Small Wars Journal

Fracture Lines: The Evaluating the Possibility of a Sectarian Future for Syria

Fri, 06/21/2013 - 3:30am


The purpose of this report is to evaluate and estimate whether Syria will fragment into ethnic or religion-based cantons with Alawi, Druze, and Kurdish minorities governing sections of the country during the summer and fall of 2013. Although all of Syria’s minority groups fear an uncertain future, the Alawi, Druze and Kurd minorities are unique because each forms a local majority in concentrated areas. The piece concludes that despite the media hype, the Druze and Alawi communities are not likely to seek rule of minority cantons in the south or west of the country. On the other hand, the Kurds are likely to retain de facto control over the northwest of Syria.


The purpose of this piece is to evaluate and estimate whether Syria will fragment into ethnic or religion-based cantons with Alawi, Druze, and Kurdish minorities governing sections of the country. This idea has received a great deal of media attention in the mainstream press (see articles in The National[1] and Le Figaro[2]) and deserves to be answered by serious analysis.

The ongoing uprising in Syria, which began in March 2011 has weakened the central authority of the Assad regime and disrupted its control over large sections of the country. This destabilization gives rise to the possibility of self-government for these three minority communities, while also raising specters of sectarian violence based on identity - whether religious or ethnic - or even genocide.

Although all of Syria’s minorities fear an uncertain future, the Alawi (also spelled Alawite), Druze and Kurd minorities are unique because each forms a local majority in concentrated areas. This attribute singles out these communities as the focus of this piece due to the need to clarify the options available to those communities.

Key Findings

1) The Kurds in northeastern Syria will likely establish de facto autonomy in the northeast. This conclusion is based on the Kurd’s history of seeking self-rule, the proximity of this area to the Kurdish regions in Iraq and Turkey and the history of repression by the Assad regime.

2) The Alawi are unlikely to form an autonomous canton in the coastal areas of western Syria. This finding is based on the assessment that an Alawi canton is logistically unfeasible and the prediction that Alawi leadership will assess that safety gains in safety are outweighed by the risks of autonomy.

3) The Druze are unlikely to form a self-governing canton in the south of Syria. This finding is based on the Druze showing no preparation to control territory and history of carefully matching their response to the local context.

Scope of Evaluation

This piece focuses entirely on the establishment of self-governing canons dominated by the three minorities who form local majorities in Syria: the Alawi in Latakia (in mountains on the Mediterranean coast in the west), the Druze in Suwayda (in the mountain in the south), and the Kurds in Jazeera (along the north-eastern border with Turkey and Iraq).  Because the situation on the ground is rapidly changing, this piece will only attempt to make predictions for the summer and fall of 2013.

This piece considers a range of levels of fragmentation and rejects entirely the idea that the Syrian state is an all-or-nothing package. It is a mistake to equate breakup on sectarian lines with disintegration of civil society and descent into a state of anarchy.[3] The longer the conflict persists the greater the chances of a complete breakdown of Syrian civil society, however, it is also possible that the regime will maintain its rule and governance on a section of Syria while the rebels govern another section. This piece does not focus or make judgments about the likelihood or timeline of the fall of Assad regime, instead focusing on the possibility of fracture on sectarian lines.

Similarly, although the presence of Islamist and jihadi groups in the uprising impacts the decision making of the minorities about their vulnerability, the report does not judge whether or not jihadi groups are likely to govern Syria.

Reliable information about the facts on the ground in Syria is extremely difficult to find. The piece, nonetheless, relies on press accounts, statements released by the regime and opposition groups, and reports by policy institutes and advocacy groups. All of this information is filtered through the author’s own skepticism and experience living in Syria and the region.


The land of modern Syria has been an ethnically and religiously diverse region for thousands of years but the importance of sectarian community identity increased dramatically in the past forty years.[4] The possibility of fragmentation into sectarian cantons has been widely reported and captures the imagination with images of a return to the divided Syria that existed during the French Mandate.[5] Syria is a religiously and ethnically diverse country. Broken down by religion the population is 75% Sunni, 10% Alawi, 10% Christian (4% Greek Orthodox), 3% Druze, 1% Ismaeli, and ~1% Twelver Shia. By ethnicity, it is 85%Arab, 10% Kurd, 3-4% Armenian and ~1% Turkmen with small groups of Rus and Circassian.

