The rise of ISIS, and global concern about the humanitarian and security threats that the group represents, have reframed the Syrian uprising as a brutal sectarian war. But violent sectarianism on this scale has no precedent in Syrian history, which is rather characterised by religious diversity and pluralism. The evolution of the current situation can only be understood in the context of the country's geopolitical history, in which religious groups were at times used as strategic tools by imperial powers.
Several places in Syria bear testament to the country's rich religious heritage. A star tourist attraction before the war was the ancient city of Palmyra, in the Syrian desert, with the Temple of Baal, a powerful pagan god emerging from several different religious traditions in the centuries before the Common Era. A short trip northeast of Damascus is a town spectacularly nestled in a mountainous ravine called Maalula, a largely Christian town that is known as the last place on earth where Aramaic, the language of Jesus, is spoken. In Aleppo to the north there are churches in Christian quarters belonging to Syrian Orthodox, Syrian Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholics, and Armenian Orthodox, although since 2012 there has been widespread destruction of Aleppo's ancient heritage.
"Sectarian violence on this scale has no precedent in Syrian history. "
The rest of the country is full of historical and religious sites belonging to the dominant religion in Syria, Islam, which arrived shortly after the death of the Prophet Mohammed in the 7th century. Islam came upon a largely Judeo-Christian environment that had been under Roman and Byzantine rule. It was the minority religion in the area for some time after the Islamic conquests, especially as the Muslim conquerors showed great tolerance of existing Judeo-Christian traditions whose practitioners were viewed as ecumenical cousins. But being a part of the religion of the political and social elite, as well as escaping a poll tax, led to a steady conversion that turned Syria into one of the primary bastions of Muslim power during the medieval Islamic period.
With this also emerged a variety of Islamic sects amid the growing pains of the dramatic expansion of Islam and the development of religious dogma. As elsewhere in the Islamic world, heterodox forms of Islam, particularly variants of Shia Islam, appeared in Syria. The mountainous areas in the western littoral of Syria and in what is now Lebanon provided safe havens for even more esoteric Islamic sects escaping persecution by the Muslim establishment, primarily Druze and Alawites (or Nusayris) from the 9th to 11th centuries onward.
When the Ottoman empire expanded southward into Syria in 1516, its leaders had the good sense to recognise the diverse nature of the area based on ethnicity, religion, geography, and economic orientation in terms of trade routes. It was thus divided into semi-autonomous provinces where, under the Ottoman millet system, religious minorities were accorded protection as well as a certain amount of religious freedom and legal independence in family and religious matters. Therefore, the religious and ethnic mosaic that is Syria continued unabated despite some isolated moments of sectarian conflict.
Unfortunately, the British and French, upon defeating the Ottoman empire in World War One, amalgamated various Ottoman provinces in the Middle East based more on geo-strategic factors than anything else, artificially mapping out what would become nation-states such as Iraq, Jordan, and Syria. All of a sudden there were countries that had little to no tradition as a single cultural or administrative national unit. Often the only thing that kept these states together – and not breaking up into their constituent parts – was British and French power or single party authoritarian military dictatorships.
The French mandate in Syria between the world wars was onerous for most Syrians. The European powers would often support long downtrodden minority sects, especially Christians (as the French did with the Maronites in Lebanon) or even groups such as the Alawites and the Druze in Syria, who were looking for any opportunity for upward social mobility. The Alawites entered the French-sponsored Syrian army in droves when the majority Sunni population looked askance at any form of cooperation with what they saw as an imperialist occupier. So when the military became a primary arbiter of power in post-independence Syria, particularly after important elements joined the up and coming Ba'ath party, the Alawites were well-positioned in the emerging power structure, epitomised by the rise of Bashar al-Assad's father, Hafiz al-Assad, in 1970. It was a long, hard-fought road to the top for the Alawites, and they were going to vigorously protect their newfound political and socio-economic position vigorously. This is as true today as it ever was, and it is ultimately behind the desperate attempts by the regime to stay in power in the face of their most serious threat to date.
In this religious mosaic, much as the French did, the Alawites employed classic divide and rule tactics along with strategic cooptation, largesse, and repression to maintain power. With a turbulent political history so vividly in the recent past, for forty years they successfully offered Syrians the bargain of more stability and security in an unstable and dangerous regional environment in return for subservience. In doing so, the Assads aligned themselves with other religious minorities in Syria, especially the 10 per cent Christian population in the country, to form a vital support base. As in the case in any context, minority ruling regimes – and their supporters – pay a brutal price when they are overthrown. Even co-religionists who opposed them get swept up in a blood-soaked wave of vengeance. Certainly many Alawites believe it is their sacred duty to protect their community in what has increasingly become a more sectarian conflict, even if they don't particularly like the regime itself. From their perspective, especially with the rise of Sunni extremists such as ISIS, hell-bent as this group seems to be to eradicate the Alawites and others it categorises as unbelievers, it has become a case of sink or swim together for the sake of survival.
In the end, what made Syria a secular political system to accommodate the minority ruling apparatus, as well as the vibrant mixture of religions ultimately, contributed to separation, estrangement, and animosity under the weight of rebellion, a combustible brew millennia in the making.