Syria's Minorities & Split Loyalties: Through the Sectarian Lens

Published February 1st, 2012 - 17:17 GMT

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Alawis: (8-15%) Al-Assad's faith (rumor claims he converted for his Sunni wife). Considered Shia, this religious minority, once persecuted, managed to rule the country. Alawis will be vulnerable if the regime falls. Only some who profited under Assad, pledged support to the regime. Assad was harsher to Alawi 'traitors' than the Sunni majority.
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Image 1 of 13: Alawis: (8-15%) Al-Assad's faith (rumor claims he converted for his Sunni wife). Considered Shia, this religious minority, once persecuted, managed to rule the country. Alawis will be vulnerable if the regime falls. Only some who profited under Assad, pledged support to the regime. Assad was harsher to Alawi 'traitors' than the Sunni majority.

Sunnis:(74-80%)The majority sect has a history of being crushed by this regime. Still, not all Sunnis support the revolution; some had an implicit agreement with Assad. The 30th anniversary of the Hama massacre by the father, which flattened a Sunni uprising, may serve as a reminder to Syria's Sunnis of their score to settle with the Assads.
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Image 1 of 13: Sunnis:(74-80%)The majority sect has a history of being crushed by this regime. Still, not all Sunnis support the revolution; some had an implicit agreement with Assad. The 30th anniversary of the Hama massacre by the father, which flattened a Sunni uprising, may serve as a reminder to Syria's Sunnis of their score to settle with the Assads.

Druze: (3%) Once-upon a time stemming from Islam, the Druze community, form a majority in the Jabal al Arab in southwest Syria. They are ambivalently pro-revolution. Assad's tactic to sway them has been to play on minority fears regarding any successive rule that might not be kind to them, since they were previously persecuted under Sunni rule.
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Image 1 of 13: Druze: (3%) Once-upon a time stemming from Islam, the Druze community, form a majority in the Jabal al Arab in southwest Syria. They are ambivalently pro-revolution. Assad's tactic to sway them has been to play on minority fears regarding any successive rule that might not be kind to them, since they were previously persecuted under Sunni rule.

Christians: (~10%), the bulk are Greek Orthodox & Catholic. This mostly Aramean community divides between pro-regime & revolution sides. Throwing in their lot with the regime, there is a risk of backlash in a post-Assad Syria. Assad has used this to his political advantage. There are also prominent Christians on the vanguard of the revolution.
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Image 1 of 13: Christians: (~10%), the bulk are Greek Orthodox & Catholic. This mostly Aramean community divides between pro-regime & revolution sides. Throwing in their lot with the regime, there is a risk of backlash in a post-Assad Syria. Assad has used this to his political advantage. There are also prominent Christians on the vanguard of the revolution.

Syria's Shia Schisms: This loose alliance generally can be regarded as supportive of the Syrian president against the revolution. It doesn't help toward establishing loyalties that the Shia in Syria are a diverse crew of sub-divisions. The Imamis or Twelvers, the Ismailis, or Seveners and the Alawis.  The Druze trace back to the Shia faith.
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Image 1 of 13: Syria's Shia Schisms: This loose alliance generally can be regarded as supportive of the Syrian president against the revolution. It doesn't help toward establishing loyalties that the Shia in Syria are a diverse crew of sub-divisions. The Imamis or Twelvers, the Ismailis, or Seveners and the Alawis. The Druze trace back to the Shia faith.

Yazidis - A cocktail of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, & paganism, they are dismissed by Syrians as Satanists. Iraq-linked, Kurdish speaking & once nomadic, they have settled in their Arabic environs. They cherish their 'sacred' peacock- Malik Taus- symbolising their preferred fallen angel. Pro-revolution, they don't discuss their esoteric faith.
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Image 1 of 13: Yazidis - A cocktail of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, & paganism, they are dismissed by Syrians as Satanists. Iraq-linked, Kurdish speaking & once nomadic, they have settled in their Arabic environs. They cherish their 'sacred' peacock- Malik Taus- symbolising their preferred fallen angel. Pro-revolution, they don't discuss their esoteric faith.

Ismailis: (1%) mainly pro revolution against al Assad. In older times, known for their violence (the word 'assasins' apparently derives from their name 'hashashin' - known for their drug-fueled killings. Ismailism is the second largest branch of Shia Islam based in Salamia, near Hama. The Ismaili-population have been on both sides of the fence.
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Image 1 of 13: Ismailis: (1%) mainly pro revolution against al Assad. In older times, known for their violence (the word 'assasins' apparently derives from their name 'hashashin' - known for their drug-fueled killings. Ismailism is the second largest branch of Shia Islam based in Salamia, near Hama. The Ismaili-population have been on both sides of the fence.

Imamis (Twelvers): They tend to dwell around Damascus near the Shia pilgrimage sites, especially in the al-Amara-quarter which is near to Umayyad, Ruqayya, and the Zaynab Mosques. Another important site is Bab Saghir Cemetery. The overall number of Twelver Shia in Syria may be around 100.000. They are pro-regime.
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Image 1 of 13: Imamis (Twelvers): They tend to dwell around Damascus near the Shia pilgrimage sites, especially in the al-Amara-quarter which is near to Umayyad, Ruqayya, and the Zaynab Mosques. Another important site is Bab Saghir Cemetery. The overall number of Twelver Shia in Syria may be around 100.000. They are pro-regime.