French Mandate Era Map (Image from NY Times blog).

Following the fall of the Ottoman Empire, France employed a divide-and-rule strategy to govern the region by separating Syria into five states: three geographical, Alexandretta, Aleppo and Damascus, and two states for religious minorities, the Alawi and Druze.[6] They governed the Sunni majority by using local forces heavily recruited from the minority populations.

Unlike the Druze and Christians of the region, the Alawi did not have a place in the Ottoman’s religion administrative system and before the 20th century the Alawi did not hold substantial political power in the region. Historically, they were farmers or labors for Sunni landowners.[7] This relationship suddenly changed following the bloody coup in 1963, which brought the Baath Party to power. Hafez al-Assad then rose to power in 1970 through an intra-party coup and ruled until his death in 2000 and the succession of his son, Bashar.[8]

Over the past forty years, Alawi were raised to positions of power in the Baath, hardening sectarian community identities, despite the secular rhetoric of the Baath Party.[9] During Hafez al-Assad’s rule Syria followed a Soviet economic model, which enriched both Alawi political and military elites and an emerging Sunni business class in the urban centers.[10] Seale refers to this relationship as the “military-mercantile complex” because of the entwining of the new Sunni business class with the military and security apparatus of the state. [11] Although Sunni businessmen and Alawi elites often went into business together and established trust on an individual level, broad trust never developed between the communities[12] because economic development was approached in terms of the regime’s survival.[13]

Druze, Alawi and Kurds each hold majority populations in specific areas. The communities have an “intense local loyalty … fostered by the geographical structure … particularly true of the mountains and valleys of the Latakia region and of the Jabal al-Duruz [Suwayda]”[14] These are the only two provinces in Syria where Sunnis are not the majority. As a cultural note, it is common in the Middle East to consider a person to be a member of a religious community regardless of her actual religious beliefs. Religion is a marker of identity along the same lines as ethnicity. Indeed, “during several [past] crises sectarian, regional, and tribal ties became the dominant means of self-preservation and retention of power”.[15] Sectarian communities are both the most durable social structures and the means of last resort for defense.

In this environment, the uprising inspired by Arab Spring that began in March 2011 quickly took on a sectarian cast. This tendency was heightened by the government’s deployment of military units which were “mostly or entirely” Alawi to suppress the protestors.[16] Additionally, Alawi comprise the majority of the regime-backed militias, called “shabiha,” which dressed in civilian clothing to terrorized protestors and operated “outside the norms of any military code.[17] By the summer of 2011, levels of violence escalated until the conflict mutated into civil war with overtly sectarian overtones.[18]

This feature of the ongoing civil war raises the possibility of the fragmentation of the Syrian state, an outcome that seriously impact U.S. policy in the region and have a cascading effect on U.S policy toward regional and global powers. Additionally, the harsh possibility of fragmentation significantly alters the foreign policies of Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Russia, Turkey and Israel.


Kurds represent approximately 10% of the Syria population, with numbers between two and three million.[19] Globally, Ethnic Kurds number about 30 million and inhabit parts of Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran, comprising the largest stateless ethnic group in the world.[20] About 75% of Kurds are Sunni Muslims with the remainder being Twelver Shia or Yezidi.[21]

The history of repression by the Assad regime will likely incline Syria’s Kurdish population to seek autonomy in the northeastern sections of Syria. The pattern of repression against the Kurds has exceeded that leveled against the rest of the Syrian population. The regime’s policy of Arabization stripped the Kurds of citizenship in 1962.[22] Considering the Kurds an immigrant population from Turkey allowed the regime to subject the Kurds to denial of civil and legal rights.[23] The policy of Arabization is reflected in the official name of Syria: the Syrian Arab Republic - and the Kurds are not Arab. Assad was aware of Syria’s vulnerability to Kurdish nationalism: in an attempt to keep the Kurds in the fold, Assad announced in his March 30th speech that 300,000 Kurds would be granted citizenship.[24] From this overall trend of repression, it is likely that the Kurds will seek autonomy.

