Sectarianism and minorities in the Syrian Civil War

The ethno-religious composition of Syria in 1976.

Ethno-religious composition of Syria immediately before the civil war in 2011[1]

  Arab-Sunni (60%)
  Arab-Alawite (12%)
  Kurd-Sunni (9%)
  Arab Orthodox Christian (9%)
  Armenian-Christian (4%)
  Arab-Druze (3%)
  Arab-Ismaeli (2%)
  Turkmen, Circassian, Assyrian & Jewish (1%)

The Syrian Civil War has been described as an "intensely sectarian conflict".[2] The focus of the conflict has been identified as a ruling minority Alawite government (with Alawites being a largely syncretic Shiite Muslim offshoot from which President Assad's most senior political and military associates are drawn) and allied Shi'a governments such as Iran, pitted against the country's Sunni Muslim majority who are aligned with the Syrian opposition and their Sunni Turkish and Persian Gulf State backers.[3] The conflict had drawn in other ethno-religious minorities, including Armenians, Assyrians, Druze, Palestinians, Kurds, Yazidi, Mhallami, Arab Christians, Mandaeans, Turkmens and Greeks.[4][5]

In 2012 the first Christian Free Syrian Army unit formed,[6] yet it was reported that the Assad government still had the support of the majority of the country's Christians of various ethnicities and denominations.[7][8] By 2013 an increasing number of Christians favored the opposition.[9] In 2014, the predominantly Christian Syriac Military Council formed an alliance with the FSA,[10] and other Syrian Christian militias such as the Sutoro had joined the Syrian opposition against the government.[11]

The Alawite sect of Islam has the second highest religious following in the Syrian Arab Republic and remains at the heart of the Syrian Government grassroot support, however in April 2016 Alawite leaders released a document seeking to distance themselves from both Assad and Shia Islam.[12] Incidents of sectarianism amongst the Sunni population have been said to be rooted in that both Hafez al-Assad and Bashar al-Assad are Alawites, a minority some Sunnis see as heretics. Additionally, the Syrian government maintains a network known as the shabiha, a shadow militia that anti-government activists allege are prepared to use force, violence, weapons and racketeering, whose members primarily consist of Alawites.[13][14] Further Shia sectarian motivations are apparent in the Iranian training and equipping of Shia militants from Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan to fight with various sectarian militias in Syria,[15] as well as alleged Syrian Government coordination with the Houthi of Yemen.[16] Minorities such as the Druze and Ismailis have refused to join these militas or be associated with the government,[17] with even Alawites and Christians who are openly pro government also refusing to join these militas or serve their conscription terms.[18]


After hopes that an era of political liberalization might follow Bashar al-Assad's succession of his father these hopes flickered as Assad tightened his grip. He reined in Islamist opponents but sought to broaden his power base beyond minority sects. He promoted Sunnis to power and restored ties to Aleppo - a Sunni stronghold with which relations had been tense since the repression of the Muslim Brotherhood in the early 1980s.[19]

He adopted a more religious aspect, leaking videos of one of his sons reciting the Qur'an. While continuing to look to Iran for military supplies he improved ties with Turkey. Yet Assad's policy of adopting a jihadi discourse on Iraq and Palestine carried risks and "enabled previously latent ethnic and sectarian tensions to surface, Sunni groups to organize, and unsettled other sects and power clusters who had prospered under his father" Hafez al-Assad.[19]

General issues

Both the opposition and government have accused each other of employing sectarian agitation. The opposition accused the government of agitating sectarianism.[20] Time Magazine reported that in Homs government workers were offered extra stipends of up to $500 per month to fan sectarian fears while posing as opposition supporters. This included placing graffiti with messages such as "The Christians to Beirut, the Alawites to the grave," and shouting such sectarian slogans at anti-government protests.[21] Some protesters reportedly chanted "Christians to Beirut; Alawites to the coffin".[22]

United Nations human rights investigators, concluded that Syrian civil war is rapidly devolving into an "overtly sectarian" and ethnic conflict, raising the specter of reprisal killings and prolonged violence that could last for years after the government falls. "In recent months, there has been a clear shift" in the nature of the conflict, with more fighters and civilians on both sides describing the civil war in ethnic or religious terms, "Feeling threatened and under attack, ethnic and religious minority groups have increasingly aligned themselves with parties to the conflict, deepening sectarian divides", said the report.[23]

The sharpest split is between the ruling minority Alawite sect, a Muslim sect from which President Assad's most senior political and military associates are drawn, and the country's Sunni Muslim majority, mostly aligned with the opposition, the panel noted. But it said the conflict had drawn in other minorities, including Armenian Christians, Assyrian Christians, Druze, Palestinians, Kurds, Yezidi and Turkmens.[4]

Nevertheless, some signs of hope for avoiding a sectarian war have emerged. On 12 February 2013, a CNN report from inside Talkalakh revealed that the town itself was under rebel control, though government forces were only a matter of yards away, surrounding the town. Nevertheless, there was no fighting in or around the town thanks to a tenuous ceasefire between the warring sides brokered by a local sheikh and an Alawite member of parliament. Though isolated clashes have occurred, killing three rebels, and though government forces have been accused of harassing civilians since its implementation, the ceasefire has largely held. The town has returned to a degree of normal function, and some shops have started to re-open. Even the governor of Homs Province has been able to meet with rebels in the town, and has called the ceasefire an "experiment". Both sides reject sectarianism, stressing the need to keep foreign jihadist fighters out of the country. Nevertheless, the mainly Sunni rebels in the town stated that they remained committed to overthrowing Assad.[24]

International positions

United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated that the primarily Sunni protesters "have a lot of work to do internally" in order to gain the broad public support needed to form a genuinely national movement. She added, "It is not yet accepted by many groups within Syria that their life will be better without Assad than with Assad. There are a lot of minority groups that are very concerned."[25] The opposition does include some prominent Alawites and Christians, but it is predominantly Sunni.[26]

