Maged, a young officer who's defected from the Syrian police, says his countrymen often never even knew each others' religious and tribal backgrounds. “We used to live in peace," he says, recalling life before the past year of violence. "But the regime has managed to breed sectarianism in people.”
Syria has not yet turned into a Lebanon, where religious animosity and resistance to cohabitation is the rule, but religious sectarianism is definitely floating near the surface, spreading in people’s minds and across the nation's landscape.
After defecting, Maged preferred not to join the Free Syrian Army and has been moving back and forth between his village and his family, which has fled. He chose not to partake in fighting, but he still hangs out with the young fighters and joins them in their gatherings over tea and coffee.
When the debate during one of these gatherings intensified, Maged, a Sunni, said, “The Alawis and Shias have always controlled us; they ruled us and brought shame on the Islamic nation. Praying was prohibited in the army, and when we prayed in the mosque, we were always followed by state security.
Maged also said the good jobs and high-ranking positions in the army went to Alawis, Shias and Christians. "The regime insisted on humiliating the Sunnis.”
Most of the listeners nodded to Maged’s words in approval, even though one would always find others who insist that this is not the case in Syria. You often hear that the regime’s thugs in Aleppo are Sunnis, that those fighting in the army today are mostly Sunnis, that Christians have announced their impartiality in the conflict early on, and that the regime has abused the Alawi sect.
Apart from the emotional impulse that informed Maged’s words and those of many like him, in reality, before joining the revolution, he was himself an officer who used to accept bribes.
“After 18 years in service, my monthly salary reached 15,000 Syrian liras ($300). The regime forces you to accept bribes and divide it among your colleagues,” he told me.
Captain Nimr, who was later killed in one of the many battles he fought alongside the Free Syrian Army, spoke to me more comfortably. He did not have any sectarian inclinations; he often told me he was fighting for freedom.
“Go tell people that Syrian fighters grow their beards because we don’t have the money to buy razors. We buy bullets from the little money we manage to collect; we are not Salafis or radical killers,” Nimr said as he was driving us to a village close to Aleppo.
Ahmed, who was sitting next to him, seconded Nimr’s words — this was after they had delivered a 23mm machine gun to be used in shooting down a Syrian army chopper.
When we reached the village, we saw a young man getting ready to join the fighters heading to Aleppo. He was holding a black banner with the words “There is no God but Allah, and Mohamed is his messenger,” inscribed in white.
An older fighter approached the young man and asked him, “What’s the deal with this banner?”
The young man was perplexed and said that it was a banner that called for God’s oneness.
The older fighter scolded the young man and said, “This is an Al-Qaeda banner; are you Al-Qaeda? Haven’t we had enough of these rumors? Do you like the media to depict us as radical villagers? And that we slaughter people?”
Hassan, who came from Jabal al-Zawiyeh and did not mind beating the regime thugs into quick confessions, spoke of the oppression he was subjected to by the regime and other sects.
Hassan’s brother disappeared in Iraq. The family was told he was killed at the hands of Shias after the American invasion. This is the story that the 22-year-old Hassan grew up hearing about his brother’s death — that it was at the hands of Shias who supported the Americans in Iraq.
Abu Hussein, the defected, tried to explain to his co-fighters that Alawis were very scared about their future today. He tried to explain that the regime abuses the Alawis for its benefits.
Abu Hussein, an Alawi officer who defected and chose to stay in Syria and fight alongside the revolutionaries, spoke of how the majority of Alawis were poor and uneducated. He added that few families benefited from the regime.
Maged, who sat next to Abu Hussein, conceded that there were also examples of Sunnis who have close ties with the regime. All these words, however, brought back the Lebanese imagery.
“We are all brothers, but it seems impossible to live side by side in peace,” Maged said.
Syria is not Lebanon yet, but if this happens, the consequences will be devastating.
Fidaa Itani is a Lebanese journalist. He blogs at www.journalismnl.wordpress.com