A few months ago, when rebel fighters of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) pushed further into the suburbs of Damascus, Modar* started noticing rapid changes in his home city.
“We used to have mixed neighbourhoods, but not any more,” he told IRIN.
Modar, a student, lives in Yarmouk, a Sunni-majority district, home to Syria’s largest Palestinian refugee camp, which the FSA first entered this spring and has since come to control.
“There were some Alawis here, but they are gone now,” said Modar. “They left for the coast or to specific areas in Damascus like Mezze 86 or Ish al Warwar.” Both are districts almost exclusively inhabited by Alawis on the hillside in the western outskirts near the presidential palace.
The violence in Syria has triggered an increasing internal migration in the areas affected by the conflict, mirroring broader divisions in society, residents and activists in different cities said.
“Where there is fighting, there is segregation,” said Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma and author of the widely read blog Syria Comment. “Particularly in Damascus, the Alawis have no doubt moved into the Alawi neighbourhoods.”
Sectarian tensions have been on the rise since the beginning of the conflict as the Sunni majority forms the backbone of an opposition trying to overthrow the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, who belongs to the Alawi minority. The sect, a branch of Shiite Islam originating from the mountainous area near the coastline, also fills the ranks of the regime’s security apparatus.
Analysts warn that it is difficult to ascertain the extent to which war crimes and human rights violations, including forced displacement, are driven by sectarianism. Many of the motivations remain simply political or military. But the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria has noted increasingly sectarian overtones to the conflict. And a string of sectarian massacres has accelerated the segregation, driving Sunnis and Alawis apart.
In early May, regime forces were accused of two mass killings which left more than 200 people dead in Baniyas, a Sunni-majority town bordering predominantly Alawi areas in western Syria, and in the nearby Sunni village of Bayda. The attacks followed a pattern of previous killings, fuelling suspicions that the regime is trying to drive Sunnis out of the area in preparation for a breakaway Alawi state.
The opposition has also been accused of sectarian violence. In early June, rebels allegedly killed at least 30 people in a raid on the Shiite village Hatla in Deir-ez-Zor Governorate, scorching houses and decrying Shiite “dogs” and “apostates”.
Both sides have positioned bases within their respective supportive communities, the Commission said in its latest report released this month. Both sides have also been accused of forcibly displacing members of the opposite sect from areas they control.
More than two years into the conflict, at least 4.25 million people are internally displaced within the country. Their motivations for fleeing – which range from general violence to lack of basic services – are often hard to track.
Modar, the student, said some Alawi residents left Yarmouk because they felt generally unsafe due to the nearby fighting.
“Others were threatened after the FSA moved in. Somebody knocked on their door or left a note saying: You are not welcome any more.”
In Damascus, some Christians and Druze, belonging to an offshoot of Shia Islam that incorporates mystical and other beliefs, have also been encouraged by friends and family to move to Suweida, where they would be safer among their “co-religionists” (though some have refused, on principle).
But not all migration follows sectarian fault lines.
“There is an interesting counter-movement,” Landis said. Many Sunnis have fled to Alawi-dominated cities that have been less affected by the violence, like Lattakia or even Qadmous, deep in the Alawi mountains, introducing a new heterogeneity in some parts of the Alawi heartland.
“The picture is in some ways contradictory,” he said. “There is ethnic cleansing in some places, while in others, there is more mixing than before. People are terrified of each other, but they are still coexisting.”
For the moment, Landis said, Alawis are still renting apartments to displaced Sunnis living in predominantly Alawi areas along the coast.
But the Sunnis’ presence could become precarious if Alawis feel threatened. For example, “if Islamist militias penetrate into this area, things could change fast for the [displaced families]because the [Alawis] will see them as a danger,” he said.
Fear of “Genocide”
According to residents and activists from both communities, fear of retribution is rising among Alawis, who make up around 12 percent of the population. The regime has been relying heavily on the support of militia death squads known as Shabiha which are mainly recruited from the Alawi sect. In December UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide Adama Dieng warned of a growing risk that civilian communities, including Alawite and other minorities perceived to be associated with the government, could be subject to large-scale reprisal attacks.
“There is a fear of genocide,” said Rami*, an Alawi student from the coastal town Baniyas, now living in Damascus, and one of the few Alawis supporting the opposition. As a result, the community keeps retreating further, he said, even leaving their strongholds in the capital. “Thousands of families left Mezze 86 and went back to the coast. My relatives left, too.”
Residents in Zarzour, a predominantly Sunni village with a small Shia population in Idlib Governorate, told Human Rights Watch that their Shia neighbours had fled because they feared retaliation by opposition forces because, in their opinion, the local Shias had been supportive of government forces.