Turkey Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been trying to "cultivate a favorable relationship with whatever government would take the place of Assad" regardless of the group.[27]

Saudi preacher Sa'ad Ateeq al-Ateeq has called for the destruction of Shias, Christians, Alawites, and Jews in Qatar's Imam Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab Grand Mosque.[28][29][30]

Arab Sunnis

The areas that have fallen under rebels control are mostly Sunni.[31] Shabiha have been accused of killing Sunnis, prompting kidnappings and killing of Alawites by the Sunni side.[32][33] In addition, there have been numerous reports of sectarian violence against Sunnis by Shiite Islamist groups, which have claimed "We are performing our taklif [religious order]" while carrying out potential war crime killings of captured Sunni rebels.[34] In one incident in late January 2012, Reuters reported that 14 members of a Sunni family were killed by the shabiha along with 16 other Sunnis in a formerly mixed neighbourhood of Homs that Alawites had purportedly fled four days prior.[35] Other reports of security forces targeting Sunni districts and villages date back virtually to the start of the uprising, including the apparent shelling of Sunni neighbourhoods in Latakia by gunboats of the Syrian Navy in August 2011.[36][37] Abandoned Sunni homes have also been systematically plundered to the extent that "the country’s newly flourishing flea markets took on a new name, souk al sunna."[38] The massacres in Houla and Qubeir, both Sunni farming settlements on the fault line between Sunni majority areas and the Alawite heartland of the Alawite Mountains, are said to be part of a plan intended by radical Alawite elements in the north-west to clear nearby Sunni villages in order to create a "rump state" that is easy to defend.[39] The Naame Shaam campaign has sought to highlight the sectarian nature of the Assad regime and the sectarian role of its main ally Iran, which includes attempts to alter the demographic composition of areas of Syria via the removal of Sunni inhabitants.[40] Some secular Sunnis continue to serve in the Syrian armed forces, despite massive Sunni desertions. In addition, some Sunni citizens do not support the opposition as they fear and suffer from widespread devastation as a result of the civil war and fear a future Islamist Syria.[41][42]

In late 2015, US Chair of the United States House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Ed Royce, stated that military leaders had informed him of Hezbollah-led "ethnic cleansing" campaigns; "I’ve been briefed on the fact that [Iran is] even bringing in militias from Hezbollah and their families into Sunni dominated neighborhoods in Damascus and running their Sunni population out as they basically do an ethnic cleansing campaign".[43]

Despite the war in Syria being simpliefied to a "Sunni uprising against the Alawite government", that's far from the truth. In the Aleppo governate, shabiha was entirely composed of and led by pro-Assad Sunni tribes.[44] The Syrian Arab Army at the start of the conflict till now is composed mainly of Sunni Syrians (for example, the 4th Mechanized Division is entirely composed and led by Sunnis[45]), with mixed religious leadership at higher military positions.[46] Sunnis also hold high governmental positions; the Prime Minister of Syria (previously Minister of Health) Wael Nader al-Halqi, the Minister of Defense and also Deputy Commander-in-Chief of the Army and the Armed Forces (previously Special Forces) General Major Fahd Jassem al-Freij, Foreign Minister Walid Muallem and Major General Mohammad al-Shaar, an Interior Minister, are some of the Sunni Muslims in the positions of power. There also operate pro-Assad Sunni militias composed of a Baathist loyalists, such as the Ba'ath Brigades. Brigades are made up of Sunni Syrians and other Arab Sunnis from the Middle Eastern region that adhere to pan-Arab ideals.[47] A Sunni Muslim, Mahmoud Hamandosh, then 19, was well known in the brigades for his exceptional bravery on the battlefield. More than once he rescued his comrades and superiors after they were surrounded. Hamandosh died in January 2014 from a bullet to the head, just as he and the Baath Brigades had pushed into the old city and taken the Farafra area. His funeral was attended by top officials to much fanfare. The striking aspect about Hamandosh is that he hails from Anadan, a town just north of Aleppo and heavily pro-rebel. In fact, one of the most infamous rebel warlords, Ahmad Afash of Ahrar Souria, hails from there.[48] Liwa al-Quds is a pro-government, Sunni Palestinian militia that operates in Aleppo.


A tenth of 250,000 Alawite men of military age have been killed fighting in the Syrian Civil War, leading to major tensions between the sect and the Assad regime; Alawites have begun to set up road blocks at the entrances to some of their villages to stop the Syrian Arab Army from press ganging their sons in to the military draft, telling military commanders: "Go and bring the sons of the big shots to war and after that we will give you our children".[49] Other figures put the casualties at 70,000 Alawite soldiers have been killed, 120,000 others wounded and 10,000 are missing in action.[50] Young men in the Alawite heartland of Latakia have set up safehouses with guards to warn them if security forces arrive to attempt to press gang them into military service.[18] At the outset of the Syrian Civil War, Alawites would chant "Al Assad, or we set the country on fire"; now the chanting regarding Assad has changed to "God willing, we will witness the funeral of your sons".[51] The Alawites have come to feel abandoned by other minority groups, who aren't willing to die for their benefit anymore; "The heady period of unchallenged Alawite ascendance has come to a murky end".[50]

The distribution of Alawites in the Levant.