Kurdish nationalism is a powerful force in the region. Iraq’s Kurdish population rules the Kurdish Autonomous Region (KAR) in northern Iraq and Turkey’s Kurds have waged a 30-year insurgency under the banner of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).[25] Following the retreat of regime forces from the Kurdish area over the summer, the nationalist Democratic Union Party (known by its Kurdish initials, PYD) assumed control of much of the region, even clashing with the Free Syrian Army in November 2012.[26] The PYD is highly concerned by Ankara’s support for the Syrian rebels.[27] From the history of Kurdish nationalism in the region, it is likely that the Kurds will continue to hold de facto autonomy over the next six months.

Alternatively, the Syrian Kurds may be seeking to set themselves up for a semi-autonomous position within a future federal power arrangement after the fall of the regime or they seek to hedge, not openly committing to either rebellion or the status quo.


The Alawi represent approximately 10% of the Syria population, with numbers between two and three million. Ethnic Arabs, they live in Syria and Turkey on mountainous coasts on the eastern edge of the Mediterranean Sea. The Alawi (also called Nusayri) split from the Twelver Shia tradition in the 10th century and practice a little understood religion that blends Islam, Gnostic Christianity, folk religions, and Greek philosophy.[28] Despite a major religious ruling by the Mufti of Jerusalem in the 1930’s that the Alawi were Muslim[29], many Sunnis are distrustful of the community. Modern Islamists refer to ibn Taymiyya’s 14th century rulings that demand the killing of Alawi due their heterodox beliefs.[30] This religious ambiguity combined with the desire for retribution for the regime’s brutal tactics, places the Alawi community in a precarious position in Syria’s civil war.

Map of Syrian Sectarian Distribution (From STRATFOR)

Despite these factors, the Alawi are unlikely to form an autonomous canton through either formal or informal partition over the summer and fall of 2013. My justification is that this action carries an exceptionally high risk to the Alawi position in the new government; is tantamount to surrender by the regime; and exposes the community to violence. Such risks cannot be justified in the absence of a significant trend of targeting Alawi families for retribution or for religious reasons.[31] Moreover, creating an Alawi zone would escalate the conflict still further, risking retaliation and endangering any Alawi who remained outside the safe zone.

There have been targeted killings of Alawis, but these individuals appeared to be targeted because of their involvement in the shabiha militia or the government, not indiscriminate violence against Alawis.[32] Therefore, at this time, the threat level to the community is not at the level of essential threat. However, sectarian killings are trending up and must be closely monitored. The massacres by the regime in May 2013 of Sunnis in Baydas and Baniyas, while appalling, do not represent the type of large-scale program that would be needed to remove the large Sunni population from the coastal region.

The second justification is that an Alawi state is not feasible: economically, Latakia’s rural areas remain impoverished because most Alawi do not benefit from the high-level corruption of the regime. This means that the Alawi state will lack critical infrastructure, which limits the economic viability.

Lastly, the Alawi zone would be vulnerable to attack by the more numerous Sunnis. Syria is not a parallel case to Lebanon where dozens of factions battled with no one faction able to secure victory. Here, the Sunni rebels represent a strong majority in Syria and are backed by the Gulf States, as well as, logistically supported by Europe and the U.S. It is highly unlikely that after winning the battle for the rest of Syria, the rebels would simply stop on the border of a new Alawi state.

The Alawi decision makers are aware of these limitations and will shape their strategy around them. Nevertheless we should be watchful for mobilization in the Alawi community through the arming and training of popular paramilitary groups in Alawi majority areas.

This assessment is made very careful because its justifications are nearly balanced by the strong anti-Alawi and anti-Shia trend in Syria[33] and the rise of al-Qai’da linked rebel units.[34] If this trend continues or intensifies the Alawi community may attempt to establish an Alawi ‘safe zone’ out of desperation and fear. This safe zone has the best chance of viability if it is setup with the backing of the regime and Iran, rather than following the regime’s fall. Russia might obstruct international efforts prevent the establishment of Alawi canton in order to preserve its naval base at Latakia, its last base on the Mediterranean. So, while an Alawi state is unlikely, the attempt to create one cannot be ruled out.

The Alawi decision to setup a canton would impact U.S. policy by forcing it to contend with an extension of the conflict by months or years. Additionally, violence would spike as large populations shifted to safer areas as territory is partitioned. “These casualties would compound the significant loss of life and dislocation from the civil war.”[35] The resulting refugees would create a regional refugee problem in Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq and might draw the U.S. to offer humanitarian aid in to those Sunnis displaced eastward or even to the new Alawi zone.

