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Sectarian Tensions Rising in Syria

As the war between the Assad regime and rebel forces continues, rising sectarian tensions are leading to more actors taking up arms, according to a report released by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. The periodic updates from the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria paint a troubling picture of self-defense groups arising within Christian, Alawite Muslim, and other minority groups inside the country. The report describes clashes in areas formerly controlled by the government between rebel groups and armed "Popular Committees." These committees are formed by those minority groups—sometimes with direct government support—who are worried that the rebels will not protect their communities may take reprisal steps against them. In addition, it notes that newly forming rebel factions are increasingly resistant to positioning themselves under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army. The long-feared scenario of Syria’s divisions becoming fault lines in the civil war makes an already dangerous situation worse. The Commission’s report describes a “low intensity sectarian conflict” occurring alongside the clashes with the government. As a result, foreign fighters are entering Syria to take up arms to support their sect; individuals captured by their rivals are being killed due to their religious affiliation; and real and perceived threats are leading groups to organize and arm themselves. In addition to the summary execution of prisoners, the report also documents torture and illegal detentions, the use of snipers, aerial bombardments targeting civilian areas and hospitals, and attacks on cultural sites. The potential for deepening sectarian divides complicates efforts to resolve the conflict and prepare for post-conflict reconstruction. The UN Human Rights Council indicated its intention to investigate allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity going forward, noting that “patterns of international human rights and humanitarian law violations…continued unabated.” As the international community attempts to facilitate an end to the conflict and lay the foundations for the post-Assad period in Syria, this aspect of the crisis will likely make that path to peace longer and more difficult.