Discrimination of the Alawite sect accused of being kuffar by Islamists has a long tradition, and present-day Salafists still like to refer to fatwas like that of Ibn Taymiyyah (1268-1328) who considered Alawites more infidel than Christians or Jews. Al-Ghazali (1058-1111) wrote that the Alawites "apostatize in matters of blood, money, marriage, and butchering, so it is a duty to kill them".[52]

Adnan Al-Arour, a Syrian satellite television preacher based in Saudi Arabia, has said that Alawites who supported the government would be chopped up and fed to the dogs.[53][54]

Journalist Nir Rosen, writing for Al Jazeera, reported that members of the Alawite sect are afraid of Sunni hegemony, as they were oppressed by Sunnis during Ottoman times and in the early years of the 20th century, the Sunni merchant class held much of the country's wealth and dominated politics.[55] Following Hafez al-Assad's coup, Alawites' position in Syria improved under the government of Assad, himself an Alawite.[54][56]

During the Syrian civil war, Alawites in Syria have been subject to a series of growing threats and attacks coming from Sunni Muslims, who are the majority of the Syrian population.[57] There have been many reports by Western media of sectarian violence against Alawites by rebel fighters from the Saudi/Turkish-backed al-Nusra Front[58] and the FSA, as in the massacres of Aqrab (December 2012) and Hatla (June 2013).[59][59][60] In September 2013, Al-Nusra fighters executed at least 16 Alawite civilians in the village of Maksar al-Hesan, east of Homs, including seven women, three men over the age of 65, and four children under the age of 16.[61]

In October 2015, the head of Al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate al-Nusra Front, Abu Mohammad al-Julani, called for indiscriminate attacks on Alawite villages in Syria. He said "There is no choice but to escalate the battle and to target Alawite towns and villages in Latakia".[62]

Alawites in Syria are a minority, accounting for less than 20 percent of the 23 million residents in Syria. Reuters investigated the mood and the condition of the Alawite community in early 2012. Several Alawites said that they have been threatened during the uprising for their religion and that they feared stating their names in cities where Sunnis are the majority. Some with distinguishable accents have tried to mask their speech patterns to avoid being identified as Alawites, Nir Rosen reported at around the same time, a phenomenon he suggested was not unique to Alawites in the increasingly sectarian conflict.[63]

An Alawite originally from Rabia, near Homs, claimed that if an Alawite leaves his village, he is attacked and killed. Reuters reported that the uprising appeared to have reinforced support for President Bashar al-Assad and the government among ordinary Alawites, with a group of Alawites witnessed by its reporter chanting for Maher al-Assad to "finish off" the rebels. They were also convinced that if Assad fell, they would be killed or exiled, according to the investigation. Several claimed acts of sectarian violence had been committed against Alawites, including 39 villagers purportedly killed by Sunnis. Some also said that in cities like Homs, Alawites risked being killed or abducted if they ventured into Sunni neighbourhoods.[54] Many are fleeing their homes in fear of getting killed.[64]

The Globe & Mail reported that Alawites in Turkey were becoming increasingly interested in the conflict, with many expressing fears of a "river of blood", [in retaliation to the massacres by the Alawites committed against sunnis over more than 50 years,] if Sunnis took over and massacred Alawites in neighbouring Syria, and rallying to the cause of Assad and their fellow Alawites, though the report said there was no evidence that Alawites in Turkey had taken up arms in the Syrian conflict.[65] A voice purported to belong to Mamoun al-Homsy, one of the opposition leaders, warned in a recorded message in December 2011 that Alawites should abandon Assad, or else "Syria will become the graveyard of the Alawites".[66] Jihadis in Syria follow the anti-Alawite fatwahs made by the medievil scholar Ibn Tamiyah.[67]

The rising sectarianism feared by the Alawite community has led to speculation of a re-creation of the Alawite State as a safe haven for Assad and the leadership should Damascus finally fall. Latakia Governorate and Tartus Governorate both have Alawite majority population and historically made up the Alawite State that existed between 1920–1936. These areas have so far remained relatively peaceful during the Syrian civil war. The re-creation of an Alawite State and the breakup of Syria is however seen critically by most political analysts.[68][69][70][71] King Abdullah II of Jordan has called this scenario the "worst case" for the conflict, fearing a domino effect of fragmentation of the country along sectarian lines with consequences to the wider region.[72]

In March 2013, FSA rebel commander Abu Sakkar was filmed cutting organs from the dead body of a Syrian soldier and saying: "I swear to God, you soldiers of Bashar, you dogs, we will eat from your hearts and livers! O heroes of Bab Amr, you slaughter the Alawites and take out their hearts to eat them!". The incident was condemned by the FSA leadership. Abu Sakkar claimed the mutilation was revenge. He said he found a video on the soldier's cellphone in which the soldier sexually abuses a woman and her two daughters,[73] along with other videos showing Assad loyalists raping, torturing, dismembering and killing sunnis, including children.[74]

In May 2013, SOHR stated that out of 94,000 killed during the war, at least 41,000 were Alawites.[75] In May, an FSA spokesman said that Alawite settlements would be destroyed if the Sunni-majority town of Qusayr was seized by Assad loyalists. He added, "We don’t want this to happen, but it will be a reality imposed on everyone".[76]

Jaysh al-Islam leader Zahran Alloush said that Alawites are "more infidel than Jews and Christians." (أكفر من اليهود والنصارى), addressing the Alawites as "Nusayri" (النصيرية).[77] which was originally from a fatwa about Alawites issued by Ibn Taymiyyah.[78]

Turkistan Islamic Party in Syria leader Abu Rida Al-Turkestani gave a speech after the capture of Jisr al-Shughur inviting "Muslims" from "East Turkestan" to come to Sham in order to "kill" Nusayris (Alawites).[79]

On 12 May 2016, the rebels committed a massacre after capturing the mostly Alawite village of Zara in Hama Governorate.[80]

Alawites within the opposition

While there are Alawite activists opposed to Assad, Reuters spoke to describe them as isolated.[54] Fadwa Soliman is a Syrian actress of Alawite descent who is also now known for leading protests in Homs.[81] She has become one of the most recognized faces of the uprising.[82] Monzer Makhous, the representative of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces in France, is an Alawi.[83]

In 2012, General Zubaida al-Meeki, an Alawite from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, became the first female military officer to defect to the opposition.[84]

