Factbox – Syria’s rival sectarian groups

August 1, 2012

A girl crosses a street where clashes between Sunni Muslims and Alawite supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad took place, in Tripoli, in northern Lebanon May 20, 2012. REUTERS/Omar Ibrahim

The Syrian crisis has developed strong sectarian undercurrents during the 16-month-old revolt against President Bashar al-Assad, who comes from the minority Alawite sect and has ruled the country with a delicate sectarian mix for 12 years.

Spearheading the uprising, Syria’s majority Sunni Muslims are now fighting the Alawite leadership and its forces on the streets of Syria’s biggest city Aleppo.

If Assad were to be defeated by the rebels, his successors would struggle to impose the same centralised control which his family has asserted over Syria for 42 years. Syrian minorities such as the Alawites, Druze and Kurds might then all push for some degree of autonomy. Here is a look at the various sectarian groups that make up Syria’s population.

  • The small Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam, which reveres Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of Islam’s Prophet Mohammed. Alawites are centred in Syria though there are also small numbers in other parts of the Middle East.
  • The late Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, gave power to his Alawite sect when he seized control of the country in a 1970 coup, after rising within the ostensibly secular Baath Party.
  • Hafez al-Assad employed Alawites in the state, security and intelligence apparatuses. Most Alawites were poor farmers, coming from the western mountainous region on the Mediterranean.


  • Sunni Muslims are the majority throughout the Islamic world, except in a handful of countries. Nearly all Arab states a r e ruled by Sunnis, and their leaders have long been suspicious of Assad’s friendship with non-Arab, Shi’ite Iran.
  • Some Sunni extremists, such as the foreign fighters now making their way to Syria, have a hatred for Assad’s Alawites, whom they regard as infidels, as well as for Shi’ite Iran, which is backing Assad.
  • The elder Assad had crushed Sunni militants, killing at least 10,000 in the city of Hama in 1982 in the bloodiest single incident in modern Arab history.
  • The elder Assad nevertheless fostered ties with the Sunni merchant classes of Damascus and Aleppo, Syria’s commercial hub, and brought Sunnis into government positions. Some Sunnis say the younger Assad alienated the merchants by favouring the business interests of his Alawite kin.
  • In March 2011 poor rural Sunnis, inspired by revolts across the Arab world, began demonstrations to demand greater freedoms and end to corruption. After the government cracked down, the revolt became increasingly violent.
  • Assad’s government blames Sunni Arab rulers for fostering the revolt, and says enemy fighters include sectarian extremists.
  • In June, the son of Syria’s longest-serving defence minister, Republican Guard Brigadier Manaf Tlas, left the country and Assad’s side. Tlas is a Sunni, and his defection has been seen as a sign that Sunnis in the Assad circle have abandoned him.


  • Many members of Syria’s Christian communities have stuck by Assad, who granted them religious freedoms. They fear that Sunnis would trample on minority rights if they took power, and also worry about being caught in the crossfire in a sectarian war between Muslim groups as in neighbouring Iraq. However, some have also joined the opposition.
  • The Christians are split into a number of denominations – some of them tiny communities with ancient roots in pre-Islamic Syria. Groups include the Greek Orthodox, Maronites, Syriac Orthodox and Catholics, Chaldeans, Assyrians, and Armenian Orthodox and Catholics. There also are a few Protestants.
  • The Druze have a close-knit identity and distinctive monotheistic faith that emerged in the 11th century and has similarities to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Although many Druze are reliant on the state for employment and support Assad, statements from Lebanon’s Druze leader Walid Jumblatt condemning Assad have pushed some Druze towards the opposition.


  • Kurds, a largely Sunni Muslim people with their own language and culture, have been oppressed by Assad.
  • Damascus has enforced a policy that deprived hundreds of thousands of Kurds of citizenship, banned the teaching of the Kurdish language, and clamped down on Kurdish political activities. Assad cracked down on ethnic Kurds when they launched violent demonstrations against the state in 2004.
  • But Kurdish support for the revolt has been mixed. In April 2011, Assad granted citizenship to Kurds in an attempt to cool resentment. In June, Kurd Abdulbaset Sieda was elected to the main political opposition group, the Syrian National Council, which was seen as an attempt to rally Kurds against Assad.
  • Turkey has sent troops to its border with Syria after it said it was alarmed by Kurdish rebels taking advantage of the chaos to seize control in some areas of north-east Syria. Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan last week warned the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), an armed militant group that has launched attacks inside Turkey, against setting up camps inside northern Syria.

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