In a town in the Bekaa valley, Lebanon, a priest was trying to explain to me the importance of love and sisterhood in solving the world problems: "Jesus is love. We can only build a better society if we work under the name of love". While reclining on his comfortable sofa, he caught sight through an opened window of four Syrian refugees approaching. With their distinguished red headgear, the four men looked every inch like typical Syrian farmers.
I was left to say the least taken aback to see the priest jump out of his seat to berate them: "Aid distribution begins at three. How many times do I have to tell you this? We hand out aid at 3 o'clock – when will you get the message?" One of the men ventured that he wanted to register his family for aid, but the priest rebuked him tersely: "Registration is only on Sunday after the prayer and the sermon". The four men turned away wearily; humiliation has become a customary experience for many Syrian refugees. Surprisingly, the priest continued his speech about love and justice.
This Protestant church provides aid to around 150 Syrian families. The church has made it its practice to only welcome Syrians after Sunday mass and sermon, despite knowing full well that none of these families are Christians. Take Milad for example. He is a young Syrian boy who lost his family in the heavy shelling on the city of Deir Azzour in the East of Syria, but managed to escape and arrived unaccompanied and alone in Lebanon. Milad is not his real name but the name given to him after being baptized in the Protestant church two months ago.
Being in an urgent need of humanitarian aid, many Syrians have been forced to make concessions which they would not have done under normal circumstances. Some have adopted the Salafi doctrine –particularly those who joined the FSA – to get some kind of material benefit from faith-based organisations from the Gulf or from extremist groups. A smaller number, like Milad, converted to Christianity for the same reason. Such incidents of blatant proselytizing preying on the needs of vulnerable refugee populations reveal the truly exploitative face of such organisations. For Syrians like me, this is a worrying trend especially in light of the fact that organisations affiliated to religious groups have become increasingly influential players in the drawing up of a new Syria along sectarian lines.
Jamila is an Ismaili civil servant in the city of Hama known to be a city with a Sunni majority. She has been feeling dangerously exposed being different nowadays in Syria and has taken to wearing the hijab in line with orthodox Sunni tradition. She told me that wearing the hijab has made her life much easier:" I no longer felt I was part of a targeted minority and shunned by colleagues at work who are mostly Sunni. As soon as I put on the hijab, everyone changed the way they behaved towards me. They even brought me presents! By this one act I may have protected my husband - who is an officer in the official army - from Al-Qaida and other extremists, though he is not best pleased with what I've done".
Jobar: this name has been occupying news headlines for a long time. Unfortunately, this wasn't because of the oldest Synagogue it embraces, but because it has seen some of the fiercest fighting between the regime and those lined up against it. A less known fact – as the media doesn't focus on ordinary civilians - is that a considerable Isma'ili population was forcibly displaced from the neighbourhood more than a year ago.
The majority of these internally displaced people sought refuge in the city of Salamiyeh – the heartland for the Ismai'li community in Syria. This same pattern of displacement has been repeated in Damascus with Christians who had long been resident in the districts of Arbin and Harasta. Faced with the prospect of displacement most of them fled to the countryside of Homs which has a Christian majority. Similarly, the 'Alawi community, displaced from al-Qadam neighbourhood, have re-settled along the coast where the 'Alawi community has a strong presence.
These incidents show the dramatic systematic social transformation now under way in Syria. We are witnessing 'the un-mixing of populations' as a direct consequence of the conflict. Syria has always been a multi-ethnic and multi-confessional society with no one single sect able to exclude others from urban life in its cities.
Today, Syrians are confronted with two choices: either to assimilate into the majority and to become part of it – demanding a change in apparent religious belonging and lifestyle: or to move and settle in areas where their sect is in the majority in order to preserve their own security. This essentialization of sub-Syrian identities in fact serves to do the opposite. Instead, it amplifies anomie and isolation creating social rupture. In the final analysis, this protects no-one and paves the way for a gathering spiral of sectarian clashes.
All sides of the conflict are to be blamed in creating this descent into sectarianism, but the regime military campaign against the opposition fighters reveals an ugly reality. When the city of Raqqa, in the east by the Euphrates river, was lost to opposition fighters in February, this dealt the regime a costly blow – losing important water and energy resources. The regime response was to target Raqqa with long-range missiles without resorting to the use of land forces to win back the city. Instead, we find that the majority of regime forces are located in Damascus, Homs and along the coast.
Seemingly, the regime's main goal is to maintain control of the international highway between the capital and the coast which runs through Homs. This is the only highway left, connecting cities like Tartous and Lattakia – with an 'Alawi majority – and the capital. Regime forces are engaged in deadly fighting in the neighbourhood of Baba Amro in Homs, where opposition fighters have mounted a recent comeback, rather than Raqqa with its strategic importance to the country.
We can conclude from this that the regime priority is to keep control on its supportive cantons rather than keeping Syria whole. We are seeing the partitioning of Syria.
On the second anniversary of the Syrian uprising, it is impossible to avert our eyes from the abyss into which Syria is falling. The unrelenting blood-lust fuelling the conflict has overwhelmed voices of reason calling for a battle against sectarianism. Having overcome the wall of fear to protest against al-Assad's regime, Syrians have now been seized by a fear of another name - sectarianism. Solidarities along confessional lines have seen communities retreat to villages and towns where their sect enjoys a numerical advantage. In some cases minorities have opted for assimilation in order to protect themselves from politics of difference. Reality is rarely what we desire, but recognising what lies ahead of us and calling it by its name may be a start.
Thousands thanks to Tahir Zaman for editing this article