According to the Financial Times: "Opposition activists have worked hard to present a non-sectarian message. Video footage of protests in the Damascus suburbs shows protesters carrying posters with the crescent of Islam beside the Christian cross. Even exiled representatives of the [Muslim] Brotherhood, banned in Syria, have avoided sectarian discourse."[85] A group calling itself the Coalition of Free Alawite Youth offered an alternative for Alawites who do not want to take up arms. It invited them to flee to Turkey, promising that "within a few days, will secure free accommodation for them with a monthly salary that will shield them from humiliation."[86]

A new Alawite opposition movement, "Upcoming Syria", was founded on 21 November 2015.[87]


Christians in Syria, who are an ethnic mix of Assyrians, Armenians, and Arab Christians and Greek Christians make up about 10% of the population and are fully protected under Syria's 1973 constitution, which has guaranteed their religious freedom and allowed them to operate churches and schools.[88] However, the constitution also stipulates that the President must be Muslim.[89]

It has been reported at various times of the conflict that the Assad regime has the support of some of the country's Christians of various ethnicities and denominations.[7][8][90][91][92][93][94][95][96][97] However, recently Assad regime recruiters have been shot at while attempting to forcibly draft men in Christian areas.[98]

A CBS report reported that Christians are largely in favour of the government because it claimed that they believe their survival is linked to his largely secular government.[99] An Al-Ahram article reported that the officials of numerous Syrian churches supported the government to extent of turning in members of the opposition within their own churches. Michel Kilo, a prominent Christian in the opposition, blasted these churches and called for Syrian Christians to "boycott the church until it is restored to the people and becomes the church of God and not that of the government intelligence agencies."[100] The Economist claimed that relations between Christians and the opposition, in some areas, were positive, with Muslims and Christians attending funerals together for slain opposition fighters, church-based groups ferrying medicine to rebels, and are represented both in the SNC and local committees.[101] The Economist article also claimed that sectarian animosities tend to be directly at Alawites rather than Christians, that despite the support many Syrian bishops give to the government they "don't carry their flocks with them".[101]

There is a fear for many who argue that the Islamist-dominated governments that have emerged from the Arab Spring have become less tolerant towards recognizing equal rights for Christians.[102] Some fear that they will suffer the same consequences of persecution, ethnic cleansing and discrimination as the indigenous Assyrian (aka Chaldo-Assyrian) Christians of Iraq and Coptic Christians of Egypt if the government is overthrown.[103]

Most protests have taken place after Muslim Friday prayer, and the Archbishop of the Syriac Orthodox Church in Aleppo told the Lebanon-based Daily Star, "To be honest, everybody's worried, we don't want what happened in Iraq to happen in Syria. We don't want the country to be divided. And we don't want Christians to leave Syria."[104]

According to International Christian Concern, Christians were attacked by anti-government protesters in mid-2011 for not joining the protests.[105] Christians were present in early demonstrations in Homs, but the entire demonstration walked off when Islamist Salafi slogans were proclaimed.[106]

Nevertheless, members of Christian sects have not always responded uniformly to the war. The Christan hamlet of Yakubiyah in northern Idlib Province was overrun by rebel forces in late January 2013. Government forces withdrew from Yakubiyah after brief fighting at a checkpoint on the outskirts of the village, sparing the village from destructive street fighting—not a single resident died in the takeover of the town. The population before the war was mixed between Armenian Apostolics and Eastern Catholics, but most Armenians had fled the village with the army, being widely suspected of collaboration. Only some Catholics remained, the group having widely refused to take up arms for the government in Yakubiyah. The two Armenian churches suffered damage as a result of the war. The garden of one had served to house armoured vehicles of the army units who had held the village, and soldiers had used its courtyard as a dump. After rebels took the town, the Armenian churches fell victim to looters, who stole nearly everything of value from them—but also left religious texts alone. The single Catholic church in the village, however, remained untouched. Those residents who had not fled the fighting reported amicable relations with the rebel units occupying the town.[107] However, relations between local Sunni rebels and the remaining Christian civilians in the town broke down catastrophically over the following months. Rebels came to suspect the Christians of harbouring pro-government loyalties, but may have also wanted to seize the property of Christian families. Beginning with the wealthier families, rebels began targeting Yakubiyah's Christians for persecution. In a November 2013 interview, a Christian from the village who fled to the Turkish town of Midyat said that Yakubiyah was virtually empty of Christians now after six were beheaded and at least 20 kidnapped. She also made clear that those responsible were not jihadists, stating: "Al-Nusra didn't come to our village; the people who came were from villages close by, and they were Free Syrian Army."[108]

In 2012 the first Christian Free Syrian Army unit formed,[6] yet it was reported that the Assad government still had the reluctant support of the majority of the country's Christians of various ethnicities and denominations.[7][8] In 2014, the ethnic Syriac Orthodox Christian Syriac Military Council formed an alliance with the FSA,[10] and other Assyrian Christian militias such as the Sutoro had joined the Syrian opposition against the Assad regime in allegiance with the Kurdish YPG dominated Syrian Democratic Forces.[11]

Al-Qaeda linked cleric Abdullah al-Muhaysini raged against Pope Francis over an incident at Lesbos.[109][110][111]

Attacks on Christians and churches

There have been a list of claims by various sources of attacks of persecution of Christians either by groups in the opposition or the Assad regime.

