. As a result, the
Yazidi community in Syria has been traditionally
small and closed, and has diminished in size
by migration abroad - particularly to Germany -
prior to the Con#ict. Since the start of the
Con#ict, little is known about Yazidis’ political
www.sreo.org 11
For furLher readlng on uruze bellefs, see 8enneu, A. (2006). 8elncarnauon, SecL unlLy, and ldenuLy Among Lhe
uruze. L3).292@C( WT :;>(7 and llrrlo, k. (2011). 1he uruze lalLh: Crlgln, uevelopmenL, and lnLerpreLauon. D*-8+0-(
MlnorlLy 8lghLs Croup lnLernauonal. (2011) J2*9B H+*%032*C 2Q 1+.2*+,%' -.B A.B+@%.2?' 4%2N9%' U /C*+- F
VO%*O+%&. 8eLrleved from hup://www.refworld.org/docld/4934ce3ac.hLml.
Al-1amlml, A. (2013, november 13). 1he uruze Mllluas of SouLhern Syrla. /C*+- "2EE%.3( 8eLrleved from hup://
Wllllams, L. (2013, november 18). Aga khan urges Syrlans Lo seek peace Lhrough dlalogue. H-+9C /3-*( 8eLrleved
from hup://www.dallysLar.com.lb/news/Mlddle-LasL/2013/nov-18/238133-aga-khan-urges-syrlans-Lo-seek-peace-
lor a background on ?azldls ln Syrla, see Malsel, S. (2013). Syrla's ?azldls ln Lhe kurd uagh and Lhe
!azlra. G)% 1?'9+E J2*9B(
MlnorlLy 8lghLs Croup lnLernauonal. (2011) J2*9B H+*%032*C 2Q 1+.2*+,%' -.B A.B+@%.2?' 4%2N9%' U /C*+- F
VO%*O+%&. 8eLrleved from hup://www.refworld.org/docld/4934ce3ac.hLml.
stance, although a 2013 news report indicated
that they were bene!ting from the Kurdish
autonomy in the Qamishli region.
www.sreo.org  12
Cllou, A. (2013, CcLober 18). ?azldls beneñL from kurdlsh galns ln norLhern Syrla. D9 12.+32*( 8eLrleved from

Review of Literature

In approaching the subject of religious
minorities in Syria, SREO consulted a wide array
of literature dealing with issues of sectarianism,
nationalism, and the religious minority groups
themselves. Although the term “sectarian” is
frequently deployed to describe ethnic or
religious con#ict in the Middle East, there is
disagreement about what the terms “sect” and
“sectarian” mean and can mean. While the
word “sectarianism” is often employed with the
negative connotation of violence and con#ict, it
can also imply a presence of religious
di $erence ar t i cul at ed t hrough soci al
interactions. Research on sectarianism tends to
focus on religious con#ict in a speci!c context,
such as Northern Ireland or the Middle East,
rather than taking a broader theoretical view.
Al though there are l acki ng theoreti cal
frameworks for studyi ng the i ssue of
sectarianism, de!nitions developed in studying
other contexts were helpful to understanding
sectarianism in Syria. John Brewer de!nes
sectarianism as “the determination of actions,
attitudes and practices by beliefs about
religious di$erence, which results in their being
invoked as the boundary marker to represent
social strati!cation and con#ict.” In his study
on religious con#ict in Ireland, Brewer
compares race and sect, writing that both are
“soci al markers by whi ch peopl e are
categorized into groups and by which life
chances are determined, the roots of which lie
jointly in colonial exploitation.”

Scholars writing on nationalism have unpacked
the ways that categories such as religion,
ethnicity, and nation are drawn, and the
intricate ways that such categories act upon
each other. Roger Brubaker compares language
with religion, writing that “language and religion
are basic sources and forms of social, cultural
and political organization.” He further
describes them as both “analogous to ethnic
groups and nations and variously intertwined
with them.”


Sectarianism in the Middle East

Sectarianism in the Middle East tends to be
viewed through the lens of primordialism, with
the assumption of timeless con#ict between
inherently antagonistic groups. Alternatively,
the instrumentalist perspective suggests that
sectarianism is a modern phenomenon that
emerged i n response t o col oni al i sm,
modernization, and other social changes. The
reality is somewhat between the two. Much of
the literature on sectarianism in the Middle
East has focused on Iraq and Lebanon, whereas
Syria, which is signi!cantly underrepresented in
research in general, has not received much
attention on this topic. The authoritarianism
and censorship imposed by the Assad Regime
are one reason for this gap, and the absence of
open con#ict in Syria until recently could be
another factor. When what started as a civil
uprising turned into a long and drawn-out war,
the war increasingly became portrayed in
sectarian terms, with comparisons being drawn
between Syria and Iraq.
www.sreo.org   13
Þ. 338, 8rewer, !. (1992). SecLarlanlsm and raclsm, and Lhelr parallels and dlñerences. L3).+0 -.B P-0+-9 /3?B+%'(
6T :=>(
Þ. 333, 8rewer, !.
Þ. 3, 8rubaker, 8. (2013). Language, rellglon, and Lhe pollucs of dlñerence. $-,2.' -.B $-,2.-9+'E( 6S :6>(
Þ. 3, 8rubaker, 8.

While cultural and religious diversity is often
seen as the main cause behind con#icts in the
Middle East,
a holistic study of state policies,
historical and current interactions and group
dynamics is necessary to understanding
sectarianism in Syria today. Furthermore,
understanding sectarianism in neighboring
count ri es i s usef ul t o underst andi ng
sectarianism in Syria, both as a point of
comparison and also in terms of impact on
groups that inhabit multiple countries and
extend beyond national borders. Certainly,
historical events in neighboring countries - Iraq
and Lebanon in particular - play into the
consciousness and fears of minority groups in

Sectarianism in Lebanon

In the literature on sectarianism in Lebanon,
scholars have attempted to untangle the
hi stori cal processes by whi ch modern
sectarianism has come to exist as a state-
sanctioned social system. In his work about the
Shia of Lebanon, Max Weiss argues the

The ways in which sectarian di$erence was
made, that is, how Lebanese sects became
sectarian in new ways - what I have
provisionally called sectarianization - must
be unde r s t ood i n t e r ms of bot h
“sectarianization from below” - demands for
communal equality that came from ordinary
people, local communities, village councils
and other - and “sectarianization from
above” - French colonial techniques and
tactics of divide and rule.
In this explanation, Weiss notes the agency that
groups have had in creating and participating in
a sectarian system, rather than portraying
sectarianism as an externally imposed system.
Ussama Makdisi, also writing about Lebanon,
describes sectarianism as a “practice that
developed out of, and must be understood in
the context of, nineteenth-century Ottoman
reform. Second, it is a discourse that is scripted
as the Other to various competing Ottoman,
European, and Lebanese narrati ves of
modernization.” While sectarianism has been
notably lacking in the Syrian public discourse,
thinking of sectarianism as a “practice” is
applicable. Makdisi also emphasizes the
moderni ty of sectari ani sm, noti ng that
“sectarianism refers to the deployment of
religious heritage as a primary marker of
modern political identity.” The designation of a
sect as a political marker or a political unity is
certainly relevant to the Syrian context, given
the state’s patronage of religious leaders.
Although the modern Lebanese state treats the
categorizes of sect and religion very di$erently
than the Syrian state,the similar historical
context of colonization and overlap of groups
merits the study of sectarianism in Lebanon
alongside Syria.

Sectarianism in Iraq

The scholarship on sectarianism in Iraq has
sought to explain the violence that has racked
the country since the US invasion and
overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Dina Khoury
argues that the “sectarian politics of present-
www.sreo.org   14
Þ. 28, AlLug, S.
See Þ. 708, Welss, M. (2010). ºÞracuclng SecLarlanlsm ln MandaLe Lebanon: Shl'l cemeLerles, rellglous paLrlmony,
and Lhe everyday pollucs of dlñerence." R2?*.-9 2Q /20+-9 Y+'32*C(
See Þ. 6, Makdlsl, u. (2000). G)% "?93?*% 2Q /%03-*+-.+'EF "2EE?.+3C7 Y+'32*C7 -.B Z+29%.0% +. 6S3) "%.3?*C
V[2E-. \%8-.2.( unlverslLy of Callfornla Þress. 8erkeley: unlverslLy of Callfornla Þress.

day Iraq are rooted in the last 23 years of
Ba'athist rule,” and focuses on the Iran-Iraq War
and the 1991 Uprising in an “attempt to to
bring into the discussion the centrality of
vi ol ence i n the formati on of sectari an
This argument highlights violence
as a cause and not a product of sectarianism,
and brings to attention the subtler ways that
the Ba’ath state in Iraq employed sectarian
politics. In her work on sectarianism and
politics in post-con#ict Iraq, Keiko Sakai notes
that the mobilization of sectarian identities in
the events of a crisis is not inevitable: “it
depends on a variety of political opportunities,
patterns of mobilization organization and
networks, the period of validity of repertoires,
the abundance of episodes that can be used to
mobilize the emotions of members of society,
and the diversity of historical paths that the
community has followed.” Unfortunately, this
complex set of conditions appears to have
been met in Syria, particularly due to the
pol i ti cal opportuni ti es or l ack thereof.
Literature has also addressed concerns relating
to the spillover of ethnic con#ict relating to the
migration of refugees. In his work on Iraqi
refugees in Syria, Erlend Paasche reported
!ndings on “a strong sense of national as
opposed to sectarian identity,” contrary to
expectations that refugees #eeing sectarian
violence would have heightened sectarian