In the Ghab plain in Western Syria, an area dotted with Sunni and Alawi villages stretching between the city of Hama and the coast, FSA units and regime troops have been fighting for control. The region has witnessed displacement on both sides, said Majid*, a local Sunni activist. “Sunnis are leaving because they are scared. All regime supporters are armed now, and they fight along with the army.”
The Alawi community has been increasingly militarized, according to media reports, as the regime has stepped up the recruitment of fighters from the minority sect.
“When clashes break out near their villages, the men stay behind,” said Majid, “but they usually send away their families to safer areas further west.”
The rising number of sectarian tit-for-tat killings and kidnappings has also been spurring the flight of residents from heterogeneous regions.
“People are now separated from each other,” said Majid. “We are unfortunately on the road to sectarian war.”
Elizabeth O’Bagy, a political analyst at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington who has repeatedly travelled to Syria, says the scale of sectarian displacement generally reflects the level of fighting in each individual area. The most prominent places, she said, are pockets of Aleppo and the Ghab area in Hama Governorate, “where sectarian displacement is happening systematically… People are purposely moving away from mixed areas, isolating themselves within their own community.”
In Homs, which has been subjected to a devastating army siege since last year and is one of the areas most affected by the conflict, the interaction between Sunnis and Alawis has come to a complete standstill, residents said.
“We used to go shopping in their districts,” said a local Sunni activist who goes by the nickname Abu Emad. “I used to have Alawi girlfriends.”
Before the conflict started, there were four mixed suburbs, he said, all of which are now under government control and heavily guarded by Shabiha. Now, most Sunnis have left these areas, either because they were expelled by force, or because they were too scared to stay, he and others said.
“A mixed city like Homs has virtually lost its capacity to normalize relations between different communities,” said Peter Harling, Middle East analyst at the International Crisis Group (ICG). “The social fabric of the city has been broken, and it will be very difficult to reconcile the various groups.”
Aid workers and analysts warn that this type of segregation could affect the region for years to come.
“Frankly speaking, I don’t think we’ll ever be able to coexist with the Alawis again,” Abu Emad said. “I personally don’t want them to live in Syria any more.”
However, Harling and others caution against overstating the extent of sectarian-motivated displacement, as motives often overlap, with safety and accessibility generally playing a more important role than religious affiliation.
“The areas that have produced most refugees, the ones that have encountered the most extensive violence, are predominantly Sunni,” he said. “And the majority of people go to areas which are most safe and convenient.”
Still, the increasingly sectarian nature of displacement in Syria has raised the spectre of the 2006-7 violence in Iraq, where sectarian strife resulted in what some called “ethnic cleansing”, as Sunni and Shiite militias killed thousands of members of the rival community and drove hundreds of thousands from their homes – leaving a demographic legacy until this day.
Syria has not reached that level yet, but more than 90,000 people have died and the conflict has taken on regional dimensions, reinforcing a broader Sunni-Shiite power struggle that is increasingly drawing in the neighbouring countries.
While Sunni fighters from all over the Middle East, often with an Islamist background, have been flocking to Syria to join the rebels, members of the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah are now openly fighting alongside regime forces.
“The presence of foreign fighters on both sides contributes to the sectarian polarization,” said O’Bagy. “Unfortunately I do see the risk of Syria going down the path of Iraq. Every time I go to Syria, the sectarian hatred has gotten worse.”
In Baniyas, home to twin massacres in May, fear and distrust is mounting on both sides of the sectarian divide. Previously a lively city where the communities coexisted peacefully, Baniyas is now split into a northern half mainly inhabited by Alawis, and a southern half where Sunnis are concentrating, Alawi and Sunni sources said.
Sunni residents and activists say they feel vulnerable in the coastal town, especially after the massacres. The city is heavily guarded by security forces and Shabiha, while the rebels have almost no presence.
“We are afraid of them. They will probably kill us in the future,” said Rania*, a Sunni resident of Baniyas who recently moved from the city to a neighbouring country.
Mustafa Muhannad*, a local Sunni activist, estimates that 10-20 Sunni families have fled Baniyas since the massacres for fear of further sectarian violence. At the same time, he has seen Alawis stream into the city, both displaced families from other regions as well as fighters coming as reinforcement.
“They are achieving what they want,” he said, in reference to the government, “the displacement of all Sunnis from the city.”
Still, according to Rami, the Alawi student, a few thousand displaced Sunni Muslims have moved into the Alawi districts of Baniyas, his home town.
“The relationship between the locals and the displaced is not good,” he said. “There is a lot of distrust, but so far there has not been any open aggression.”
But even in their heartland on the coast, most members of his sect feel threatened, says Bassel, an Alawi resident.
“Many people consider emigrating to Europe or Lebanon because they are scared of what might happen to them after the regime falls.”
*not a real name