Sources inside the Syrian Orthodox Church have reported an "ongoing ethnic cleansing of Christians" is being carried out by the Free Syrian Army. In a communication received by Agenzia Fides, the sources claimed that over 90% of the Christians of Homs have been expelled by militant Islamists of the Farouq Brigades who went door to door, forcing Christians to flee without their belongings and confiscating their homes.[112] The Christian population of Homs had dropped from a pre-conflict total of 160,000 down to about 1,000.[113]

Jesuit sources in Homs said the reason for the exodus was the Christians' fears over the situation and that they had left on their own initiative to escape the conflict between government forces and insurgents.[114] Other charitable organisations and some local Christian families confirmed to Fides that they were expelled from Homs because they were considered "close to the regime". Islamist opposition groups not only targeted those who refused to join the demonstrations, but also other Christians who were in favour of the opposition.[115] According to the Catholic Near East Welfare Association opposition forces had occupied some historical churches in the old city district of Homs, leading to the Saint Mary Church of the Holy Belt being damaged during clashes with the Syrian army. Opposition groups have also vandalised icons inside some of the churches.[102]

Local sources reported that Christians in Qusayr, a town near Homs, were given an ultimatum to leave by armed Sunni rebel groups.[116] Christian refugees from Qusayr, a town with a Christian population of 10,000 before the war, also reported that their male relatives had been killed by rebels.[117]

The Vicar Catholic Apostolic of Aleppo, Giuseppe Nazzaro, was unable to confirm these reports but noted that intolerant Islamist and terrorist movements are becoming more visible. He recalls a car bomb which exploded near a Franciscan school in Aleppo narrowly missing children present there.[118] However, these reports were denied by opposition groups who claimed that the government forces were responsible for the damage. For its part, the Vatican's ambassador in Syria, Mario Zenari, denied that Christians were being discriminated, saying they shared the "same sorry fate as the rest of the Syrian people." [100]

In a report by Al-Ahram, Abdel-Ahad Astifo, an SNC member and director of the European branch of the Christian Assyrian Democratic Organisation, stated that "The regime's forces and death squads are bombing both churches and mosques in several Syrian cities, with the aim of blaming others and injecting sectarian discord into the country."[100]

On 26 February 2012, Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya claimed that Christians in Syria were being persecuted by the government, the majority of those claims were refuted by official Christian sources in Syria.[89] The Al Arabiya article claimed that the government was targeting churches for alleged support to the opposition.[89] Independent and official Orthodox sources have maintained that the attack on Saidnaya was perpetrated by the FSA.[119][120]

In another incident, Al-Arabiya claimed that government forces attacked and raided the historic Syriac Orthodox Saint Mary Church of the Holy Belt in Homs.[89] Official Syrian church sources maintained that it was the anti-government militias that used the church as a shield and later damaged its contents on purpose.[121][122]

Al-Arabiya reports have been claiming that the Syrian government has been persecuting Christian community leaders by various means. In one instance, a Christian activist sympathetic to the opposition told the newspaper that one priest had been killed by the government's forces and then state-run TV blamed government opposition for his death.[89] Al Arabiya claims have been refuted by Catholic and Orthodox sources which put the blame on the Syrian government opposition, like Syria TV did.[123]

Syrian Christian refugess frequently express fear of anti-government rebels. When the PYD-controlled town of Ras al-Ayn was invaded by Islamist rebels in late 2012, much of the town's Assyrian Christian population fled almost overnight. One refugee stated "The so-called Free Syrian Army, or rebels, or whatever you choose to call them in the West, emptied the city of its Christians, and soon there won't be a single Christian in the whole country."[124]

On 23 April 2013, the Greek Orthodox and Syriac Orthodox archbishops of Aleppo were kidnapped near Aleppo by an armed Chechen group.[125] The president of the Syrian National Council George Sabra confirmed that the bishops are being held by a rebel group in the vicinity of Aleppo.[126]

On 2 July the Vatican reported that Syriac Catholic priest Francois Murad was killed by rebel militia in Ghassaniyah on 23 June while taking refuge in a Franciscan convent.[127][128]

Syrian Churches have been demolished by Turkistan Islamic Party in Syria Uyghur fighters, who exalted in the acts of destruction, and in Homs and Idlib battlefields the Turkistan Islamic Party cooperated with Uzbek brigades and Jabhat al-Nusra, Jabhat al-Nusra and IS (ISIL) compete with each other to recruit Uyghur fighters.[129] In Jisr al-Shughur a Church's cross had a TIP flag placed on top of it after the end of the battle.[130][131][132][133] The Uzbek group Katibat al-Tawhid wal Jihad (Tavhid va Jihod katibasi) released a video featuring themselves and the Uyghur Turkistan Islamic Party attacking and desecrating Christian Churches in Jisr al-Shughur.[134][135][136][137][138] Jabhat al Nusra and Turkistan Islamic Party fighters cleansed the rural area around Jisr al-Shughour of its Syrian Christian inhabitants and slit the throat of a Syrian Christian along with his wife accusing them of being Syrian government agents.[139] The man was 75 year old Nasrallah Hayek.[140][141] The Saudi news agency Al-Arabiya said that the area was Alawite.[142][143] In the area to Aleppo's southwest, the entry via Turkey of Uyghurs into Syria was reported by a Syrian Christian who said they have seized control of Al Bawabiya village.[144][145] China was told that terrorists entry into Syria was being facilitated by Turkey according to the Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem.[146][147]

In January 2016, Kurdish Asayish security forces said members of the pro-Assad regime National Defence Forces were behind two bomb blasts that killed nearly 20 people in a Christian section of the city of Al-Qamishli.[148]

Arab Christians

The Arab Christians are mainly located in western Syria in Valley of Christians who are mainly Greek Orthodox or Melkites (Greek Catholics). The largest Christian denominations in Syria are the Greek Orthodox church,[149] and the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, who are exclusively Arab Christians, followed by the Syrian Orthodox. The appellation "Greek" refers to the liturgy they use, sometimes used to refer to the ancestry and ethnicity of the members, however not all members are of Greek ancestry; in fact the Arabic word used is "Rum", which means "Byzantines", or Eastern Romans. Overall, the term is generally used to refer mostly to the Greek liturgy, and the Greek Orthodox denomination in Syria. Arabic is now its main liturgical language.


The Assyrian people, mainly located in the Northeast of Syria (with the bulk of their population in neighbouring northern Iraq, and others in south east Turkey and north west Iran), are ethnically and linguistically distinct from the main group of Syrian Christians, in that unlike the latter, who are of Aramean heritage but largely now Arabic speaking, Assyrians are of ancient Assyrian/Mesopotamian heritage, retain Eastern Aramaic as a spoken tongue, and are often members of the Assyrian Church of the East or Chaldean Catholic Church, as well as the Syriac Orthodox Church.

