Despite the recent agreement by Syria to give up its chemical weapons, the civil war in that country continues to drag tragically on with no end in sight. Although the conflict started as a political revolt against an authoritarian and repressive regime, two and one half years after hostilities began it has evolved into a sectarian death match between the Sunni majority and the minority Alawites who have long dominated the Assad regime.
For those who may not be aware, the ethic fabric of Syria is one of the most diverse – and complicated – in the Middle East. Below are the approximate demographics of the country:
- Sunni Arabs: 60%
- Alawite Arabs: 12%
- Sunni Kurds: 9%
- Christians: 13%
- Other: 6%
It is these ethnic dynamics that are the key to understanding Syria. The Syrian Assad regime has ruled the country for over 40 years, first through Hafez al-Assad and since 2000 through his son Bashar al-Assad.
Most people will be familiar with the two main sects within Islam, the majority Sunnis who constitute approximately 20% of Muslims worldwide, and the Shiites who are approximately 20%. The Alawites are a small offshoot sect of Shiites who live mostly within Syria.
Although the Alawites consider themselves Shiites, they have a rather diverse group of holidays they celebrate, some of which are actually of Christian origination. Because of this, many Sunnis do not even consider the Alawites to be real Muslims. Therefore, from the Sunni perspective, having the small Alawite sect comprising only 12% of the population of Syria ruling over the majority Sunnis is not acceptable from either a demographic or religious perspective.
Meanwhile, from an Alawite perspective, they have the reasonable fear that if they lose the war to the rebels, their sect will not just be out of power but possibly subjected to a massacre by the majority Sunnis. Given that a large portion of the over 100,000 deaths so far in Syria have been Sunni victims of the Assad regime and various Alawite vigilante groups, and in my view it becomes clear that the civil war in the country has devolved into a sectarian death between Sunnis and Alawites.
Unfortunately, while political wars can sometimes be amenable to political solutions, sectarian wars are more likely to be perceived by the combatants as a zero-sum game with total victory or catastrophic defeat being the only options. Sadly, this is where the Syrian civil war stands now.