Syria’s population—22.5 million before the conflict—is ethnically and religiously diverse. Approximately three quarters are Sunni Muslims, including the Syrian Kurds, who make up about 9 percent of the population. An estimated 12 percent of Syrians belong to the Alawite sect, an off-shoot of Shia Islam. Historically subjected to severe persecution, the Alawites now count among their members Syria’s current and previous president, and they dominate the Syrian security forces and army officer corps. Christians, Druze, and Ismaili and Twelver Shia make up the other principal religious minorities.
In the midst of the Arab Spring, a group of teenagers wrote the words “Your Turn, Doctor” on the wall of a school in the southwestern city of Daraa, a reference to President Bashar al-Assad. The students were detained, tortured, and some of them were killed. Galvanized by this incident, Syrians staged mass demonstrations demanding democratic reforms. The regime reacted with mass arrests and lethal violence, which provoked an armed response, and by mid-2012, the country was in the midst of a full-scale civil war.
Although the opposition was majority Sunni, the uprising was originally nonsectarian and featured calls for a pluralistic democracy that would protect the rights of all Syrians. It has since taken on sectarian dimensions, and civilians have been targeted for atrocities based on their religious affiliation. President Assad intentionally sought this transformation to justify his continued hold on power by playing to the religious minorities’ fear of persecution should the Sunni majority take power.
Claiming the rebels were Sunni Islamist terrorists, President Assad deployed largely Alawite elements of the security forces to rain terror on Sunni neighborhoods and civilians. He recruited and armed local Alawite militias, which have subjected their Sunni neighbors to kidnapping, torture, sexual violence, and massacres. These atrocities radicalized many in the Sunni rebel forces and exacerbated the hostility of Syria’s Sunnis not only toward the Alawites but also toward the other religious minorities, whose failure to side with the rebels was viewed as support for the regime.
The conflict also attracted thousands of foreign jihadi fighters to battle against the Assad regime, as well as militiamen from Iraq, Yemen, and Afghanistan to fight alongside it. The presence of the former—highlighted in reports by both the international and state-run media—seemed to confirm for Syria’s religious minorities Assad’s warning that a far worse fate awaits them if he is overthrown.
The conflict’s toll has not been limited to armed actors. Rather, unarmed civilians have borne the brunt of the violence. The UN’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic has accumulated “massive evidence” of widespread crimes against humanity and war crimes committed against civilians by Syrian government and pro-government forces, while also documenting the role of anti-government forces in war crimes and gross violations of human rights. As the conflict has escalated, Syrian government forces have redoubled their use of siege as a strategy of war, intensifying the humanitarian toll for those civilians who remain in opposition-controlled or contested territories.