The Syrian conflict long ago metastasized from a two-sided battle between the Bashar al-Assad regime and homegrown forces seeking its overthrow to a full-blown sectarian conflict. Now, foreign fighters and terrorist organizations—including al-Qaeda and affiliate Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Chechen groups, and even the Pakistani Taliban—are imbedded in the country. This exacerbates sectarian tensions and elevates the fears of Alawites and Christians, who do not support the regime and yet rightly fear these groups.
Given the conflict’s sectarian nature and religious minorities’ legitimate fear that they face an existential threat within their own state, it is imperative that these communities be independently represented in all cease-fire negotiations. Additionally, international standards of human rights, particularly religious freedom, must be prioritized in any political transition roadmap that may emerge through the next Geneva meeting or any other platform. Without including minority voices and prioritizing religious freedom, no resolution to the conflict can be sustained. Sectarian violence will therefore continue.
The devolution to sectarian conflict in Syria is not a surprise; in many ways, the Assad regime actually designed it. Syria historically has been a religiously diverse country with a population that is 13 percent Alawite, 10 percent Christian, and 3 percent Druze. However, the Assad family, whose members are Alawite adherents, used sectarian fears to maintain political support among the Alawite community and Christians while simultaneously repressing political opposition from the Sunni majority through the limitation of their religious freedom. Fearing this Sunni majority, Alawites and Christians have traditionally felt that the Assad family was the best option as protector and guarantor of their religious freedoms. From the start of the Syrian crisis, before extremist foreign fighters were even relevant in Syria, Bashar used political and sectarian rhetoric to stoke these fears among minority communities and garner support for his regime. For example, in March 2012, Time Magazine reported allegations that the Assad regime and local government officials provided up to five hundred dollars per month for people to pose as opposition supporters and graffiti buildings or chant slogans at protests including “The Christians to Beirut, the Alawites to the grave.”
Sadly, Assad’s strategy succeeded. Today, two-and-a-half years since the conflict began, sectarian violence is clearly a reality. Examples of this phenomenon include the recent attack on Maaloula, a town with a Christian majority population that speaks a dialect of the Aramaic language of Jesus; increased in-fighting among extremist and moderate rebel forces; and the 25 September statement by eleven rebel groups denouncing the authority of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) and calling for Syria to be an Islamic state based on sharia law.
In addition, minority religious communities are woefully underrepresented in the Syrian National Coalition and the larger Syrian Opposition Council. With the opposition offering no protection, Syria’s religious minority communities are left to choose between extremist groups, like al-Qaeda and its affiliates, or the Assad regime that has similarly targeted them. Over the course of the conflict, Assad has targeted any individual or group that actively supports the opposition or refrains from actively supporting him. For example, according to a September 2013 report by the Syria Network for Human Rights, the Syrian regime attacked thirty-three churches and used many more as military barracks and headquarters to shell neighboring areas.
I have seen the effects of this predicament firsthand. In June, my colleague and I traveled on behalf of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) to Jordan and Egypt. In meetings with United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and its program implementers we learned that, even then, Alawites and Christians were not registering with the refugee body because they feared negative repercussions from Sunni refugees identifying them with the regime or that if Assad stays in power and they return to Syria, they will be viewed as disloyal for having sought safe-haven in a neighboring country and possibly face retaliation.
With religious minority communities fearing opposition rebels and many not supporting or weary of the regime itself, it is clear they need their own independent voice at the negotiating table. Since no current faction represents their concerns, needs, or long-term interests, the international community should include representatives of minority religious communities in discussions about any political transition at the upcoming Geneva meeting or future negotiations. Giving them a seat at the table will lessen future sectarian violence, facilitate political cooperation, and bolster human rights and religious freedom. Furthermore, it will help Syria maintain its religious diversity, raising the prospects that the country will emerge from this conflict not as an Islamic autocracy but as a liberal democratic state that protects and promotes international standards of human rights, including religious freedom.