Judaism: Last counted, Jews number under 200. Syrian Jews speak Arabic & mostly live in Damascus. They are considered a religious community, not a racial group. They are documented as musawiyin (followers of Moses), not yahudin (Jews).The synagogues have a protected status by the government. Their stance in the conflict is reportedly 'neutral'.
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Image 1 of 13: Judaism: Last counted, Jews number under 200. Syrian Jews speak Arabic & mostly live in Damascus. They are considered a religious community, not a racial group. They are documented as musawiyin (followers of Moses), not yahudin (Jews).The synagogues have a protected status by the government. Their stance in the conflict is reportedly 'neutral'.

Syrian Kurds: (9%)The largest ethnic minority mostly support the revolution. Until the uprising, they had no national IDs. In 2011, Assad offered them statehood rights to appease and bring them on side, leaving some Kurds divided between protesting & supporting the authorities. The Syrian Kurdish National Council was formed in 2011.
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Image 1 of 13: Syrian Kurds: (9%)The largest ethnic minority mostly support the revolution. Until the uprising, they had no national IDs. In 2011, Assad offered them statehood rights to appease and bring them on side, leaving some Kurds divided between protesting & supporting the authorities. The Syrian Kurdish National Council was formed in 2011.

Assyrian; Associated with geographic Malula, this ethnic minority, the Assyrians/Syriacs dwell on the outskirts of Damascus. They are indigenous to Iraq, Syria, Iran & Turkey. Commonly known as Chaldeans or Syriacs, Assyrians are Aramaic speaking, descending from an ancient times but have become a minority in their homelands. They support Assad.
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Image 1 of 13: Assyrian; Associated with geographic Malula, this ethnic minority, the Assyrians/Syriacs dwell on the outskirts of Damascus. They are indigenous to Iraq, Syria, Iran & Turkey. Commonly known as Chaldeans or Syriacs, Assyrians are Aramaic speaking, descending from an ancient times but have become a minority in their homelands. They support Assad.

Armenians stand with the Syrian president against the revolution. The Armenians citizens of Syria sought refuge in Syria from surrounding areas where they faced persecution, like the Armenian Genocide. There are estimated to be 150,000 Armenians, on the decline, in Syria, clustered in Aleppo.
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Image 1 of 13: Armenians stand with the Syrian president against the revolution. The Armenians citizens of Syria sought refuge in Syria from surrounding areas where they faced persecution, like the Armenian Genocide. There are estimated to be 150,000 Armenians, on the decline, in Syria, clustered in Aleppo.

Circassians: Originally from Caucasus, support al-Assad against the revolution. Nearly 34,000 Circassians of Syria have suffered since leaving their homeland. By the mid-1860's, roughly 90% of the Circassian population had been killed or forced to flee to parts of the Ottoman Empire, ending up in Jordan and Syria both.
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Image 1 of 13: Circassians: Originally from Caucasus, support al-Assad against the revolution. Nearly 34,000 Circassians of Syria have suffered since leaving their homeland. By the mid-1860's, roughly 90% of the Circassian population had been killed or forced to flee to parts of the Ottoman Empire, ending up in Jordan and Syria both.

As the Syrian conflicts escalates, showing little sign of abating, or of effective intervention, the whole world has been abuzz with the prospect of Syria slipping into a sectarian scenario reminiscent of Iraq and Lebanon.

Syria is a complex not homogenous landscape 

A breakdown of the ethnic minorities and the religious sects of Syria uncovers a picture of confused and conflicting allegiences beset by an ambivalence in orientation toward the regime. The diverse make-up of the minorities of the country alone are not simple to decipher. To make matters more interesting, minority complex usually spawns secretive religious sects who dissemble or refuse to discuss their religion, in order to avoid persecution and so as to increase prospects of survival. Determining the Syrian landscape of political allegiances in times of Syrian unrest and fear for future security is no easy feat. So far, the revolution has contained a whole soup of religious and ethnic orientations spread between the opposition camp and a loyal regime following. 

Which sides of the revolution are Syria's minorities (collectively?) and the majority Sunni sect taking?

Some say there cannot be a sectarian war in a minority ruling country. People doubt the capacity of minorities to wage a civil war.

Hundreds of detained citizens are Christians. Equally among the thousands of 'martyr's' from the revolution a substantial number have been Christian.

While Christians are seen to be firm supporters of the regime, concerns rippling regionally for Christian welfare in times of revolution have been heightened. Syrians remember their Iraq counterparts fleeing to Syrian territory after 2003. Egypt’s Copts have fared no better since the fall of Mubarak, fuelling religious paranoia. There are rumors in the Damascus' Christian neighborhood, Bab Touma, of a Christian mass-exodus to Beirut. Chants heard at revolution rallies have been to the tune of: "Alawis to the coffins and Christians to Beirut."

Religious and Ethnic Minorities:

The population of Syria is approximated at 75% Sunni Muslim, with a 12% Alawi, 10% Christian, and 3% Druze population. Other religions include Yazidis. Combined, some 90% of the Syrian population is Muslim, which includes Arabs and minorities of Kurds and Circassians. Some 10% are Christians, mainly including ethnic Assyrians, as well as Arab Christians, and Armenians.  Ethnic minorities include Kurdish (9%), Assyrian/Syriac, Armenian, and Circassian populations, while the majority is Arab (80%). Alawi, Ismaili and collectively 'Shia' make up a rough 13%.

Converting persecution into power:

Inside cultural references or folklore, tells the dramatic tale of how Alawis rose to power from disenfranchisement, from the subjugation of their daughters who served Sunni masters. In the current climate, old resentment is stirred afresh. 

 

Finally, given the rich variety of this topic inside Syria, what are YOUR thoughts as Syrians, Arabs or curious parties?

A penny for your thoughts!

Share your comments in the space below: Do you think that Syria will spill into a sectarian civil war in the eventuality of the current regime falling? How would such a conflict play out? What shape would alliances take?

 

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