HASAKAH, Syria – The Khalil family has lived in Syria’s northwest Idlib province for generations, sewing olive trees and tomatoes and peppers into soil. But like other ethnic minorities across Syria, these Alawites fear an increasingly radicalized opposition and what will come if Syrian President Bashar Assad is toppled.
“We are afraid,” says 37-year-old Mohammed Khalil, whose family built a new sandstone house on a patch of land it owned three years back, months before Syria was consumed by war. “But we will receive what Allah wants for us,” he says, speaking of the slaughter he fears will come to the minority Alawites, a Shiite offshoot whose numbers include Assad and his inner circle.
“A revolution should take the people forward, not backwards,” says Avesta, a Christian Kurdish woman from northeastern Hasakah province, which has a Kurdish majority. “If extremists control Syria, it will be a disaster. It will be darkness.”
Syria is home to myriad ethnic and religious groups: Kurds, Assyrians, Sunnis, Alawites, Druze, Yezidis and various Christian denominations. They make up about a quarter of Syria’s 23 million population and many supported the calls for democratic reform and increased personal freedoms that defined the early stages of an uprising that began in 2011.
Opposition activists attempted to foster an environment of inclusion, reaching out to minority groups. And some Christians and Kurds – the latter has experienced severe repression at the hands of the ruling Baath Party – joined opposition ranks.
Yet as the regime clung to power, the opposition became dominated by radicalized Sunni factions, notably the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusrah, while opposition groups began to emphasize Islamic aspects of their identity as a counter to regime ideology.
Ethnic minorities were once again pushed to the margins, caught between a brutal regime on one side and a largely Sunni opposition on the other.
“The boundaries of this war are clear,” says Abu Ibrahim, chairman of the local council in the Christian village of Jacoubiyeh in Idlib. “This is a war over Islam. It’s between two opposing Islamic forces.”
Jacoubiyeh stands perched atop a small hill in Idlib, which has been carved up by a profusion of armed groups. Men in ski masks and kamikaze black bandanas — proclaiming the Koranic verse “there is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet,” — linger at checkpoints, or drive off in convoys to frontlines.
Fears of full-scale ethnic cleansing continue to mount.
“As Christians, we are outside of this war,” says Abu Ibrahim. “We are afraid of what the al-Qaeda fighters may do to us, but nothing has happened here yet. For now, it is only fear.”
On August 4, fighters from a variety of opposition groups launched a large-scale offensive in Latakia province, overrunning army positions and entering 10 Alawite villages, according to a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report titled “You Can Still See Their Blood.”
In the ensuing slaughter, opposition fighters attempted to kill entire families, unarmed, and often fleeing for their lives. All told, 190 people were killed – including 57 women and 18 children, many executed summarily. More than 200 were taken hostage.
According to HRW, “the nature of the recorded wounds, for example multiple gunshot or stabbing wounds… all indicate that most of these individuals were either intentionally or indiscriminately killed by opposition forces.”
For Abu Ibrahim and others, Syria’s civil war is now a full-blown sectarian conflict, pitting Sunnis and Alawites against each other. The tensions have simmered for decades and now the delicate interwoven strings that held Syria’s different ethnic and religious communities together have been severed.
Amira, a Yezidi woman from Hasakah, said that when the opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the al-Qaeda affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) arrived, “It was very difficult to live here. They are crazy. I support the People’s Protection Units, they are the only people who will protect me,” she adds, referring to the Kurdish YPG militia that guards Kurdish towns and regions.
Many of the Alawite families in the region, most of whom have fled to areas under government control, were staunch supporters of Assad and the pro-regime Shabiha militiamen, says Mohammed, who insists that the Khalil family is staying put.
“This is our home,” he says. “I will not take up arms against anyone, even if they come to kill me.”