Sectarianism in Syria

Despite the declared secularism of the state
and the tabooness of discussing any aspect of
religious or ethnic di$erence, scholars have
noted the presence of sectarianism in political
and social relations. Fiona McCallum describes
the interactions between churches and the
Syrian state where Christians often rely on
religious leaders as intermediaries between
themselves and the state as a “reinterpretation
of the millet system,” and Annika Rabo
37 38
suggests that the millet system “has both
survived and been transformed in independent
implying that individuals are still
treated as members of religious communities.
While she does not elaborate on how the millet
system has been transformed, this illustrates
the importance of recognizing the current
political context and its impact on sects, rather
than viewing the millet system as a historical
www.sreo.org   13
Þ. 326, khoury, u. (2010). 1he securlLy sLaLe and Lhe pracuce and rheLorlc of secLarlanlsm ln lraq. A.3%*.-,2.-9
R2?*.-9 2Q "2.3%EN2*-*C A*-]+ /3?B+%'( W :=>(
Þ. 206, Sakal, k. (2012). ue-secLarlanlzlng pauerns of pollucal moblllzauon ln Lhe posL-conßlcL lraq. A.3%*.-,2.-9
R2?*.-9 2Q "2.3%EN2*-*C A*-]+ /3?B+%'( ^ :;>(
Þ. 230, Þaasche, L. (2011). lraql refugees ln a uamascus suburb: carrlers of secLarlan conßlcL? A.3%*.-,2.-9
R2?*.-9 2Q "2.3%EN2*-*C A*-]+ /3?B+%'( T :;>(
1+99%3 refers Lo Lhe ºadmlnlsLrauve sysLem for non-Musllms ln Lhe Cuoman Lmplre, especlally Chrlsuans and
!ews." Lach group or E+99%3 had a slgnlñcanL amounL of auLonomy ln managlng Lhelr lnLernal añalrs, and Lhe
rellglous leader, or E+99%38-')+, had clvll as well as rellglous responslblllues. See Þ. 178, kaLslkas, S. (2009). MllleLs ln
nauon -SLaLes: 1he Case of Creek and 8ulgarlan Musllms, 1912-1923. $-,2.-9+,%' 4-N%*'7 =5:;>(
Þ. 121, Macallum, l. (2012). 8ellglous lnsuLuuons and AuLhorlLarlan SLaLes: church-sLaLe relauons ln Lhe Mlddle
LasL. G)+*B J2*9B _?-*3%*9C( == :6>(
Þ. 124, Moksnes, P. and Melln, M. ed. 8abo, A. (2013) Þerspecuves on Cender and Cluzenshlp ln Syrla before Lhe
Arab Sprlng. M-+3) +. "+O+9 /20+%3CF P%9+@+2?' D032*' -' H*+O%*' 2Q ")-.@%( uppsala: uppsala CenLer for SusLalnable

remnant. Not only have these di$erences been
perpetuated, but they have also been utilized
by the Syrian state.

In addition to noting the state’s role in
maintaining di$erence, scholars have faulted
the Syrian state with contributing to poor inter-
communal relations. Seda Altug writes that “the
politics of di$erence of the Syrian Ba’ath state
in the region paved the way for the deepening
of the Kurdish problem and the straining of
i nter-communal rel ati onshi ps. ”
Bi rgi t
Schaebler suggests that “it would have been
wiser to acknowledge di$erence and admit
group identities into the public discourse,
thereby creating a viable nation and resolving
communi t y t ensi ons t hrough pol i t i cal
bargaining, not by hushing and smothering
them with an intolerant Arab nationalism.”

Additionally, scholars have pointed to the roles
of other state institutions such as the state
mufti or religious education in failing to
a d d r e s s d i $ e r e n c e s a n d p r o mo t e
understanding among di$erent groups.

Few studies have examined the importance of
religious identity in Syria, and even fewer have
looked at the complexities of intercommunal
relations. Despite the inability to visibly express
religious di$erence, scholars have noted the
importance of religion both as a way to identify
onesel f and ot hers. I n her st udy on
sectarianism in the Jazira, Seda Altug founds
that “religious di$erence,” in the form of the
“state-acknowledged sect” (ta’ifa), appeared as
the most signi!cant marker of di$erence
employed in Jazirans’ historical narratives,
especially by Christians.” Annika Rabo
discusses the practice of labelling and
categorizing that occurred in her sample of
informants: “Ideals of national unity, essential
si mi l ari ti es or enri chi ng vari eti es and
di $erences do not, however, precl ude
informants from simultaneously slotting
citizens into a number of scales of rank and


Regarding group relations, SREO consulted two
studies that look at group relations in Aleppo
and the Jazira, or what is commonly referred to
as the Hassakeh governorate. Annika Rabo, in
her research on religious and ethnic diversity in
Aleppo, does not refer to sectarianism but
rather refers to the word “conviviality” to
describe group relations. While both Altug and
Rabo encountered expressions of unity and
harmony among mi nori ti es, they al so
encountered a sense of fear and anxiety.
According to Rabo, this was related to the
increasingly islamicized public space of
Seda Altug found that the historical
campaign of 1915 against Armenians in eastern
Turkey and other anti-Christian violence had
signi!cant implications for relations between
Christians and Muslim Kurds in Qamishli:
www.sreo.org   16
See Schaebler, 8. (2013).
Þ. 20, AlLug, S.
Þ. 78, Schaebler, 8.
A muûl ls deñned as a º[urlconsulL who ls quallñed Lo glve or lssue legal oplnlons." Þ. 113, Lock, M. (2013). 1he
Adab of Lhe Muûl. A'9-E+0 /0+%.0%'7 66:;>(
See SzanLo All-ulb, L. (2008). lnLer-8ellglous ulalogue ln Syrla: Þollucs, LLhlcs, and Mlscommunlcauon. 429+,0-9
G)%292@C7 S:6>(
Þ. 22, AlLug, S.
Þ. 134, 8abo, A.
Þ. 131, 8abo, A.

First, in nearly all the conversations about the
history of their arrival in Syria, a deep anxiety
and insecurity about the future was evoked,
especially in the descriptions of the communal
relations in the past; and second, in the
constant comparison to the “other”—namely,
the Kurds—i n the narrati ves of those
interviewees informed by the Armenian and
Syriac establishment discourse.

Whi l e these studi es are i nval uabl e to
understanding inter-communal relations in
Syria, there remains much to be understood
regarding group relations in the rest of Syria.
SREO hopes to contribute to the literature
through its study on a variety of minorities with
varying geographic origins, and on perceptions
of the self and group identity as well as their
view of a collective future considering the
ongoing con#ict and destruction in their home
www.sreo.org   17
Þ. 138, AlLug, S.


SREO’s assessment of Syrian religious minority
perspectives employed a mixed methods
approach informed by ethnography and
narrative-based analysis, relying upon in-depth
qualitative interviews complemented by
quanti tati ve soci oeconomi c data. Thi s
multidisciplinary approach was utilized in order
to gain insight into the complex and inherently
subjective underpinnings of religious minority
group perspectives, and to gauge how these
have been a$ected by the violence and
displacement of the Syrian Con#ict.

Study participants were selected based on their
membership in one of the religious minority
g r o u p s i n S y r i a - i n c l u d i n g s ev e r a l
denominations of Christianity (Greek Orthodox,
Syriac, Roman Orthodox, and Syrian Catholic),
Alawites, Druze, Ismailis, and Yazidis - and their
point of origin in Syria.
Researchers aimed to
obt ai n a s ampl i ng t hat r e#ec t s t he
demographic percentage of minorities in Syria
and represents informants from a diverse
geographical point of origin and socioeconomic
background. A total of 31 individuals (n=31)
were interviewed, ranging in age from 21 to 73
and comprising natives of all major regions of
Syria. All participants in this study had migrated
from Syria at the time of research, and were
living in host communities in Turkey, Europe, or
Iraqi Kurdistan.

The snowball sampling method was utilized to
sel ect study parti ci pants, wherei n key
informants from the various communities
referred acquaintances to researchers for
participation. This method was considered the
best way to access members of normally closed
communities, due to the traditionally esoteric
tendencies of some religious minorities.
Identifying participants via trusted members of
their own social network was also preferred
given the inherently sensitive nature of this
study’s subject matter, particularly in the
context of the potential heightened security
t hr e a t s pe r c e i v e d by mi nor i t i e s i n

In-depth, semi-structured interviews meant to
elicit key indicators of identity, collective
memory, and f ut ure i nvest ment were
combined with pointed survey questions
intended to supplement qualitative data with
rel evant soci oeconomi c i nformati on on
participants. Understanding identity to be a
multi-layered and #uid product of environment
and group and i ndi vi dual experi ences,
questionnaires approached themes from
multiple facets to allow the informant to
const ruct a comprehensi ve narrat i ve.
Interviews incorporated questions soliciting
information on family history in Syria,
individual and community social relations, and
hopes and expectations for the future of Syria.
Given that the issue of minority faiths is a
historically sensitive and suppressed subject in
Syria, questionnaires were designed to be
politically neutral and respectful of individual
and group standpoints, and subjects were
encouraged to express their views only as they
felt comfortable. Interviews were conducted in
person whenever possible, and over Skype and
email for individuals with geographical or
privacy concerns. All informants participated
voluntarily without compensation, having been
www.sreo.org   18
AlLhough S8LC recognlzes LhaL a number of paruclpanLs were noL rellglous, lnformanLs ln Lhls sLudy are referred
Lo by Lhelr secLarlan ldenuues Lo reßecL Lhelr communlLy background.

informed of their rights as participants and
assured of the absolute anonymity of the study.

Narrative analysis was employed to identify key
patterns in qualitative data, which were then
considered in the context of the socioeconomic
pro!ling data obtained. These patterns in the
data were considered within the con!nes of the
current body of literature addressing themes of
religious and social identity, sectarianism, and
displacement, as well as the growing body of
work on minorities in the Middle East.

