Syria was known before the revolution as a melting pot of multiple ethnicities where citizens coexisted despite differences in religion, race and political orientation. But the ongoing war has led the Syrian social fabric to tear apart as each side’s participants and supporters fuel tensions.
The Syrian regime began to fan the flames of sectarianism when it arrested protesters at the beginning of the revolution and abused them with ethnic and religious slurs. Individuals were tortured or killed on the basis of their sectarian identity. Extremist organizations like the Islamic State have further inflamed sectarianism, said Bassam al-Ahmed, head of the organization Syrians for Peace and Justice.
Abdullah al-Tantawi, a literary figure and Syrian intellectual, thinks that March 8, 1963 was a critical moment in Syrian humanitarian and civilizational history, and marked the beginning of the appearance of numerous social ills including sectarianism that nearly wiped out a sense of national identity.
“I’m from Azaz in the Aleppo countryside, which was a model of the Syria that taught the world the ABCs of civilization, and a model for human coexistence,” said al-Tantawi.
“Armenians, Kurds, Circassians and Turkmen all lived in my city, and were joined by neighborly love. I brought up Azaz as an example [of coexistence] because I witnessed it firsthand.”
The regime and sectarian conflict
“At the beginning we documented violations including cases of ethnic-based killing. The most noticeable were the massacres of al-Baida and Ras al-Nabaa in Banyas, and in Homs and Hama provinces,” said Bassam al-Ahmed.
The Syrian Network for Human Rights documented the Karm al-Zeitun massacre that took place in January 2012. Regime forces executed more than 42 people, including 8 children, on the basis of sectarian identity, according to the report.
At the end of 2012 regime-affiliated gangs known colloquially as Shabiha, along with residents from Alawite-majority villages, carried out a massacre in the al-Houla region of Homs, killing more than 100 civilians including 30 children. Right activists say that “sectarian” motivations pushed them to do it.
These types of massacres convinced the International Committee of the Red Cross to label the situation in Syrian an armed conflict in the middle of 2012.
The Islamic State and Syria’s social fabric
The Syrian war has also caused the social fabric that binds members of a single sect together to tear. This occurred when the Islamic State took over areas in Deir e-Zor, al-Raqqa and al-Hasakah, and split people between opposition and supporters.
“The Islamic State’s control over areas of Syria and its penetration among Syrians plunged them into a state of fear and doubt. These two feelings never leave a family, and suspicion and fear have become a reality that a friendly smile can’t dispel,” Furat al-Wafa, a rights activist, told the Syrian Voice.
“People create distance between one another out of fear they’ll say something by mistake that reveals their opposition to the Islamic State, which will lead to a disaster like their execution.”
Villages or entire tribes have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and taken control of other tribes’ territory, violating their rights in the name of the organization and further tearing apart the social fabric, said Furat al-Wafa.
Perhaps the most striking image of how IS has destroyed Syrian society are the multiple reported cases of children joining the organization and going on to kill their parents, cousins, or in laws. Several of these stories have been documented with video and audio, said Furat al-Wafa.
Deir e-Zor province in eastern Syria is one region that has witnessed tears in its social fabric because it fell under Islamic State control.
“The Islamic State has ruined coexistence in Deir e-Zor, and implemented laws that push people and relatives away from one another,” Ahmed al-Ramadan, the head of the Deir e-Zor is Being Slaughtered Silently campaign, told the Syrian Voice.
“More dangerous than that, they destroyed the previously existing harmony between the tribes of Deir e-Zor.”
“The damage IS has done to Deir e-Zor’s social fabric will not easily be undone. We need a lot of time to fix what has been broken, especially because IS has brainwashed an entire generation of children living in areas it controls”
Badr al-Khalaf, a Syrian journalist who fled abroad from Deir e-Zor after he fell on the Islamic State’s list of wanted men, told the Syrian Voice that “I’ve had no contact with my friends or cousins for two years, because I’m an apostate according to the Islamic State.”
“Anyone who talks to me might be executed. That has scared my relatives into avoiding all contact,” said al-Khalaf.