Unlike other Christian groups, The Assyrian dominated Christian militias in Syria are primarily allied with anti government Kurdish forces, whose secular attitude and tolerance of the minority has allowed for them both to work well in fighting against ISIS/ISIL, the enemy of both peoples. Some are pro-secularist opposition, with one milita member stating "the [Assad] regime wants us to be puppets, deny our ethnicity and demand an Arab-only state".[150] However, other armed Assyrian groups in Al Hassakah such as Sootoro, ally themselves with the Assad regime,[151] and have clashed with Kurdish YPG forces whom they accuse of trying to steal Assyrian lands.[152]

Assyrian communities, towns and villages have been targeted by Islamist rebels, and Assyrians have taken up arms against such extremists as ISIS,[153] and Assyrians and their militas and political organizations are stauchly anti Assad regime. The Assyrian Democratic Organization is a founding member of the Syrian National Council and have a member of the executive committee of the council.[154] The ADO however have only participated at peaceful demonstrations and have warned against a "surge in the national and sectarian extremism".[155][156]

On 15 August 2012, members of the Syriac nationalist Syriac Union Party stormed the Syrian embassy in Stockholm in protest of the Syrian government. A dozen of its members were later detained by Swedish police.[157] By October 2012, the Syrian Syriac National Council had been formed.[158] In January 2013, a military wing, the Syrian Syriac Military council, was formed, based in Al-Hasakah Governorate, home to a large Assyrian Christian population.[159]

Many Assyrian Christians found refuge in the Tur Abdin region in southern Turkey as fighting reached north-eastern Syrian by spring 2013. Many of them reported to have fled after they were targeted by armed rebels.[160]

By January 2014, the Syriac Military Council affiliated to the PYD.[161]

Several fighters killed in clashes prompted by Assyrians' move to set up checkpoints in Qamishli in fear of ISIL.[162]

Assyrians in Sweden demonstrated in January 2016 against Kurdish PYD-YPG aggression in Syria. The demonstration was organized by the Assyrian Federation of Sweden. More than 200 Assyrians attended the demonstration.[163]


Many diaspora Armenians, from both the Apostolic and Catholic churches, have fled the fighting in Syria, with 7,000[164] emigrating to Armenia and a further 5,000[165] to Lebanon by February 2013. Armenian Christians have been detained and tortured by the Assad regime, leading them to dismiss the regime's claim to be the protector of Christians.[166] In April 2015, the Armenian quarter in Homs was harassed by members of the regime's National Defence Forces (Syria).[167] Controversy over the role of Turkey in the Syrian civil war also occurred due to the manner and means of which Al Nusra sacked the city of Kessab, which was looked at as one of the most significant Armenian majority cities in Syria.


Syrian Greeks have had a presence in the country since the 7th century BC and became more prominent during the Hellenistic period and when the Seleucid Empire was centered there. Today the Antiochian Greek Christians number about 520,000 to 700,000 in Syria, most of whom have Syrian nationality and who live mainly in Wadi al-Nasara as well as the surrounding areas and some in Aleppo, the country's main trading and financial center, and Damascus, who are all Christians, however there is also a small community of Greek Muslims in Al Hamidiyah who speak Cretan Greek to this day.


Main article: Rojava conflict

The Syrian Kurds have positioned themselves as a third party in the Syrian civil war with a policy of not actively supporting / opposing the government or the opposition. The Syrian Kurds have established a certain degree of autonomy in majority Kurdish areas of Northern and Northeastern Syria with support of Iraqi Kurdistan and the PKK. Syrian Kurdish armed forces have been involved in minor engagements with both government and opposition forces to obtain / maintain this autonomy.


The Syrian Druze are concentrated in the southern province of Suwayda (or Sweida) and have become progressively more opposed to the Assad regime during the civil war, with Druze leaders making statements against the regime, Druze religious leaders being jailed for not celebrating the reelection of Assad, and community members refusing to serve conscription terms in the Syrian Arab Army or join pro regime militias.[168] The Druze have been particularly opposed to members of their community being forced into regime military service, with violent demonstrations and kidnappings of regime security forces to force the release young Druze men captured to be forced into army conscription,[169] and incidents of the community breaking Druze individuals out of regime prisons.[18] Some of the small minority of the Druze population who reside in the Israeli occupied Golan Heights (< 3% of all Syrian Druze) have affirmed their loyalty to the Assad regime.[170][171]

In early 2013, it was reported that Druze were increasingly joining and supporting the opposition[172] and had formed Druze-dominated battalions within the FSA.[172][173] In January 2013, "dozens of Druze fighters joined a rebel assault on a radar base [...] in Sweida province".[172] In February 2013, several dozen Druze religious leaders in Sweida called on Druze to desert the Syrian military and gave their blessing to the killing of "murderers" within the government.[173] Lebanese Druze politician Walid Jumblatt, leader of the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP), has also urged Syrian Druze to join the opposition.[174][175] In 2012 it was reported that the majority of Druze villages in the northern Idlib Province were supporting the opposition but were not involved in fighting.[176]

In 2012, there were at least four car bombings in pro-government areas of Jaramana, a town near Damascus with a Druze and Christian majority.[172] The Assad government claimed that these were sectarian attacks on Druze and Christians by Islamist rebels.[177][178][179] Opposition activists and some Druze politicians claimed that the government itself is carrying out the attacks (see false flag) to stoke sectarian tensions and push the Druze into conflict with the opposition.[172][180]

In 2013, Israel is reportedly increasingly reaching out to the Druze of the Golan Heights with the intention of potentially creating a reliable buffer proxy force in the event Syria collapses into sectarian strife and anarchy in the near future.[181][182][183][184]