Because the issue of religious minorities in
Syria is a traditionally sensitive subject, a
number of challenges related to data collection
had to be overcome. Foremost among these
was the di%culty in locating large samplings of
minority groups, which can be attributed to the
geographic disparity and cultural isolation of
certain religious groups, and to security
concerns which encourage many minorities to
conceal or minimize their religious background.
Unprecedented security threats against
minorities remaining in their homes in Syria
prevented researchers from accessing these
populations, as addressing such subject matter
even anonymously was perceived by potential
informants as endangering their safety.
www.sreo.org  19

Key Findings

Findings from interviews provided insight into
the experiences of Syrian religious minorities
on both group and individual levels. Di$erent
i nt ervi ewees present ed cont radi ct ory
narratives of sect relations in pre-Con#ict Syria,
with some reporting harmonious inter-
sectarian interactions, and others alluding to
underl yi ng sectari an-based prej udi ces.
Interviews also addressed how internal and
community dynamics had been impacted by
the Con#i ct, and how these dynami cs
precipitated migration and displacement.
Similarly, informants commented on the role of
social fear in their communities, sharing that
speci!c fears dictated community reactions to
the rupture of the Con#ict. Finally, all
interviewees discussed individual and group
identities as interactive with circumstances of
war and displacement, ultimately a$ecting
minorities’ sense of interest and investment
regarding their future in Syria.

Perspectives on Pre-Con#ict
Sectarian Relations: Narratives of
Coexistence and Intolerance

When asked about their community and group
interactions prior to the Con#ict, Syrians gave
varying answers about the quality of relations
a$ected by their religion and place of origin.
S y r i a c C h r i s t i a n s f r o m H a s s a k e h
overwhelmingly described positive inter-
communal relations, along with informants
from other groups including Druze, Ismailis,
and Yazidis. These !ndings corresponded with
Erlend Paasche’s work on Iraqi refugees in
Syria, where refugees tended to refer to
“normative cosmopolitanism” to characterize
their group relations. At the same time, other
groups in the study described relations
characterized by isolation and intolerance,
which illustrated the di$erent ways groups
experienced sect throughout Syria.

Respect, harmony, and a lack of problems
characterized the speech of Syriacs on their
communi ty i nteracti ons i n pre-Con#i ct
Hassakeh. As one informant poignantly stated:
“there could be nothing more beautiful than
the way in which we all got along.” Another
Syriac Christian from Hassakeh pointed out
that the Christian community there was not
isolated, which contrasted with accounts from
Christians in Damascus and other religious
groups. Whether such statements idealized
relations or glossed over di$erences was not
cl ear, but i ntervi ewees cl earl y drew a
distinction between pre and post Con#ict
relations, and very much believed in the lack of
sectarian problems, at least amongst each
other. One elderly Christian man cited his
possession of a Koran as a sign of his respect
for Muslims:

I respect those who are di$erent from me, and
I always have….I even own a Koran, in addition
to the Bible. It was among the few books I
brought with me from Syria when we were
displaced here. In every Christian’s house in
Syria you’d !nd a Koran. How many Muslim
families have a Bible in their home? They
should all read the Bible as well, as we read the

Interestingly, this example contrasts the respect
and knowledge of the Christian community
regarding Islam with the ignorance of Muslims
www.sreo.org   20
Þ. 230, Þaasche, L.

on Christianity, thereby demonstrating the
limits of mutuality in these relations.

Among the Syriac Christians, friendships and
work relationships were cited as examples of
the extent to which Syrians coexisted and were
integrated. As one Syriac man who had
employed Muslims in his business noted, “We
had them over, hosted them in our homes. I
still have their numbers in my cellphone.” One
interviewee reported that “when my uncle died,
everyone in the village came to the funeral,”
thereby noting the inclusion of di$erent groups
in personal and religious rituals.

The importance of geographic location in
determining sectarian relations was further
addressed by Alawites. One woman compared
the lack of mixing between sects in her
hometown of Tartous with the mixing she later
encountered i n Damascus. Al eppo was
designated by another Alawite participant as a
place of mixing, despite fears and the desire to
remain inconspicuous as an Alawite. He also
reported that the increased mixing in urban
environments reportedly exerted a levelling
e$ect on sectarian divisions by facilitating
open-mindedness: both himself and his
brother are married to Sunni women, which
presented no problem for his parents.

Among the Druze participants, one woman
described the neighborhood of Jaramana in
Da ma s c us a s a r e l i g i ous l y di v e r s e
neighborhood where social mixing was quite
common. She further speci!ed that people
might not even know the religion of their
friends and neighbors, yet contrasted this
openness and mixing with the past two years,
during which social tensions had lead to
increasing group isolation. Another Druze
parti ci pant hi ghl i ghted di versi ty whi l e
describing his living situation in Yarmouk of
Damascus, saying “in my building we had
Alawites, Ismailis, and Kurds...it’s not like all
Druze are living together, unless they are a big
www.sreo.org  21

!"#$ "#& "#''()(* +) ,-.+#/ 0+)1.+2(& )#3+)4 $"( ,-.+#) 51)6+7$

Throughout interviews, SREO researchers used the term “Syrian Con#ict,” employing the Arabic
word "ir!’ when posing questions to interviewees. However, informants demonstrated variation
in the ways they referred to the series of events that compelled them to leave their lives
behind, and these terms often gave insight into political and social subjectivities. Most
informants who were actively anti-regime - particularly those who had participated in protests
early on or who considered themselves activists - used the word for revolution, thawra. Several
of these persons used di$erent terms throughout the course of the interview, with many
referring to the beginning of the Con#ict as the “revolution” or “mobilization” (#ur!k), and then
changing it to “the war” (al #arb) to refer to later developments. While the label “the war” was
frequently evoked, not a single informant named the events as a civil war, which may re#ect the
fact that many informants attribute blame of the turmoil to outside actors such as foreign
!ghters than to Syrians. The most recurrent designation was “al a#d!th,” “the events,” a term
that re#ects the temporally unclear intensi!cation of the Con#ict from a series of protests to a
full-on humanitarian nightmare. Used by informants of all political views - but preferred by
those who were pro-regime or politically neutral - the term is a !ttingly ambiguous way to
describe the kind of rupture and turmoil that is precisely unnameable.

family in one building or something. I was in
this open, mixed society…” However, this
experience contrasted with his general
perceptions of group relations in Syria, which
he indicated as fraught with isolation,
ignorance, and a lack of understanding. In the
narratives of Druze, Jaramana and Yarmouk
provide somewhat of a counterpoint to Sweida,
a Druze majority city, further demonstrating
the importance of location for inter-communal

All Ismaili informants came from Salamiya, an
area known for having a signi!cant Ismaili
population. While the three male Ismailis
reported positive group relations, with one man
stating, “there were di$erent religions and
political a%liations and relations were positive
between people,” a female informant described
social relations as more closed with limited
substantive interaction between sects.

The two Yazidi participants described positive
soci al rel ati ons, whi l e referri ng to the
oppression that they faced as Yazidis and as
Kurds. One man explained that “Syrian society
is open and secular, and relations are based
upon humanist and moral treatment. However
the Yazidi faith has been a problem for others
in Syrian society.” This statement echoed the
positive statements of Syriac Christians, yet
pointed to the unique status of Yazidis as a
margi nal i zed group. The second Yazi di
participant also described positive relations
despite his family’s statelessness. From these
statements, it can be deduced that the
coexistence and positive social relations
general l y exper i enced i n Syr i a were
undermined by the oppression they faced,
either as Yazidis or Kurds.

By contrast, other interviewees indicated
super!cial relations, or pointed to the
limitations on their group relations related to
group boundaries. Furthermore, many Syrian
interviewees contrasted their openness with
the limited relations of others in their sect,
noting that they were not a$ected by these
group dynamics. These closed relations were
noted by Christians in Damascus and most
Druze informants in particular.

Christians living in Damascus discussed the
isolation of their communities vis-a-vis other
sects. One woman of Greek Orthodox
background who had grown up in a wealthy,
Christian-dominated area described her
neighborhood as a “ghetto” as a re#ection of its
social and cultural isolation. She also indicated
her community’s lack of understanding when
the “revolution” happened as an example of
how “disconnected” her community was from
the Syrian people. A Syrian Catholic from
Damascus reported limited social interactions
with people from other sects until attending
university. These anecdotes pointed to a lack of
inter-communal relations in Damascus, despite
the diversity. Similarly, another woman who
had lived primarily in Homs shared the
following about group relations:

Christian societies in general are rather closed-
o$. They have good social relations with other
sects that may reach the level of intimate
friendships, but there are always red lines
dictating these relations, that are only rarely
transgressed. For example my best friend in
high school was a Muslim, but I knew with
complete certainty that I was not to have a
[romantic] relationship with a Muslim boy.

The possibility of friendly platonic relationships
but not romantic relations between sects
demonstrates the limits of social relations, as
www.sreo.org   22

intermarriage can bridge divisions between

Another Syrian from a Catholic background
provided a complete counter-narrative to
previous discussions of cohabitation, saying
that “the social relations were fake, I grew up in
Jaramanah in Damascus, my street was called
the Christian street, just calling it the Christian
street shows the sectarianism. The reason we
say we had co-living and cohabitation is
because it was forbidden to talk about it.” He
further elaborated “the idea of co-living in Syria
is basically fake, my sect is like many other
sects, they are closed, they are not open to
many other di $erent rel i gi ons. ” These
statements bring up two points: one is an
imposed narrative of cohabitation that
prevented genuine discussions on group
identities, and another is the boundaries
imposed on his group, both by the community
and others. Discussing his sect as being
“cl osed” and “not open” i mpl i es t he
responsibility of all parties in fostering or in this
case hindering intergroup relations.

