The Syrian regime has manipulated sectarianism and followed a secular approach, leading minorities and Syrian elites to choose stability ahead of democracy.
Poisons of sectarianism have seeped into Syrian character
The motto "Ta'efti Souri", which is translated to "My Sect is Syrian", along with the flag and President Bashar Al Assad's photo, have been avatars of the regime since the very beginning of the turmoil in Syria.
Driving on one of Damascus's biggest highways a couple of weeks after the protests in mid-March, the numerous street posters focusing on "sedition and sectarianism" were striking. The new image on the capital's streets looked as if the regime was promoting those two notions as a form of psychological warfare to frighten the nation and sow the seeds of fear and doubt. The slogans were undeniably extreme: "Beware of sedition's symbols and block them" and "Sedition is worse than murder". Very early on, I realised that Syria had drastically and inevitably changed, but I still do not know what it has changed into.
Among the normal slogans for freedom and democracy, a few protesters in different cities began with a new sectarian slogan: "The Alawites to the grave and the Christians to Beirut." That discourse framed the uprising in terms of hatred and division accumulated over the last 40 years. It triggered the anger and fear of different religions, sects and ethnicities in Syria, driving them to align with the government. The alternative, it seemed, was to be persecuted, killed or deported.
"I detest when people call us a minority," a young Christian woman told me. "Several minorities create a majority cluster too. We have the right to live on our ancestors' land and we have the right to choose our President Bashar simply because we love him."
The diverse social fabric and coexistence that every single Syrian was proud of has become so fragile so quickly. But who is to blame? The question is not important anymore amid the deteriorating situation.
The regime has reigned by manipulating sectarianism combined with a secular approach that has led minorities (Alawite, Christian, Druze, Ismailis, Kurds, etc) and Syrian elites to choose stability ahead of democracy. The state media often adopted a narrative blaming Salafist and other Islamist groups for killing the civilians.
At the same time, statements like those by Sheikh Adnan Al Arour, a Saudi Arabia-based fundamentalist cleric, calling for jihad against the regime has disturbed many Syrians. His narrative is certainly based on extremism, intolerance and sectarian strife, which is a different face of the revolution.
"I hear horrible stories from my relatives in Homs. Christians are being forced out and their shops are being burnt for not participating in the protests," another Christian woman said. "I don't want to witness the same Iraqi scene. This scares me and makes me hold to the regime although I am completely against its corruption, totalitarianism and oppression".
Over its history, Syria has been the host of immigrants and refugees from many nationalities, religions, sects and ethnicities. With more than one million Iraqi refugees in Syria, the worst thing that people fear is the same chaos, scarcity, displacement and sectarian conflict as seen next door.
When the killing started in Homs, a university professor in Damascus told me: "I listen to my students coming from Homs, and I hear exactly the same version of the story from Sunni, Alawite and Christian students. Each one blames the other side for violence and killing ... I believe they are all telling the truth, and that is the dangerous thing."
On the other hand, many Sunnis also fear an Islamist state similar to other Arab countries. "Although I am a Muslim Sunni, I consider myself a minority being a secular female," another woman told me. "Any difference makes you a minority indeed. I am against any sectarian conflict in this country. We should keep our solidarity and coexistence as Syrians no matter the consequences."
Although a civil war has been the topic of conversation and sometimes even promoted, the sectarian complexion is misleading. Political figures from the Alawite, Christian and Kurdish communities have been imprisoned for years on charges related to their activism and courageous stance against the Assad regime, both father and son. They have struggled for democracy, political pluralism and freedom of expression, yet they somehow have been marginalised during these events.
Many Syrians, regardless of sect or ethnicity, cannot see an optimistic outcome in the road ahead and they do have legitimate fears and worries. Both the regime and the opposition are making serious mistakes and many people are caught in between.
The dilemma is particularly clear in Homs, which had the most heterogeneous population living in harmony, and is now in the grips of intolerant conflict.
In a television interview last month, the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned: "There could be a civil war with a very determined and well-armed and eventually well-financed opposition that is, if not directed by, certainly influenced by, defectors from the army."
I have to wonder how the Americans can confirm that the opposition is well-armed and would be well-financed, not to mention that civil war is such a predictable outcome. The question now is whether Syria slides into civil war, as so many sides have predicted, or if the maturity, awareness and genuine will of Syrian people is enough to avoid this trap.
The author writes from Damascus under the pseudonym of Jasmine Roman