Even al-Khalaf’s female relatives cannot contact him because Katibat al-Khansaa, the Islamic State’s female police, patrols cafes to catch women communicating with their relatives abroad.
Al-Khalaf told the Syrian Voice of one family in al-Bukamel whose five sons were killed by the Islamic State. But another relative pledged allegiance to IS, which split the family between the relatives of the deceased and those of the man who joined IS.
The Islamic State’s imposition of its rule on civilians at the point of a sword has pushed some young men to join in order to gain power to wield against others, or to acquire certain incentives only presented to members of the Islamic State.
The People’s Protection Units and their role in the conflict
The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), along with the Liwa Thuwwar Raqqa, began the battle to retake the city of Tal Abyad from the Islamic State in March 2015. That was the beginning of a new stage in which the YPG tried to take control of the northern Raqqa countryside and then advance south towards Raqqa city, headquarters of the Islamic State in Syria.
The YPG and Liwa Thuwwar Raqqa were able to take control of Tal Abyad and expel the Islamic State. But Arab residents accused the YPG of committing human rights abuses against them under the pretext that they were members of IS. This was the latest sectarian crisis to afflict Syrian society.
Because the YPG consists of Kurdish fighters, tensions between Arab and Kurdish residents began to increase despite the fact that the two lived together peacefully for decades.
“When Deir e-Zor or al-Raqqa is bombed and children and innocent people are killed, we hear some voices–unfortunately–describing them as IS supporters. On the other side of the coin, when dozens of people were killed in that Qamishli explosion a few days ago, some people supported the bombing because it happened in areas of YPG control,” a human rights activist who preferred anonymity told the Syrian Voice.
Mohammed Ibrahim, a Syrian Kurdish journalist, told the Syrian Voice that “the war in Syria has negatively impacted the social fabric, especially because the Syrian regime has skillfully planted seeds of discord between Arabs and Kurds, and presented the Kurdish people to Arabs as if they wanted to withdraw from the country, and as if they were the enemy.”
“The media has also portrayed Kurds negatively. The YPG did coordinate some of its operations with the Syrian regime, and despite the fact that many Kurds oppose the YPG, the media paints all of them as supporters.”
Will the tapestry return to what it was?
John Brennan, the director of the CIA, said at a recent security forum in Aspen, Colorado that he was pessimistic about the future of a united Syria, and that the more likely scenario was partition.
“The head of the American CIA said that openly, but the same thing has been discussed for a while behind closed doors in international diplomatic corridors,” a human rights activist who preferred anonymity told the Syrian Voice.
“The way to preserve a unified Syria is to attempt to stop the fighting at an early stage, prevent the killing of civilians, and search for solutions to pull Syria out of its crisis and usher in a stage of transitional justice,” Bassam al-Ahmed told the Syrian Voice.
“That means punishing criminals under the law, not allowing them to go free,” he said.
Al-Ahmed thinks that both the regime and opposition’s “political elite” are responsible for the current sectarian and ethnic divisions. Common people by and large did not hold polarizing views of different sects before the war.
As for the Kurdish journalist Mohammed Ibrahim, he said that “as soon as civil life returns to Syria the social fabric will go back to what it was–but in the presence of armed groups. Civil society may never be able to bury the hatchet.”
“The city of Qamishli had several conferences and civil society organizations that try to preserve peace between different ethnicities and sects, and large crowds came out for these initiatives.”
The Syrian National Coalition formed the “Civil Peace Council” in April 2013 in order to encourage a widespread societal shift away from ethnic splits and their accompanying negative impacts on Syrian society.
Returning to the old social fabric requires the Syrian street to realize the necessity of living together, according to what rights activists told the Syrian Voice. A number of civil society and rights organizations are working on issues of transitional justice and preserving the social fabric.
The Syrian revolution was about overthrowing the regime and not based on ethnic or sectarian reasons. Arabs and Kurds in al-Hasakah organized civil protests together against the regime, and Druze and Alawite personalities have been among the most important opposition names.
Translated by: Dan Wilkofsky