Among other groups, one of the Ismaili
participants discussed her family’s interactions
with other sects as limited, but noted that she
herself did not have these “problems” of
isolation and discrimination, thereby absolving
herself from any of the sectarian problems of
her community. An Alawite noted that even
t houg h he di d not not ex pe r i e nc e
discrimination in Damascus, the distinctions
between people existed as people would say
“this person is Sunni” or “this person is Alawite.”
Labelling people served as a way to reinforce
the boundaries that existed between groups.

While informants, particularly Syriac Christians,
provided heartfelt accounts of coexistence and
cohabitation that was exempli!ed through
personal and social practices, this was
countered by narratives from other groups
referencing isolation and limitations in their
social relations. These narratives di$ered in
relation to sect, location, personal outlook, and
ethni ci ty. They re#ect the di versi ty of
experiences regarding sect in Syria, and
simultaneously challenged narratives of con#ict
and harmony that are imposed on inter-
communal relations in Syria.

Sectarian Con#ict: Roots and

Whether informants adhered to narratives of
coexistence or underlying sectarian tensions,
they overwhelmingly attributed the blame for
current sectarian tensions to either the regime
or non-Syrian factions. Interviewees reported
the regime as both attempting to maintain
divisions prior to the Con#ict, and as trying to
foment sectarian strife after the uprising. One
elderly Syriac man saw the state as the sole
source of sectarianism in Syria:

I lived in Damascus for four years, and there
was no sectarianism among the Syrian people.
It was the Ba'ath party that introduced
sectarianism into the minds. The Syrian people
are very open and accepting. Sectarianism is
introduced in the schools by the Ba'ath party,
through the children’s literature and textbooks
they give the kids. When my oldest daughter
was in school, during the religion class the
teacher said that Muslims had to go to one
side of the room, and Christians to the middle.
And she stood in the middle, she refused. I was
so proud of her….The Ba'ath party also spreads
sectarianism through society education, by
planting it in people’s heads….

www.sreo.org  23

Identifying sectarianism as a product of the
state delivered through education was a
consistent critique of the state's sectarian
policies, yet it also diminished any role that
people themselves might have had in creating
social di$erences. The Syrian army was also
mentioned as an institution that promoted
sectarianism by preventing geographic, ethnic,
and religious mixing. An Ismaili participant
described his experience in the army saying:

As an army person, and because we have
army people from all over Syria, I've been
able to interact with all these people. The
army was careful to separate people, the
regime segregated people to prevent mixing
between di$erent areas. I don't approve of
this personally....as a person I like to
befriend people for personal merits.

In this anecdote the respondent contrasted his
views with that of the regime, and given the
s t at e’ s pol i c i es of di v i di ng peopl e,
intercommunal friendships almost take on a
subversive quality.

In addition to such practices that divided
Syrians on religious, ethnic, and geographical
lines, an Ismaili respondent described how the
regime had speci!cally targeted the Ismaili
community by contributing to the idea that
“Ismailis are ka"rs
so that they would be
targeted by extremi sts. Thi s treatment
demonstrates how some participants did not
believe in the impartiality of the state regarding
religion, just as some individuals did not see
the Ba’ath regime as a protector of their group.
While di$erent groups reported di$erent
treatment at the hands of the regime, the idea
that the regime sought to keep groups divided
was widely held. Whether individuals attributed
sectarian issues to the regime or not, several
mentioned the impossibility of addressing
sectarian issues under the surveillance of the
Ba’ath regime.

On top of the maintenance of social division
prior to the Con#ict, informants from di$erent
sects described how the regime contributed to
the sectarianization of the Con#ict, particularly
through arming minorities and creating militias.
One Ismaili described how the regime tried to
separate Ismailis from Sunnis by providing
arms to a pro-regime Ismaili militia. He
explained that these militias have had a
negative e$ect on the larger Ismaili community,
by making it seem like they are with the regime
and not the “revolution.” He also described how
the media was contributing to sectarianism by
portraying the “revolution” as a “Sunni

While the state was considered guilty in
creating social division and promoting sectarian
con#ict, religious extremists, particularly
foreign !ghters, were blamed for violence and
threats against minorities. As one Syriac
reported, “When the foreigners
came here,
they viewed us as being in di$erent religions,
and my own religion became separate as
well...They viewed us like ‘this one is Christian,
www.sreo.org   24
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.)*/*0(1-2+# (3 4,0#56 London: Cneworld Þubllcauons.
1he lnformanL ls referrlng Lo ñghLers from exLremlsL lslamlsL groups such as Lhe lslamlc SLaLe of lraq (lSlS) and
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nusra. lSlS ln parucular ls noLorlous for lLs sLrlcL lnLerpreLauon of lslam and reporLed lnLolerance of non-Sunnl
facuons. Large numbers of lSlS are reporLed Lo be non-Syrlan [lhadlsLs comlng from abroad, hence Lhe label

this one is Alawite’...I don’t understand how you
can just kill anyone based on that.” Another
Syriac noted the distinction between foreign
and Syrian extremists, saying, “of course now,
we are being targeted by foreigners. Syrian
!ghters don’t target us. Even the Syrians who
are extremist Muslims don’t target us, because
they know us.” The assumption in this
statement was that years of cohabitation
precluded Syrian extremists from targeting
Syrian Christians. The externalization of blame
regarding religious persecution allowed
participants to maintain their narrative of

Migration Trends: Factors Precipitating

Syrian religious minorities reported various
reasons for leaving that included fears for their
safety related to religious persecution from
extremists, political persecution, economic
reasons, and the threat of general violence.
Figure 2 below outlines the reasons informants
gave for their decision to migrate from Syria.

While these examples demonstrate a diversity
of reasons for leaving Syria, security reasons,
both related to the regime and opposition or
extremist elements, were the main reason for
migrating. Syriac Christians living in Hassakeh
saw themselves as particularly vulnerable to
attack, and cited kidnappings and other
incidents as evidence of the endangerment of
the Syriac community. One elderly Syriac man
connected the “oppression” of his community
with the oppression that caused his family to
leave Turkey nearly a century earlier, referring
to the violence against Christian minorities in
1915. Two Alawite informants expressed similar
fears, both in terms of revenge related to the
Assad regi me and bei ng the target of
extremists. While none of the Druze left due to
fears of religious persecution, concern was
www.sreo.org  25
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Figure 2: Reasons stated for leaving Syria

expressed that ethno-religious violence could
target their communities. The Ismailis were
split between the threat of the regime and
religion !guring into their departure from Syria.

The fact that 12 people reported political
reasons as necessitating their departure
demonstrates that a signi!cant amount of
minorities were involved in the uprising and in
protesting the regime, counter to the narrative
t hat mi nor i t i es suppor t t he regi me.
Additionally, the four interviewees who
defected from the military left for political
reasons, although it should not necessarily be
read as support for the uprising. The Syriac and
Alawite participants who defected cited moral
reasons for their defections. As one Alawite
stated: “I left Syria because of the killing, I don’t
want to kill anybody, Allah didn’t order us to

These examples demonstrate the complexities
behind peoples’ migration decisions, and the
multiple ways that war and con#ict have
a$ected all people in Syria.

Host Community Tensions: Importation
of Sectarian Con!ict

Many interviewees reported instances of
discrimination or discomfort among Turks in
the host community, as well as among their
fellow Syrians, suggesting that they had not
entirely managed to escape sectarianism in
Syri a. In addi ti on to encounteri ng the
augmented sectarian perspectives of other
Syrian refugees in the host environment,
interviewees encountered the prejudices of
Turks towards minorities, particularly towards
Christians. Furthermore, Turkey’s own sectarian
issues have been aggravated by the Syrian
Con#ict, particularly in Antakya which has a
considerable Alawite population.

Many minorities residing in Turkey reported
negative relations with Turks, which they
attributed not to their religious identity but to
negative perceptions and stereotypes about
Syrians in Turkish host communities. This was
noted by a Druze who stated that "they [Turks]
think we're all in Jabhat al-Nusra." While
prejudices against Syrians were reported as
general and not religiously motivated, Syrians
were still perceived by Turks as being
excessively conservative. Additionally, several
i nt er vi ewees s har ed t hat t hey wer e
discriminated against both as Syrians and as
members of a religious minority. As one Ismaili
reported, “unfortunately, Turkey has been
a$ected by the sectarianism in Syria, they're
treating us in a very sectarian way. On top of
being discriminated against as Syrians, we’re
being discriminated against for our sects.”
Another Ismaili recounted how he had lost a
job at a restaurant due to not participating in
Friday prayers, and added that “the same
sectarian problems [as in Syria] exist here.” He
related an anecdote in which he gave testimony
about human rights violations to a Turkish
human rights organization. Although he
reported crimes from both the regime and the
rebels, the organization only recorded the
crimes of the regime. For him, this provided
evidence of Turkey’s sectarian interests in the
Syrian Con#ict.

In contrast to the negative treatment described
above, an Alawite woman in Antakya reported
feeling “more at ease” in Turkey than in Syria, as
she did not encounter the same stigma
attached to Alawites that she had experienced
in Syria. Similarly, an Ismaili woman reported
positive treatment in Antakya based on
www.sreo.org   26

assumptions that she is Alawite. Both positive
and negative treatments in these cases can be
grounded in the sectarianism of the Syrian
Con#ict and its spillover into Turkey.

