Deepening ethnic and religious rifts reshape Syria’s towns
The villages that dot the valleys and terraced hills of Syria’s northwest used to epitomize the country’s diversity. Each one was dominated by a different religion or sect. The settlements coexisted – sometimes peacefully, sometimes less so – for centuries, a patchwork of distinct but interwoven communities that, for many Syrians, was central to the nation’s identity.
Over the past two years, that order has fallen apart.
In Zambaki, a concrete-block village in a valley near the border with Turkey, Sunni families have moved into homes abandoned by Alawite owners; Sunni instructors teach in the Alawite elementary school; and Sunni religious slogans in black paint mark the walls.
Mohamed Skafe, a 40-year-old Sunni maths instructor remembers how the Alawites began to flee nearly a year ago. As government troops withdrew and rebels took over, he phoned a friend in the village and pleaded with him to stay.
“He told me, ‘Can you protect me?’” Skafe recalled, holding his hands out, palms upward. “I said, ‘I have no guarantee.’”
As the revolt against Bashar al-Assad that began as a mostly secular call for democratic reform descended into civil war, communities have split along religious and ethnic lines. Majority Sunnis have come to dominate the opposition, while Shi’ites and Alawites, the offshoot sect of Shi’ite Islam that Assad belongs to, have largely sided with the government. Other minorities, such as the Christians, Druze and Kurds, have split or tried to stay neutral.
Across the country, violence and fear have emptied entire villages, forced millions of people to flee their homes, and transformed the social landscape.