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

Ending Sectarianism in Syria

How to Secure a Lasting Peace

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.

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

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