For Syriac Christians, the lack of interactions
with the host community, particularly Turkish
Syriacs, took on its own signi!cance due to the
historical connections they shared. All the
Syriacs interviewed in the city of Mardin had
origins in surrounding areas, and were
particularly disappointed by the lack of
interactions with their co-religionists. Although
one Syriac reported that Turkish relatives
facilitated his acceptance by the community,
others reported negative or non-existent
relationships with Turkish citizens, including
Syriacs. Two other Christian informants, a
Syriac woman and a Roman Orthodox woman,
referred to the di%culties inherent in being
Christian in the overwhelmingly Muslim-
dominant context of Turkey.

Although most Syrians interviewed interacted
with a diverse group of people both inside Syria
and in their host community, many indicated
fears or negative experiences related to their
sectarian belonging. One Alawite described his
experiences at work in Turkey: “I don’t say I am
Alawite, I have problems at work and was
accused of being a [regime] informer and a
spy.” For this reason, this man generally
avoided disclosing his religious identity.
Similarly, a Syriac woman discussed her
negative experiences working with refugees in
Antakya who were suspicious of her when they
found out she was Christian, assuming that she
was pro-regime. She also reported that the
predominantly Sunni Syrian community in
Gaziantep regarded her with disapproval
because she was unveiled. These examples
demonstrate the extent to which religious
identities have been politicized and are
assumed to correlate to political outlook. In this
context, the intensity of political viewpoints has
been t r ans f er r ed t o i nt er c ommunal

Syrian minorities reported experiencing
sectarianism in their host communities in
di$erent ways that related to their sect,
geographic location, and local demographics.
While few reported direct threats to their
physical safety, it was clear that sectarian
tensions from Syria had followed them and had
in many ways been reproduced in Turkey.

Perspectives on Religious Leadership

Despite the alleged secularism of the Syrian
state, sects have very much been treated as
political units, and religious leaders have
served as intermediaries between their
communities and the state. Given the insecurity
that all groups reported during the Con#ict due
to threats from both the regime and external
actors, leadership had a potential role to play in
protecting the interests of these groups despite
the lack of viable solutions in most cases. While
i ndi vi dual s reported varyi ng l evel s of
involvement regarding religious and political
leadership in protecting their communities,
overwhelmingly, informants across all sects
reported a lack of leadership in protecting their
interests in Syria. Religious leaders were largely
reported to be politically self-interested or
completely absent and not protective of
community interests.

Not surprisingly, two Alawite respondents
described the complete incorporation of their
religious leadership into the state, thereby
inherently politicizing their religious leadership.
One of these participants further elaborated
www.sreo.org  27

that “Alawite sheikhs are the hand of the
regime.” Both of these participants noted the
presence of neutral Alawite sheikhs who
promoted peace, but indicated that these
leaders are “weak” and “have no voice.”

Amongst t he Dr uze i nt er vi ewed, t wo
participants reported that the community had
not been protected by Druze leadership.
However, one Druze informant noted that
some religious !gures have mobilized to
protect Druze and non-Druze members of their
geographical community. Another Druze
described how throughout the Assad regime,
the state had sought to neutralize some forms
of leadership while promoting pro-Ba’ath
!gures. Now due to the sectarian tension, the
regime has encouraged these leaders to create
armed militias, ostensibly to protect the
community from religious extremists. He said,
“They may think they are protecting the
community, but this is debatable.” Such
statements show that for the participants,
protection is not necessarily equated with
armed protection against religious extremists.
Furthermore, arming and engaging militarily
was seen as endangering the community.

Ismailis similarly described regime interference
with their community leadership in terms of
who they promoted and their attempts to
direct this leadership. One Ismaili explained
that the regime wanted the Ismaili higher
council to legitimize Ismaili militias, but that the
elders rejected this initiative. Another Ismaili
stated that while most well-known Ismaili
politicians have been arrested, the Ismaili
leadership in Salamiya tried to “neutralize” the
community as much as possible: “They didn’t
protect our interests, so much as they directed
our views.” Another interviewee stated that the
higher-up members and employees of most of
the Ismaili organizations in his hometown are
“agents of the regime,” and have been planted
there to monitor anti-regime views. He said, “I
don’t depend on them for a single thing.” In
sum, the local leadership was perceived as
in!ltrated by the regime, and attempts to direct
the I smai l i s i deol ogi cal l y were vi ewed

All of the Syriacs interviewed cited a lack of
leadership on the part of their priests, with
many noting that most priests had #ed the
country. One Syriac woman noted that even
before the Con#ict, many of the priests were
sending their children abroad to be educated.
She related an anecdote about her brother’s
experience with the Syriac church’s community
support wing in her hometown. Her brother
and his friend had requested a piece of
property from the church in which to open a
small store, and when they went to the church
the committee said “just migrate.” These
examples indicate a lack of investment in the
future of Christians in Syria on the part of
Christian leadership. A Syriac male explained
that there was a lot of resentment against the
priests, as they were the !rst to #ee. Another
elderly man credited the Assad state with
protecting the minorities, and said that while
priests had protected Christians before the
Con#ict, by now most had left and not had any
role in protecting their communities. He
facetiously threatened, “If I got a hold of one of
those priests (who #ed), I’d bite him in the
neck!” A young man described how the regime
had given the Kurds weapons, but the Christian
leaders had not taken advantage of this option.
For hi m and another parti ci pant, they
considered protection to be armed protection.

Christians of other denominations described
not just an absence of religious leadership, but
www.sreo.org   28

also a leadership that had been corrupted by
the regime. According to a woman of Greek
Orthodox background, religious leaders were
instrumental in cementing her community’s
support for the regime. She accused leaders of
“manipulating” the people and “looking out for
t hei r own i nt erest s rat her t han t he
community’s.” A Roman Orthodox participant
di$erentiated between church leaders who
supported the regime and those who tried to
maintain neutrality: “the reasonable ones tried
to preserve the humanity and neutrality in our
relations with others. However, those that were
sectarianist tied themselves to the regime, and
linked their survival with that of the regime,
because they were corrupt in the !rst place.” It
is worth noting that she designated the priests
supporting the regime as “sectarianist” despite
the secular rhetoric of the regime. Noting the
alliance between some priests and the regime,
a Catholic in Damascus described priests “who
were obviously asked to out any parishioners
who were with the opposition” and “had no role
in protecting the interests of the people.”
Another Catholic informant compared Syria
with Lebanon, saying, “when you talk about
Lebanon you have political and religious
leadership that takes a role in protecting
peopl e, we don' t have t hi s at al l i n
Syria...Because of the illusion that Assad gave
the Christians that he is a protector of them,
this caused leaders to lose their roles in
protecting their groups.” The clear political
a%liations of leaders and the state narrative of
minority protection were seen as preempting a
meaningful role for Christian leadership due to
their lack of neutrality, as well as reliance on
the state for protection.

A Yazidi informant equated leadership of his
communi t y wi t h t he Kurdi sh pol i t i cal
l eadershi p: “unfortunatel y, our Kurdi sh
leadership su$ers from lots of political splits.
What’s important for the leadership is their
own interests and not the interests of the
public. They do nothing for Kurds and this
always frustrates me.” This statement indicated
his identi!cation within the broader Kurdish
community, rather than a Yazidi community,
and echoed the same frustrations as that of
religious minorities.

What constituted protection and leadership
among informants for this study di$ered
accordi ng to sect, pol i ti cal a%l i ati on,
geographic location, and perceived and real
threats faced by people as individuals and
communities. While individuals cited di$erent
desires and criticism regarding their leadership
(or lack thereof), all respondents were in
agreement regarding a lack of leadership for
their community, and more interestingly,
situated their community as in need of
prot ect i on, regardl ess of rel i gi osi t y.
Respondents portrayed a political landscape
where neutrality was impossible, and where
attempts to maintain community neutrality
were either ignored or considered weak.
Whether a stronger leadership would have
induced minorities to remain in Syria is unclear,
yet it is clear that leadership did not add to
perceptions of minority security in Syria.

Fear in Religious Minority

While participants did not express personal
prejudices against various ethnic or religious
groups, they often expressed personal fears
and fears for their community. These fears
acted upon group perceptions and relations;
although community-based anxieties had
increased due to the Con#ict, many groups
www.sreo.org  29

reported previous fears that often had
historical roots. One Alawite expressed the
fears of his community as going back centuries,
related to the general persecution and outsider
status of Alawites. According to him, as a result
of this fear, many Alawites tried to remain
inconspicuous or closed o$. As such, the
children in his family were given very general
names so as not to reveal their Alawite
identities. He added that the Alawites have a
distinct accent, and in school in Aleppo they hid
their background by speaking the Aleppine
accent. Two of the Alawite respondents
discussed the threat they were under due to
the Con#ict. One stated that “even if a Sunni
smiles at an Alawite now, the Alawite knows
that this is his enemy - I know this from my
time in the army.” Another Alawite claimed that
“they want to make the Alawites go back to
working as servants in homes,” a reference to
the lower-class status of Alawites prior to Assad
rule, and added that “the fall of the regime will
determine the future of the Alawites.” In e$ect,
anxieties have always been present in the
Alawite community, and now that the Assad
regime is under attack, the possibility of
revenge violence looms as a possible threat.
Tying their fate to the regime was not related to
pr o- r eg i me f eel i ng s , but r a t her a n
acknowledgment of their reality.

Historical animosities also !gured into the
narratives of Christians. One male Catholic
described how fears played into Christians’
responses to the Con#ict: “there were rumors
coming from adjacent neighborhoods about
Islamist rebels demanding payments from
Christians [as in Ottoman times], and this
caused a lot of fear and turned many Christians
away from the anti-Assad opposition. By the
end of 2011, many Christians were with the
regime.” The evocation of Ottoman minority
taxes re#ected the potency of historical
memory i n mobi l i zi ng Chri sti an fears;
additionally, the fact that fear was evoked as
causing Christians to support the regime
indicated the survivalist mentality that has
motivated this support.

