To begin with, according to a Washington Institute policy report, “the Assad regime’s core is a family business”, consisting of Bashar’s cousins, uncles and brothers. To be sure, the regime’s inner circle is largely Alawite, but this may be attributed to its “kinship nature” rather than a predisposition towards sectarianism.
More specifically, Assad is first and foremost a realpolitik autocrat, not an idealist champion of Alawite minority rights, and his power structure reflects a desire to distribute patronage amongst close family and friends, not elevate a heterogeneous minority out of poverty and marginalization.
The 2012 protests also demonstrated the opposition’s lack of serious concern for ethno-religious affiliation. Its main demands were socio-economic and political, not sectarian. Driven by an under employed and disenchanted youth, these activists were inspired by the Arab Spring, not overriding sectarian demands. The realities of forty years of autocratic rule, not hostility towards Alawites, prompted the initial uprising against Assad.
In reality, it is the Saudi-Iranian Cold War that essentially drives the steady transition towards a “sectarian” conflict. Both countries have exploited Syria’s ethno-religious diversity as an effective tool in their wider proxy war. In search of natural allies, the two countries have favored ethno-religious based groups (such as Ahrar al-Sham or Hezbollah) over more inclusive forces, perpetuating a decades-long rivalry and complicating peace efforts.
As such, this sectarian drift is a top-down process, one driven by a “divide and conquer” strategy and employing economic, military and ethno-religious arguments to perpetuate itself. As Elizabeth Sharkman Hurd put it in 2013, highlighting the conflict's sectarian nature “is to single out religious difference from among the many salient aspects of human identity and hoist it above all the others as the factor that determines political outcomes.”
Damascus has encouraged this narrative, most notably through its web of pro-regime militias and its National Defense Force. Moreover, it has consistently qualified Syria’s rebels as “terrorists”, employing a term most often associated with radical Islamists in order to sharpen the “sectarian divide”, while simultaneously regarding any rebel demands as illegitimate.
In addition, in order to attract combatants into the fold, these sectarian groups promise financial gains, the allure of local service and the appeal of battlefield success. In the regime’s case, conscripts are given the choice of serving in the Army or joining the National Defense Forces, in which case they may reap the benefits of looting and service close to home. These militias reflect Syria’s ethno-religious diversity, and are not exclusively Alawi. Furthermore, in a country where lawlessness is on the rise and the economy is in ruins, defending and providing for one's homestead trumps serving far away in a beleaguered Syrian army.
This economic imperative also holds true for Syria’s rebel combatants who join religious groups. Indeed, Islamist rebels have scored battlefield victories against Assad’s forces, whereas the more “moderate” groups fail to make significant gains on their own. Coupled with their superior military equipment, supply network and civilian outreach efforts, Islamist groups have become the rebellion’s military backbone, indispensable elements in the fight against Assad.
While these groups have succeeded in increasing their numbers, their ideology may as of yet have failed to take hold. Indeed, a July 2015 poll conducted in Syria found that 65% of the respondents believed Syrians could put their differences aside and live together again. Furthermore, when discussing ISIL, 76% do not believe internal “sectarian congestion” caused the group's rise, instead pointing a finger at a host of external factors. Finally, Syrians are overwhelmingly (70%) opposed to a partition of Syria, and these figures hold true even in majority-Alawite areas (Kurds are evenly split at 48%).
As the fighting grinds on, this sectarian drift will not abate as long as the region’s main powers find an interest in fuelling it. Nevertheless, it remains encouraging to note that Syrians themselves have not given up on a unified, multi-cultural country. As Robert Kaplan wrote 22 years ago, the war is a fight for the “reconstitution of the whole out of its constituent parts.” The question now is can diplomats and policymakers silence the extremes and bring these parts together?