In early 2015, a Druze delegation from the Sweida province seeking aid from the Assad regime due to increasing ISIS attacks were rebuffed as unpatriotic, as they refuse to join the regime's militias.[17] Druze have refused to join Hezbollah led militas sent by the regime, as they will be expected to be sent to fight Sunnis.[169]

A massacre of Druze at the hands of Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front took place in June 2015 in Idlib. Nusrah issued an apology after the incident. Foreign Policy noted that there is absolutely no reference to the Druze in Al-Nusra's "apology", since Al-Nusrah forced the Druze to renounce their religion, destroyed their shrines and now considers them Sunni.[185][186][187] Nusra and ISIL are both against the Druze, the difference being that Nusra is apparently satisfied with destroying Druze shrines and making them become Sunnis while ISIL wants to violently annihilate them like it did to Yazidis.[188] The Druze land was taken by Turkmen.[189]


Twelver Shias

Twelver Shia Muslims are a small minority in Syria. They are found in a number of villages in rural Aleppo (Nubl and al-Zahraa), Homs (Ghur Gharbiyah, Aqrabiyah and Zita al-Gharbiyah) and Idlib (al-Fu'ah, Kafriya and Zarzur) in northern Syria as well as in Damascus and Bosra in southern Syria.

In October 2012, various Iraqi religious sects join the conflict in Syria on both sides. Twelfer Shiites from Iraq, in Babil Province and Diyala Province, have traveled to Damascus from Tehran, or from the Shiite holy city of Najaf, Iraq, to protect Sayyida Zeinab, an important Twelfer Shiite shrine in Damascus.[190]

In December 2012, Syrian rebel forces burned the Shia 'Husseiniya' mosque in the northern town of Jisr al-Shughur, inciting fears that the salafist groups would wage an all out war against Syria's minority religions.[191][192][193]

On 25 May 2013, Nasrallah announced that Hezbollah is fighting in the Syrian Civil War against Islamic extremists and "pledged that his group will not allow Syrian rebels to control areas that border Lebanon".[194] In the televised address, he said, "If Syria falls in the hands of America, Israel and the takfiris, the people of our region will go into a dark period."[194]

Jaysh al-Islam leader Zahran Alloush gave a speech during Ramadan of 2013 attacking Shia whom he called "Rafidis" and Alawites, whom he called "Nusayris" and the "Majus" (Zoroastrians), saying "the Mujahideen of Shaam will cleanse Shaam of the Filth of Rafidis & Rafidism, they will cleanse it for ever in sha Allah, till they will cleanse the land of Shaam of the filth of the Majoos (Fireworshippers) who fought the Religion of Allah the Almighty","the Shia are still despicable & pitiful though history", "And I give you the news, oh Filthy Rafidis: Just as Banu Umayya crushed your heads in the Past, the people of Ghouta & Shaam will crush them soon, They will make you taste a painful torment in this world, before Allah makes you taste it in the Hereafter, Oh you unclean Rafidis! You will collide into what you've never expected of Power from the Mujahideen of Islam".[195][196][197][198][199][200]

Alloush has called Shia, Alawites, and Iranians by the names "Rafidi", "Nusayri", and "Majusi" (Magi, a term in Arabic referring to Zoroastrians).[201]

When an interviewer asked Alloush "Can you accept a civil, democratic, and pluralistic state", Alloush responded by attacking democracy and claimed that "Our nation has a great thirst for an Islamic state".[202][203][204][205][206][207][208]

Jaysh al-Islam released a video glorifying the Umayyads and the conquest of the Levant by the Muslims.[209][210]

The Islamic Front criticized ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), saying: "They killed the people of Islam and leave the idol worshippers" (يقتلون أهل الإسلام ويدعون أهل الأوثان) and "They use the verses talking about the disbelievers and implement it on the Muslims" (ينزلون أيات نزلت في الكفار على المسلمين).[211]

Jaysh al-Islam released a video showing the execution of ISIS members and showed a Jaysh al-Islam Sharī'ah official named Shaykh Abu Abd ar-Rahman Ka'ka (الشيخ أبو عبد الرحمن كعكة) gave a speech condemning "those who want (ISIS) to achieve" (وما الذي يريدون أن يحققوه), as "of the Madhhab of the Khawarij" (إنه مذهب الخوارج), "madhhab of hypocrisy" (مذهب النفاق), "madhhab of Abdullah ibn Saba' the Jew, who are joined with those under the banner of the dogs of (hell) fire "( مذهب عبد الله بن سبأ اليهودي إنه الإنضمام تحت لواء كلاب أهل النار).[212]

Zahran Alloush gave a speech exhorting his fighters to fight against "the Magi and Rafidi enemies" whom he accused of trying to establish a "Magi state", and a "Persian state".[213][214]

The former official Twitter account of Zahran Alloush zahran1970 which was suspended by Twitter, sent out multiple direct messages calling people "soldier of the Nusayri Electronic Army" and "follower of the Jew ibn Saba'", and "enemy of Allah", along with the last portion of Quran verse 3:119 (قل موتوا بغيظكم إن الله عليم بذات الصدور) which tells people to die in rage and that Allah knows what is in their breasts.[215]


Ismaili Shias are also found around Hama region (Masyaf and al-Qadmus) and in Salamiyah, and were early supporters of the uprising against the Assad regime.[17]

As of March 2015 opposition activists have accused the Assad regime of attempting to stoke sectarian tentions in eastern Hama and Salamiyah, the burial place of the Ismaili sect's founder Ismail bin Jaafar, with recruitment drives aimed at Ismailis for pro-regime militas for the purpose of setting up checkpoints to harass, rob and kill Sunnis.[216] The Ismaili community has been known to be peaceful and aimed at not engaging in any form of sectarianism and avoiding national conflict, perhaps under the spiritual guidance of its cultured Imam abroad, his Highness the Aga Khan IV. An Ismaili delegation that traveled to Damascus seeking aid from increasing ISIS attacks were reportedly told by Assad: "You have 24,000 draft dodgers in Salamiyeh. Let them join", referring to the fact that Ismailis do not wish to be associated with regime militias, and the NDF has stood accused of refusing to protect Ismaili villages and looting Ismaili victims of ISIS attacks.[17]


Sufis Muslims who mostly live in Damascus and Aleppo and in Deir al-Zor. Due to the Syrian Civil War, many are split into pro-government, pro-opposition and neutral currents. Sheikh Mohamed Said Ramadan Al-Bouti, a well-known Sufi cleric who had close ties to the authorities, was killed in a bombing at the Iman Mosque in Damascus. He had strongly criticized protesters and demonstrators in his support for the government. The government and the opposition have accused each other of the assassination. His son appeared on Syrian television where he supported the governments version of the event.