Other groups cited similar fears motivating
their communities’ support for the regime. One
Druze reported, “those with the regime can’t
see an alternative and are afraid of that
alternative.” Another Druze noted the presence
of Islamist !ghters as deterring Druze from
supporting the “revolution.” In these cases, it is
di%cult to assess where fear of Islamism ends
and support for the regime begins. For an
Ismaili woman, the increasingly sectarian
behavior of people during the Con#ict,
including labelling her as Ismaili, made her feel
threatened i n ways that she had not
experienced prior to the Con#ict.A Yazidi
suggested that fear has always been an
important factor for Yazidis, and made the
point that before and after the Con#ict, Yazidis
have always been in danger, pointing to their
marginalized status in Syria.

External Fears Imposed on Minorities

In addition to experiencing fear related to their
minority status, particularly in light of the
Con#ict, informants related the role of the
regime in reinforcing these fears, both prior to
the Con#ict and during. The dynamics of state
sectarianism along with the politics of fear
promoted by the state have been quite
successful in promoting the image of the
Assads as the protectors of minorities.

Surprisingly, these politics of fear were applied
to Assad’s own community, the Alawites. As one
respondent explained, the regime maintained a
www.sreo.org   30

“discourse of fear, not a nationalist discourse”
in the Alawite community to maintain their
hold. A participant of Catholic origin illustrated
how the regime promoted Christian fears,
saying, “when Christians were celebrating New
Years, you had a huge mukhabarat presence
which was ostensibly there to protect them
from Muslims, and Christians were stupid to
believe this. And if there was ever an incident, it
could be traced back to the mukhabarat.” With
the onset of the uprising, the regime exploited
and created sources of fear to ensure the
loyalty of Christians. As a Greek Orthodox
woman narrated:

At the start, the inundation of propaganda
from regime o%cials painting the opposition
as hostile towards Christians really scared
many into following Assad lockstep. A lot of
Christians in Damascus #ed early, fearing they
were targets. A lot had the economic means
and connections abroad – even in Europe and
the States – and thus were able to get out
relatively easily compared to others. Last
summer they began to get shelled, with
schools and public buildings getting hit. As the
con#ict wore on, they became more and more
attached to the regime because the threat, in
their eyes, became fully existential.

Both these narratives reveal the atmosphere of
fear that the regi me sought to create
surrounding Christian-Muslim relations, by
making Christians feel the need for state
protection and portraying Muslims as hostile.

Self-Isolating Practices of Minority

Rising sectarian strife combined with perceived
existential threats faced by groups led to the
increased and self-imposed isolation of many
minority communities. This phenomenon was
reported by interviewees from all groups. While
some informants described their sects as
closed before the Con#ict, these self-isolating
tendencies increased due to tensions relating
to the Con#ict. Informants from Alawite, Druze,
Ismaili, and Syriac communities spoke to this
trend. An Alawite man reported that the
Alawites have become even more closed-o$,
isolated, and violent, because they felt
existentially threatened. A Druze compared
their community with the way it was before the
uprising, and noted that in the last two years
groups have become increasingly self-isolating
and have withdrawn socially out of fear. Two
informants utilized the same word, taqawqa’, or
“retreating into one’s shell,” to describe the self-
imposed boundaries groups developed in
response to their fears.

Paradoxi cal l y, some communi ti es were
reported to have developed greater openness
in response to demographic shifts and
migration. Some groups reacted to these
demographic changes by both relaxing and
tightening their group boundaries; these
reactions were determined factors such as age
and individual outlook. One Druze narrated
how an in#ux of internally displaced persons
to Sweida had such an e$ect, saying that after
the start of the Con#ict, there was a large in#ux
of [non-Druze] IDPs into the region, and many
Druze were compelled to become more open
to these new neighbors. This helped to dissolve
“the fear of the other” that had prevailed in
Sweida before, and precipitated a rise in “
awareness” among the community.

www.sreo.org  31
lnLernally dlsplaced persons, or luÞs, are persons who have ßed Lhelr homes and soughL refuge ln oLher areas of
Lhelr own counLry.

Another Druze noted mixed impacts within the
Druze community remaining inside Syria, and
explained that “some [in the community] have
become more open-minded due to their
positive involvement in the revolution. They
have come to see the positive possibilities of a
democratic Syria. Even though [my community]
has been negatively impacted, people are still
open and good-hearted.” She further noted
that some of these di$erences in views and
impact are generational: younger Druze tend to
be more supportive of the “revolution,” and
older generations tend to feel that there is no
better alternative than Assad. This sentiment
was echoed by another Druze. Among these
informants, support for the “revolution” was
equated with greater openness towards
di $erent sects, whereas i sol ati on and
closedness was a%liated with supporting the
regime, which demonstrated how these
interviewees conceptualized the “revolution”: a
liberal, open movement embracing people of
all backgrounds.

A Roman Orthodox informant similarly
described how families have been impacted
based on their ideological outlook:

Families have been impacted di$erently
according to their nature...more intellectually
open families such as mine for example were
more open to the other sects, were in
solidarity with others, and the red lines began
to disappear. But for families that were more
intolerant to begin with became even more
intolerant. They distanced themselves from
their surroundings, and isolated themselves.

For her as well as for the Druze, the “revolution”
provided an opportunity for greater openness
and solidarity with di$erent groups, while fear
and isolation was associated with support for
the Assad regime.

Individuals reported varying levels of fear in
themselves and their communities, as well as
di$erent levels of isolation due to this fear. The
isolation of many groups before the Con#ict,
combined with the fear induced by the Con#ict
solidi!ed pre-existing group boundaries,
despite some rare instances of increased
intercommunal interaction.

Fluid and Reactive Identities

Interviews with minorities also revealed a
stunning diversity in the expression and
conceptualization of group and individual
identities, with most informants indicating
multiple identities that could be contrary or
intersective, !xed or unstable. However,
notable patterns emerged within these diverse
expressions of identity that provide insight into
minority perceptions of self, their communities,
and Syrian society at large, and reveal how
these perceptions have been impacted by the
Syrian Con#ict. Participants articulated their
identity along social, national, religious, and
political lines, ultimately revealing the disparate
nature of individual identities within groups,
and the #uid nature of these identities in the
context of an ambiguous future.

National Identities: What Constitutes

Informants overwhelmingly expressed an
identity on the national terms of Syrian
citizenship, with all but one indicating that they
considered themselves Syrian, and many
pr i v i l egi ng t hi s i dent i t y ov er ot her
simultaneously occurring identities. In following
with the complex nature of identity, many
ambiguities and nuances in the articulations of
national identity emerged. Primary among
www.sreo.org   32

these was the imprecise nature of Syrian
identity, for while most informants insisted that
they considered themselves “Syrian,” the
criteria that exactly produce and maintain
“Syrianness” was inconsistent or unclari!ed.

For several informants, “Syrian” identity could
be de!ned upon the concept of the Syrian
nation-state as promoted by the Ba’ath party
starting in the 1970’s. “Those of us who lived in
the golden age of Syria [referring to the 1970’s
and 80’s], we only considered ourselves to be
Syrian,” explained a Syriac male in his 50s. Such
de!nitions were more common in informants
of older generations, who were subject to the
Ba’ ath narrati ve that superi mposed a
linguistically and geographically de!ned
nat i onal i dent i t y upon regi onal and
conf essi onal i dent i t i es. I nt erest i ngl y,
informants who de!ned “Syrianness” upon this
nation-state concept propagated by the Ba'ath
party were not necessarily supporters of the
regime in the current Con#ict. “I de!ne my
identity as a Syrian nationalist, but I’m against
the regime,” revealed a 57-year old Syriac man,
adding that Syrian national identity entailed a
sense of belonging to a secular nation-state
under a constitution, but this was not to be
irrevocably tied to any ruling regime.

A number of interviewees indicated their
national identities to be concurrent with
religious designations, with most viewing
national and minority identities as not being in
con#ict. For several individuals, Syrian identity
was expressed as an emotional attachment -
often a sense of loyalty and a$ection - that was
compatible with co-occurring identities. “I’m
proud to be Syrian. With all due respect, after
Syria there is no other country,” explained a
Syriac male. To him, his love for his country was
complemented by his identity as a Christian, in
that his Christian faith had taught him to love
his fellow Syrians regardless of their religion.

A signi!cant number of informants placed their
Syri an nati onal i denti ty over al l other
categorizations, citing both practical and
ideological reasons for this. “I am Syrian. I am
proud to be an Ismaili because it has o$ered
me opportunities, but in the end I am Syrian,”
stated a 40-year old Ismaili man, who felt that
the “Syrian” identity is robust enough to be able
to withstand sectarian divisions. Several
informants indicated that privileging Syrian
identity helped them to minimize feelings of
alterity inside Syria and in displacement.
“Usually I’m Syrian...but sometimes when some
people ask me about my religion, I don’t dodge
the question, I answer simply and honestly that
I am Christian,” a female Roman Orthodox
revealed. Such statements support the idea
that a nationalist narrative of identity can be
superimposed to encompass other potentially
problematic identities based on sect or ethnic
background, a theory visited by many scholars
addressing sectarianism in the Middle East.
While all informants expressed Syrian national
identity to some extent, several communicated
a degree of ambivalence over the concept of
“Syrianness.” While this was observed in
members of several sects, such ambivalence
was most prominent in the two Yazidi
informants, both of whom expressly pointed to
the exclusion of both their Kurdish ethnicity
and the Yazidi religion from the Ba’ath nation-
state agenda. One informant, a 35-year old
male, explained that “the Syrian ruling party Al-
Ba’ath had arbitrarily deprived me and my
family from the Syrian nationality and we lived
www.sreo.org  33
See Þaasche (2011) and Schaebler (2013).

in a big prison called Syria...I was classi!ed as a
‘foreigner’ in [my] country of birth. I’m one of
those stateless Syrian Kurds whom the Syrian
regime stripped him [sic] of the Syrian
nationality.” In spite of the prejudicial treatment
of his sect, which had compelled him to move
abroad more than a decade ago, he designated
his primary identity as “Kurdish from Syria.”
This ambivalence over Syrian national identity
was re#ected to a lesser extent in another
Yazidi informant, a 48-year old male, who while
expressing resentment for the Syrian state’s
treatment of Kurds and Yazidis, claimed that his
identity could be described as the sum of
“Kurdish nationalism and Syrian patriotism.”
The persistence of a sense of “Syrianness” even
in individuals excluded from the traditional
Syrian nationalist narrative speaks to the
promi nence of nati onal i sm i n i denti ty
expressions observed across all minorities for
this study.

