Free Syrian Army fighters in the southern Idlib countryside, September 2014.
Khalil Ashawi / Reuters

As peace talks resume in Geneva, one thing is clear: Syria will need to address sectarianism if it is to succeed. Syrian sectarianism is often presented as insoluble, derived from age-old divisions, and impossible to control or contain. But new research suggests that it may not be as intractable as it seems.  

In 2015, the Brussels-based nongovernmental organization The Day After surveyed 2,500 Syrians about their attitudes toward sectarianism. Forty researchers conducted face-to-face interviews across Syria—the most extensive study of its kind.

Some of the results were surprisingly positive. Nineteen percent of respondents, including 24 percent of women, said Syria has no sectarian problem. Sixty-two percent said they considered themselves “slightly sectarian” or “not sectarian at all.” A large majority—more than 80 percent—rejected the suggestion that sectarianism in Syria is “an old problem and cannot be solved.” And 65 percent said the most appropriate form of government to eradicate sectarianism would be a “political system based on citizenship and equality before the law,” as opposed to “Islamic rule” (14 percent) or “partition” (ten percent).

Everyone has several layers of identity, so perhaps it’s not surprising that Syrians—often defined by their sect in international media reports—frequently see other identities, such as political or local ones, as more important. Syrians have seen how much damage violent sectarianism can do and have strong reasons for rejecting it.

An Islamic Ahrar al-Sham fighter on the frontline of Idlib city in northern Syria, where they announced a battle to liberate the city from forces loyal to Syria's president Bashar Al-Assad, March 2015.
An Islamic Ahrar al-Sham fighter on the frontline of Idlib city in northern Syria, where they announced a battle to liberate the city from forces loyal to Syria's president Bashar Al-Assad, March 2015.
Khalil Ashawi / Reuters

In Syria, the country’s minority Alawite sect, roughly 12 percent of the population, generally supports the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, as do the country’s Christians (ten percent of the population) and most Druze (three percent). Opposition to the regime comes primarily from the country’s Sunnis, who make up roughly 65 percent of the population. The Kurds, the remaining ten percent, tend to be less interested in who runs the country than they are in securing their own autonomy.

Syrians have seen how much damage violent sectarianism can do and have strong reasons for rejecting it.

Despite the horrific scale of the casualties over the past five years, it is possible to imagine a future in which these groups come together to create a pluralistic Syrian government. The survey found that most respondents considered the Syrian presidency, the Syrian National Defense Forces, the Islamic State (also called ISIS), and Hezbollah to be “sectarian” or “very sectarian.” But less than 20 percent described Syria’s judiciary in those terms, offering hope for the establishment of a credible postconflict justice system.

For a blueprint of Syria’s future, consider Ireland’s past. A generation ago, the conflict in Northern Ireland seemed hopelessly sectarian and impossible to end. Roman Catholics and Protestants killed each other in record numbers. Between 1970 and 2005, about 3,500 people were killed, more than half civilians. But the administration of U.S. President Bill Clinton brokered a peace deal, to which the governments of Ireland and the United Kingdom, as well as various paramilitary groups, agreed. It was signed in 1998 and approved by referendums in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. It offered a more inclusive political system and an official “parity of esteem” between the sects to replace discrimination. Now sectarian violence, once believed to be an inescapable feature of Irish politics, has all but disappeared. 

Rebel fighters rest in Aleppo near the frontline against forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, December 2014.
Rebel fighters rest in Aleppo near the frontline against forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, December 2014.  
Jalal Al-Mamo / Reuters

The survey results suggest that Syria could follow a similar path if a deal recognizes regional and local autonomies and reforms the country’s security forces, as happened in Ireland, to better reflect the demographics of the communities they serve. Although the Syrian war has been much shorter (Ireland’s conflict originally started in the 1600s), its casualties have been far higher, and outside parties—notably Shiite Iran and the Sunni Gulf states—have been invested in fueling the conflict on sectarian grounds.

Sectarianism does not fulfill people’s needs over the long term. As the veteran Northern Ireland paramilitary commander David Ervine put it, “Sectarianism is like warm piss down your trouser leg: it instantly gives you a warm glow but quickly goes cold.” People eventually realize that discriminating against others on the basis of sect simply fuels grievances and upends the peace.

  • Brian Dooley is Director of Human Rights Defenders at Human Rights First. Follow him on Twitter @dooley_dooley.
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