Iran would attempt to use the new Alawi zone to mitigate its loss of Syria as a regional ally and to continue to supply Hizbullah. The concentration of Alawis in the west, on the border with Lebanon, would allow Iran to continue its relationship with Hizbullah by using the Alawi zone as a land bridge to supply the militia. Such a relationship would mean that Lebanese domestic policy toward Hizbullah and Israel policy toward Lebanon would remain similar to their current form.

Israel and Turkey could find common ground in opposing the new Alawi zone which could normalize their strained relations. Additionally, Israel would have to negotiate with the new government in Damascus, which could be either secular or Islamist.


The Druze are 3% of Syria’s population. Ethnic Arabs, they live in Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Jordan and number about 1 million worldwide.[36] The Druze split from the Fatimid branch of Ismaeli Shia in the 11th century.[37] Despite being a smaller community than the Alawi, they were part of the Ottoman millet administrative system and have generally held more political freedom: “Being too troublesome and at the same time too diplomatic to be governed at any time they were always eventually given some sort of autonomy by the rulers of the region.”[38] In Suwayd, in Syria’s south, the Druze are approximately 90% of the population, forming an overwhelming local majority. The population there consists of only 2% Sunni due to the Druze and Christian population.[39]

Nonetheless, the Druze in Syria will be driven by tactical considerations to safeguard the small community. Its small size results in a lack of strategic depth, so even small threats can be existential.[40] The largest threat the Druze perceive is danger from Islamist units who consider their beliefs heretical.

The pattern in Syria has been the Druze leadership choosing activism that fits the context. During the protest phase of the uprising, Starr quotes an email with Syria expert Michael Provence in July 2011, “there are Druze in the protests but no Druze protests”.[41] In Idiib, in FSA controlled northern Syria, the elder states, that “everyone here, Druze and Sunni, has wanted the end of Bashar Assad’s regime.”[42] Despite the message of support, the Druze in the area hold back from joining the uprising.

This caution is mirrored outside Damascus, where in the fall of 2012, the Druze refused to allow rebels to operate in Jaramana area. However, their refusal lead to a double car bombing that killed 34 on November 28, 2012.[43] Nonetheless, this historical trend will continue as the Druze seek to a path to safety, making it unlikely that this Druze will seek a self-governing area. The Druze show no signs of preparing to hold territory or of seeking de facto self-rule. However, if a program of ethnic cleansing begins against non-Sunnis, the danger to the community could justify aggressive action in preemptive defense of the community.


Outside actors, both foreign states and Syrian diaspora groups, will continue to influence the situation in Syria. Yet, the actions of local actors will be the ones that determine the decision making of minority communities as they choice to pursue autonomy or continue as part of the Syrian state.

The key unanswered question of this report is whether any national rebel leadership will prove better able to govern than the Islamists groups. Starr’s statement is certainly true: “for Syria’s minorities, from the Christians to the Kurds to the Druze, any government in Syria that is not Islamist-oriented will suffice”.[44] Nonetheless, the danger posed by such Islamist groups would have to be truly existential and immediate to justify the dangers and losses of attempting statehood. After evaluating the evidence and trends, Syria is unlikely to fragment into sectarian cantons.

[1] Faisal al-Yafai, “Assads' family rule makes an Alawite state impossible,” The National July 24, 2012.

[2] Interview with Fabrice Balanche, July, 19 2012, “Syrie: Un mini-État alaouite, l'ultime recours pour Assad,” Le Figaro.

[3] For an example of this view, see Melissa G. Dalton, Assad Under Fire: Five scenarios for the Future of Syria (Washington, DC: Center for a New American Security, 2012), 8-9. Similarly, Itamar Rabinovich only considers fragmentation in the context of “regime collapse followed by chaos.” See: Rabinovich, Israel’s View of the Syrian Crisis (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution), November 2012.

[4] Population figures given at left are approximate. They amalgamated from the Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, the University of Maryland’s Minorities at Risk Project, and State Department’s Country Factsheet: Syria.

[5] Franck Salameh, “An Alawite State in Syria?,” The National Interest, July 10, 2012.