Projections of Self: Group and Individual

The question of self-perception on individual
and group levels emerged in many interviews
as a key indicator of identity, and a number of
informants pointed to dichotomies between
their own individual identities and that of their
r el i gi ous gr oup. Many i nt er v i ewees
distinguished between individual identities they
had developed on professional and personal
grounds, as opposed to religious identities that
h a d b e e n i mp o s e d u p o n t h e m b y
circumstances of birth. These diverging
identities resulted in di$erent self-perceptions
and projections. A Catholic man who was not
religious explained this saying “when you talk
about identity, Christianity is not an identity, it's
something that was imposed on you and you
are born with...as you grow up, you get to read
and develop your thoughts.”

Within this context of individual and group self-
perceptions, the question of separation
between an imposed or voluntary religious
identity and actual religiosity was addressed by
many informants. Multiple interviewees across
sects indicated a low level or complete lack of
religiosity, characterized by lax adherence to
religious mores. This trend was more prevalent
among informants under the age of 40,
although not completely absent in informants
bel ongi ng to ol der generati ons. These
interviewees often reported their membership
in their minority as a social identity that
con#ated with other more prominent identities,
but still impacted them in that they were
perceived by other Syrians on the basis of their
sect. A Druze who described himself as an
atheist explained that while he was not faithful,
he felt his Druze background informed his
identity in that negative assumptions about
Druze were applied to him whenever he
travelled to mainly Sunni areas. Several other
informants related to their sect on the basis of
family ties, explaining that they felt a sense of
bel ongi ng t o t hei r f ami l i es and t hei r
hometowns despite a lack of religious devotion.
One Ismaili revealed that he felt a sense of
rootedness and allegiance to the town of
Sal ami ya - known for i ts l arge Ismai l i
population - because it was the site of his
family and formative experiences, even though
he was not devout. A male Druze informant
indicated similar feelings towards the town of
Sweida, in which there is a Druze majority,
because of his family’s presence and social
rootedness there. Such statements speak to
the signi!cance of sense of place and social
belonging in identity formation.

www.sreo.org   34

Ultimately, many informants stated that they
resented identity designations based on
sectarian, national, or political criteria,
preferring to be viewed as individuals, or as a
number of informants simply stated, as
“humans.” “[My primary identity is] humanity. I
belong to the world,” explained a female Greek
Orthodox. Such statements were found among
informants of all sects and generations, and
even among those who had at other points in
the interview indicated a strong or even
dominant national identity. A female Ismaili, 25,
stated “I want to be seen as just Reem.
Not an
Ismaili, not even as a Syrian, but as myself.
Treat me like I’m Reem, like I’m human.” These
sentiments underline the ultimately ine$able
and #uid nature of identity, showing it to be
interactive with multiple social, political, and
r e l i g i o u s f o r c e s a n d r e s i s t a n t t o
compartmentalization. This plurality in identity
was found to in#uence the way minorities
viewed their individual and community future

Politicized Identities

The relationship between identity and political
orientation was also widely addressed, and
political events and subjectivities were seen to
be producers and catalysts of new identities.
Many informants indicated reactive changes in
individual and group identities that were
politically motivated by the Con#ict. Three
signi!cant patterns were observed in the way
political events precipitated shifts in minority
identities: the politicization of religious identity
as a result of the Con#ict, a reactive grounding
in minority group identity in response to
perceived and real external threats, and the
production of new political identities in activist

Many informants brought up the involuntary
politicization of their religious backgrounds as a
distressing result of the Syrian Con#ict,
exposi ng them to percei ved or actual
endangerment that in many cases precipitated
displacement. This e$ect was particularly
pr omi nent i n Chr i s t i an and Al awi t e
respondents, although it was brought up by
Druze and Ismaili informants as well. Many
participants indicated that prior to the Con#ict,
they had not percei ved thei r rel i gi ous
background as an overtly political marker in
Syrian society, but that the advent of the
Con#ict had changed this. A 47-year old Syriac
man explained that Christians had held no
political ties to any system of rule over the
course of their long historical tenure in Syria,
saying: “we were there before the Regime,
before Hafez, before the Ba'aths. We have no
attachment to the regime. My cousin in Aleppo
has a store that has been in her family for more
than 400 years. Through the Ottomans, the
French, and the Ba'ath party.” He expressed
resentment that Christians were inaccurately
cast as pro-regime, when many were in fact
apolitical or neutral. A female Syriac, 21, shared
this feeling of being “accused” of being pro-
regime due to her Christian status:

To be honest, I was perfectly happy with the
way things were before. There was corruption
(politically), and things weren’t perfect. But
there is corruption wherever you go, they
expect money wherever you go...I was
comfortable in my life, and had everything I
needed. I wasn’t like those people who
protested because they couldn’t make a living. I
didn’t have any political interests.
www.sreo.org  35
lnformanL's name has been changed.

While she admitted that she supported the
Assad regime, she had never felt this to be a
de!ning aspect of her identity prior to or after
the Con#ict.

All Alawite informants in this study voiced
similar sentiments, with many explaining that
while their religious identities had always been
con#ated with the Assad Regime, the Con#ict
had intensi!ed negative assumptions about the
Alawite community. One Alawite male residing
in Turkey shared that “I never saw myself as an
Alawite before the events. I only started
thinking of myself as an Alawite after the
events when my life was endangered because
of it.” Having #ed to Turkey after being attacked
in his home in a diverse neighborhood of
Aleppo, he felt compelled to conceal his Alawite
background even in displacement: “I am now
wanted by the regime, because I’m in the
opposition, and I’m wanted by extremists
because I’m Al awi te. I don’ t even feel
completely safe here.” He felt unable to reside
in refugee camps inside Turkey, stating that if
his Alawite identity were to be disclosed he
would be subject to attacks in the Sunni-
majority camps.

As a reaction to these politicized identities,
several i nf or mant s shared t hat t hey
experienced a defensive grounding in their
religious group identities in response to
heightened threats against minorities. An
Ismaili male revealed that although he had
considered himself secular prior to the start of
the Con#ict, he had experienced a reactive shift
in his religious identity in response to a
colleague’s attacks on the Ismaili sect. “I feel
more like I need to defend my identity as an
Ismaili, because of the attacks. I was working
on a magazine, and my Sunni colleague wrote
an article about how minorities are disloyal to
the uprising and bring invasion. I feel I need to
explain our history and culture and what it
means to be Ismaili.” Similarly, a male Syriac
informant -an army deserter -explained how
his Christian identity had been strengthened by
the traumatic experience of !ghting in the
regime army. His Christian values dictated that
he could no longer participate in !ghting even
those he considered enemies: “Now, if I were to
see a terrorist [extremist !ghter] about to kill
me, I pity him. I can forgive him. This is what my
religion has taught me.”

Alongside the plurality of identity observed
across minorities interviewed, signi!cant
variation in political views of informants was
revealed, providing a glimpse into the wide
spectrum of political subjectivities in Syrian
minorities. Informants of all sects interviewed
for this study a%rmed the presence of diverse
political views in their communities prior to the
revolution, with many suggesting that the
Con#ict had uncovered new political identities
for members of some minorities. An Ismaili
man shared that his family had been politically
active on both sides of the spectrum for
generations, and that this was not uncommon
in his town of origin. This plurality had
translated to the current Con#ict: “The majority
of us are in the opposition, but some family
members have had other views, communist,
socialists, some were employees of the Syrian
state.” As a result of participating in the anti-
Assad opposition, several informants had
willfully acquired new political identities as

Several informants shared that the Con#ict had
brought about political mobilization in their
communities, by polarizing pre-existing political
views and creating new ones. A Druze male
www.sreo.org   36

informant explained how his community had
been split on political lines, saying “It’s like three
levels: shabiha, the opposition, and the third
line. Shabiha, it’s like Ba’ath, we have religious
people !ghting with them, and people who
believe in Bashar because he is secular. When
they saw [ISIS], they don’t believe that it’s for
freedom, and they got scared...then there is the
third line, of people themselves, !ghting for
Syria, looking for a civil state and civil society.”
Similar polarization of views were expressed by
informants of other sects.

The heterogeneity of identity observed in this
study - whether motivated by political, social, or
personal forces - de!es long-held assumptions
about minority perspectives by revealing Syria
to be a disparate political landscape.

Dreams and Realities

Hopes and expectations pertaining to the
future of Syria were addressed by members of
al l mi nori ti es, wi th most i ntervi ewees
acknowledging a gap between desired and
expected outcomes in the context of an
uncertain future and prolonged instability. All
study informants overwhelmingly expressed a
desire for the !ghting to end as soon as
possi bl e. These were often expressed
apolitically, with the majority of informants
conceding that the end of the violence was
more important than the achievement of any
particular political objective. “I just want safety
and stability to be restored, by any way,
whether by the regime or anyone else,” stated a
Syriac woman. This was echoed in a statement
from an Ismaili man, who although anti-Assad,
felt that the end of violence was necessary in
that the goals that had driven him to activism
were no longer relevant in the face of such
violence. I want the Con#ict to just end as fast
as possi bl e, i n any way whet her vi a
negotiations, or a political solution,” he stated.