The only Sufi movement to clearly side with the rebels is the Zayd movement. Its sheikhs resisted government pressure to condemn the opposition's demonstrations. On the contrary, Rifai called for releasing detainees, a halt to their torture, and political reforms. The turning point in the Zayd movement’s position occurred when government supporters beat Rifai and attacked his mosque and supporters. He and his younger brother let the country and declared their clear support for the revolution. In addition to the Zayd movement, a number of well-known Syrian sheikhs, among them Mohammad Ratib al-Nabulsi and his students, have supported the armed opposition. Even though the Sufi currently has no significant armed factions as the Sunnis do, observers claim that many Sufi individuals have joined the armed struggle. Some have even established armed factions, among them the Magawir Battalions, the Companions of the Prophet Brigade, and the Descendants of the Prophet Brigade.[217]

During 2013 and 2014, many holy shrines and tombs in the eastern Syrian province of Deir al-Zor affiliated with Sufism have been destroyed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant which have been among the group's main targets.[218][219]


The Syrian Turkmen generally back the opposition and many look to Turkey for protection and support.[220][221][222][223] They have formed their own battalions within the FSA.[220] Turkey has made formal statements of political support for the Syrian Turkmen.[224][225]

One Turkmen rebel commander in Aleppo claimed that over 700 Turkmen had joined his battalion and 3,000 others were fighting the government in the province.[220] He said that Turkmen had "suffered for 40 years" under the Assad government, explaining that Hafez al-Assad "took our lands [...] banned our language and stopped us from learning about our history and culture. He stripped us of our rights and changed our villages' names into Arabic names".[220] According to some sources Turkmen militias as of June 2013 number up to 10,000 members.[226][227]

Since the Russian military intervention in the Syrian Civil War, Turkey has accused Russia in aiding the Assad regime in ethnic cleansing against the Turkmen minority in Latakia.[228] This concern increased as hundreds of refugees were caused by the regime capture of Rabiya in January 2016, with "up to 10,000 people living in and around Yamadi" at risk of further displacement.[229]


The Syrian Yazidis are an ethno-religious group who number about 500,000 mostly living in Al-Hasakah Governorate near the Syrian/Iraqi border. They have suffered for 40 years under the Syrian government as they are viewed as Kurds. During the civil war most have looked to Al-Hasakah Governorate for protection. This ancient community in its Mesopotamian side faced almost an ethnic-cleansing brutality at the hand of ISIS in Iraq.


The Syrian Doms are a semi-nomadic Indo-Aryan ethnic groups who practice Romani mythology and Islam who number 37,000[230] As a result of the civil war, many Doms have taken shelter in countries such as Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq.[231]


The reaction of the approximately 500,000[232] Palestinians living in Syria has been mixed. Some support (or are part of) the opposition, some support the government, and many have tried to keep out of the conflict. There are a number of Palestinian refugee camps (or enclaves) in Syria and a number of Palestinian groups were based there before the war.

During the civil war, there has been clashes between pro-Assad Palestinians (backed by government forces) and anti-Assad Palestinians (backed by the FSA) in Yarmouk – a district of Damascus that is home to the biggest community of Palestinian refugees in Syria.[233] When the uprising began, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command (PFLP-GC) was based in Yarmouk and strongly backed the government. This led to tensions with anti-government Palestinians of Yarmouk. In June 2011, thousands of Palestinian mourners burnt-down its headquarters there.

As the opposition became militarized, the PFLP-GC has helped government forces fight Palestinian and Syrian rebels in Yarmouk. Several members of the PFLP-GC's central committee opposed this alliance with the government and resigned in protest.[234] A number of its fighters also reportedly defected to the opposition.[235]

Dozens of Palestinians were killed by government strikes on Yarmouk,[235][236] which led a number of Palestinian groups to condemn the government forces and PFLP-GC.[234][237] A New York Times article said that these attacks caused many Palestinians to turn against the government.[232] In October 2012, the FSA helped anti-Assad Palestinians form the Liwa al-Asifa (or Storm Brigade).[238] In December 2012, the FSA and Liwa al-Asifa pushed the PFLP-GC and government forces out of Yarmouk.[239] A Israeli newspaper reported that Assad forbade any of the Palestinians fleeing Yarmouk from returning, part of his plan to force Sunnis out of the country.[240]

After the war began, Hamas distanced itself from the Syrian government and its members began leaving Syria.[241] In September 2012, Hamas chief Khaled Meshal publicly announced his support for the Syrian opposition.[242] On 5 November 2012, the government forces shut down all Hamas offices in the country.[243] Meshal said that Hamas had been "forced out" of Damascus because of its disagreements with the Syrian government.[244] A number of Hamas officials have been found dead in Syria; Syrian and Palestinian opposition activists claim that they were "executed" by government forces.[245][246][247]


According to anecdotal documentation, the Circassians of Syria are struggling with a neutral stance like other smaller minorities in Syria. Their villages near the Golan Heights were subjected to skirmishes between rebels and government forces to date.[248] Many Circassians are attempting to return to Russia (to their ancestral North Caucasus homelands).[249][250]

See also


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