[6] Nikolas Van Dam, The Struggle for Power in Syria, 4th Ed. (New York: I.B. Tauris, 2011), 4.

[7] Starr, Revolt in Syria, 40.

[8] Mahmud A. Faksh, “The Alawi community of Syria: a new dominant political force,” Middle Eastern Studies 20:2, 1984, 133.

[9] Van Dam, The Struggle for Power in Syria, 4th Ed., 144.

[10] Samir Seifan, Syria on the Path to Economic Reform (Fife, Scotland: University of St. Andrews Centre for Syrian Studies), 9 and 32.

[11] Patrick Seale, Asad: the Struggle for the Middle East (Berkley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1989), 456.

[12] Bassam Haddad, “The Syrian Regime’s Business Backbone,” Middle East Report #262, Spring 2012.

[13] Bassam Haddad, Business Networks in Syria: the political economy of authoritarian resilience (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012), 4.

[14] Van Dam, The Struggle for Power in Syria, 4th Ed., 2.

[15] Ibid, 136.

[16] David Lesch, Syria: the fall of the house of Assad (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012), 104.

[17] Lesch, Syria, 104. Also, see Stephan Starr, “Shabiha militias and the destruction of Syria,” CTC Sentinel, November 28, 2012.

[18] Al-Jazeera, UN official calls Syria conflict 'civil war,' June 13, 2012.

[19] Harriet Montgomery, The Kurds of Syria: an existence denied (Berlin: Europaisches Zentrum fur Kurdische Studien, 2005), 7. Note: that according to Kurdish source the Kurdish population is 17% of Syrians.

[20] Kerim Yildiz, The Kurds in Syria (Ann Arbor, MI: Pluto Press, 2005), 5.

[21] Ibid, 24.

[22] Montgomery, The Kurds of Syria, 10.

[23] Yildiz, The Kurds in Syria, 113.

[24] Starr, Revolt in Syria, 5.

[25] “Syrian Kurds find refugee in Iraq’s Kurdish region,” Washington Times, December 4, 2012.

[26] “Wider Chaos Feared as Syrian Rebels Clash with Kurds,” New York Times, December 6, 2012.

[27] “A third party joins the fray,” The Economist, November 23, 2012.

[28] Yaron Friedman, The Nusayri-Alawi: an Introduction to the Religion, History and Identity of the Leading Minority in Syria (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2010), 67

[29] Yvette Talhamy, “The Fatwas and the Nusayri/Alawis of Syria,” (Middle Eastern Studies 46:2, 2010), 189.

[30] Ibid, 179.

[31] “Syria’s Mutating Conflict,” International Crisis Group, August 1, 2012, 17.

[32] Ibid, 18.

[33] See “Syria’s Mutating Conflict,” International Crisis Group, August 1, 2012.

[34] “US blacklists Syria's al-Nusra Front as terrorist group,” Guardian, December 11, 2012.

[35] Dalton, Assad Under Fire, 9.

[36] Oren Yiftachel and Michaly D. Segal (1998). “Jews and Druze in Israel: state control and ethnic resistance”, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 21(3), 477.

[37] Sami Makarem, The Druze Faith (Delmar, NY: Caravan Books, 1974), 14.

[38] Nadim Shehadi, “Introduction,”in Bejtullah Destani (ed) Minorities in the Middle East: Druze communities, 1840-1974, Volume 1: 1840-1854. (London: Archive Editions Limited, 2006), vi.

[39] Van Dam, The Struggle for Power in Syria, 4th Ed., 2.

[40] See discussion in Ryan Scadlock, “’A Rifle and a Spade’: Meanings of Land, Security, and History among the Druze of Lebanon,” (M.Sc. Thesis, University of Bristol, 2009).

[41] Starr, Revolt in Syria, 49.

[42] “Syria Druze back Sunnis’ revolt with words but arms,” Daily Star, September 8, 2012.

[43] “Car bombs kill 34 in Syria suburb¸” Reuters, December 11, 2012.

[44] Starr, Revolt in Syria, 54.


About the Author(s)

Ryan Scadlock holds a Master's in International Security from the University of Bristol and is a graduate student in New York University's International Relations program studying sectarian conflict and proxy militias. He has lived and worked in the Middle East, including Syria, Jordan and Lebanon.