Hopes for the establishment of speci!c political
systems were often expressed as secondary to
this desire for an end to the violence but were
deemed as signi!cant factors impacting
minority prospects in Syria. Many interviewees
expressed desire for a secular state that would
not distinguish Syrian citizens on sectarian
criteria, a hope shared by a number of
individuals across all sects and age groups in
this study. “I hope that Syrian identity is realized
in a civil state, and that every Syrian is granted
a status as a Syrian citizen and nothing else,”
explained a Roman Orthodox woman. To have
Syrian citizenship removed from sectarian
designation was a frequently-voiced desire
across all interviews.

The subject of hopes for a future Syria was
inevitably discussed within the context of the
uncertainty of the Con#ict’s outcomes, with
most informants pointing to a considerable gap
between what they hoped for and what they
projected to actually happen. A Druze male
explained that “my dream, it’s like a civil state, a
country controlled by law. For myself, I’m
against all religion, but I respect all people. Let’s
say I dream about a civil society and a civil
state. But in reality, that’s tough.” For some
minorities, their hopes were dashed by what
they felt was the inevitability of an eventual
Sunni state that would not recognize the rights
of minorities. A Greek Orthodox woman who
www.sreo.org  37
78#9+8# are Lhe Assad reglme's armed mllluas, acuve slnce Lhe 1970's and now moblllzed wlLh Lhe reglme army.
lor more lnformauon see 88C news Agencles. (2012, May 29). Syrla unresL: Who are Lhe Shablha? ::' ;-<,6
8eLrleved from hup://www.bbc.com/news/world-mlddle-easL-14482968.

had been an anti-Assad activist for years prior
to the Con#ict, shared that she hoped to see
war criminals brought to justice and for “justice
and dignity and equality for all,” then conceded
that she felt this was impossible, saying “I am
not a dreamer anymore…[The future of
Christians] is in Canada.”

National Agency

In this context, the question of national agency
- de!ned as a conviction of possessing the
ability to tangibly in#uence one’s personal and
group interests inside Syria - emerged as a
central determinant of how minorities viewed
their future in relation to Syria. Those who
expressed a sense of agency in current and
post-Con#ict Syrian government and society -
as individuals and as groups - felt more
positively about their group’s ability to survive
the Con#ict, as well as their security and role in
a post-Con#ict Syria. Several informants felt
that positive qualities in their religious groups
would forward group interests rather than
endanger them: as an Ismaili male explained
“when you talk about Ismailis, you’re talking
about elites, the cream of Syrian society, they
have very clear ideas for Syria’s future, turning
it into a civil, democratic society.” Another
Ismaili man echoed this statement, adding that
he felt con!dent that Ismailis would integrate
into post-Con#ict Syrian society: “my city [the
largely Ismaili Salamiya] is culturally and
intellectually open-minded, and we alongside
other [non-Ismaili] Syrians have a future.” A
Roman Orthodox woman shared similar
i mpressi ons about Chri sti ans i n Syri a:
“Christians in general are the most accepted by
both sides of the Con#ict, because of their
general neutrality. So I expect that the
reasonable ones will have a mediation role in
civil peace proceedings.”
However, the majority of informants expressed
regret over a lack of community and individual
agency to some degree, and this feeling was
particularly prominent among Christians,
Alawites, and Yazidis in this study. Alawite
participants - even those that were anti-Assad -
equated the fall of the Assad regime as the end
of Alawite in#uence and security in the country.
He felt that negative, if erroneous, assumptions
about Alawites among the Sunni majority and
other sects would exclude them from national
participation and endanger their lives. A 35-
year old Yazidi man projected that all minority
groups would have no in#uence under the
current system or a post-Assad Syria: “I’m
pessimistic about the role of my community
within Syria’s future, and this is because of the
bad regime and bad politicians we have and
also because of the silence of the international
community. I don’t think that my community or
any other community will be able to do
anything.” For such informants, feeling
impotent to protect their individual and group
interests held direct implications for their sense
of investment in their country.

Forced Disinvestment

The absence of national agency coupled with
pessimistic projections was shown to resign
many individuals to feel disinvested in their
country. While this was observed in informants
of all sects, Christians, Alawites, and Yazidis
demonstrated a higher level of disinvestment
than other interviewees. This disinvestment
was attributed to a number of factors including
material and emotional losses of the Con#ict,
diminishment of minority communities, and
the endangerment of the sect inside Syria. One
Syriac female explained that the destruction of
their homes and lack of job opportunities
would negatively impact their decisions to
www.sreo.org   38

return, saying that “it would be di%cult for us
to go back to Syria and start our lives from zero
again. We’ve had to start from zero here, and if
we went back we’ll have to start from zero
again.” For many Christians, disinvestment in
the future of Syria was precipitated by the
increasing migration of communities from
Syria. This was voiced by Christians from all
geographical areas.“There will be no role [for
Chri sti ans] , because there wi l l be no
community. They will all have migrated,”
explained a Syriac female from Hassakeh.
“Everyone is migrating, to Europe, America. I
don’t know if there will be anyone left in Syria,”
added another Syriac female.

Beyond this, the prospect of continued
perceived and actual safety threats was a major
determinant of disinvestment: minorities who
felt that their own long-term survival or that of
their group was threatened were largely
resigned to a life outside Syria. This was a
recurring theme in interviews with Alawites,
who felt that their sect was fundamentally
endangered in current and future political
climates. “Before the events, I never would have
thought of applying for refugee status. But now
I see no other option. Of course I’d like to go
back to Syria, but I don’t see that happening”
explained an Alawite man. Feeling that his sect
had no chances for survival in a post-Assad
Syria, there was no choice but to live abroad
permanently. A Syriac male predicted a similar
fate for his sect, saying “we have no future, but
I want you to know that we lived in complete
happiness before the events. There is no
humanity there now.”

Notably, this forced disinvestment was often
marked by deep ambivalence. Even informants
who expressed pessimism on the prospect of
their future in Syria indicated a profound
loyalty to their nation, coupled with a yearning
for an unlikely return. One Syriac male
explained that he was leaving to join his family
in Sweden where he anticipated building a life,
although, after a pause, he added “but I will
eventually return to my country.” Similarly, a
Yazidi informant, though bitterly pessimistic on
the future of his sect within what he expected
to be a fractured nation, said “Syria is the
tender mother that I will return to the moment
the situation improves.” That individuals who
explicitly express deep patriotism and yearning
for their country - often coupled with a$ection
for other Syrians - feel barred from a future
there speaks to the grim magnitude of the
obstacles faced by members of religious
minorities. That minorities feel unable to
survive in the country they love - and
participate heavily in - likely holds serious
implications for both the political direction of
the Con#ict and the eventual demographic map
of a future Syria.

www.sreo.org  39

Conclusion: Whither
Diversity in Syria?

Interviews with religious minorities provided
insight into their varied experiences and
perspectives, showing that group and individual
subjectivities have been irrevocably a$ected by
the events of the Syrian Con#ict. Minorities
presented varied accounts of the sectarian
social landscape inside Syria, with some
i nformants adheri ng to a narrati ve of
coexistence and others reporting a pre-existing,
suppressed cul t ure of sect ar i ani sm.
Interviewees also discussed personal and
community reactions to the Con#ict, as well as
issues of problematic leadership and social
relations both inside war-torn Syria and in
countries of refuge. The role of fear within
minority communities and how it determined
minority political subjectivities and choices was
a prominent theme, showing that the Con#ict
precipitated changes in how minority groups
related to other Syrians. While interviewees
largely expressed a strong Syrian national
identity, the breakdown of intercommunal
relations and the tensions described prior to
the Con#ict indicate a lack of integration that
Syrian identity alone cannot combat. Interviews
al so addressed the subj ecti vi ti es that
contri buted to mi nori ty i denti ti es, and
examined how these identities reacted to
displacement and rupture. Finally, !ndings
showed how the sum of these phenomena
caused many minorities to feel dispossessed of
a future in Syria, impelling many to migrate

In short, religious minority status increases the
vulnerability of these groups both inside and
outside of Syria, and in some cases poses an
existential threat to their survival.

Within these !ndings looms the question of
what these subjectivities mean for the ongoing
Con#ict and the eventual demographic and
political landscape of a post-Con#ict Syria, in
addition to their implications for the fate of
Syrian minority communities themselves. As
the Con#ict enters its fourth year with no
indications of reconciliation in sight, ever larger
numbers of minorities will be compelled to
leave Syria and take refuge in foreign countries.
This would suggest that the future of many
Syrian minorities lies in diaspora, and that
Syria's former diversity will become yet another
victim of the Syrian Con#ict. This loss
notwithstanding, what the absence of minority
voices on the social and political hemispheres
will mean remains to be seen.

While this study uncovered revealing insights
on Syrian religious minority perspectives,
future research is needed to gain a more
comprehensive and ongoing understanding of
the well being and migration of religious
minorities. Future studies will ideally employ
wider samplings of minorities living in countries
of refuge to note whether patterns can be
observed across larger populations. Further
research should also try to gain access to
minority groups who have remained in or
returned to Syria, to note any disparities
between their well-being and that of their
counterparts in refuge.

It is SREO’s intention that these !ndings will
form a baseline for future research that will
further document the experi ences and
perspectives of these groups as the Syrian
Con#ict continues, ultimately proposing ways
to facilitate group relations and promote
mi nori ty saf ety, thereby ensuri ng the
demographic diversity of Syria.
www.sreo.org   40


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