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Biblical tradition holds that northern Iraq is the land of Cain and Abel. Across post-war Iraq, the ancient parable of fratricide seems to be playing out in a contemporary context: Muslim brothers killing Muslim brothers in spates of violence between the Sunni and Shia sects rippling out in waves across the Middle East.
The war in Syria is increasingly defined along the lines of a Shia regime versus a Sunni opposition.
ALEPPO, Syria — Soma lives in the shadows. He moves through back alleys rather than main streets. He keeps his head down and confronts no one. If he speaks in public, it is in a low voice and only to trusted friends.
Soma, 28, is wanted by the Syrian regime because he evaded military service to support the revolution. He can no longer enter government-held territory, and as a member of the Alawite sect that dominates Bashar al-Assad’s government, he is now no longer welcome in the rebel zones, acutely aware that many members of the Sunni-dominated opposition would kill him simply for being Alawite.
It wasn’t always this way. At the beginning of the uprising against the Assad regime, Soma was an active supporter of the revolution in his home province of Homs. He organized protests. He joined the Youth for Freedom movement, exposing the brutal government crackdown on protesters via YouTube videos and Facebook posts. He worked together with Sunni, Shia, fellow Alawites and Christians united by a common goal – freedom.
“In those days, there were no racist chants, but there was an uncertainty,” said Soma. “Everyone feared the hatred between the Alawite and Sunni. Nothing was clear.”
And now the early fears appear to have been founded, he says. The fight has shifted and the array of groups that make up the opposition are increasingly dominated by Sunni ideologues and fundamentalists. The war itself is increasingly defined along the lines of a Shia regime backed by fellow Shia in Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah versus a Sunni opposition backed by Saudi Arabia, Turkey and a reluctant array of Western powers, including the United States.
“Step by step, racism and religion began to creep in. It was gradual so we didn’t see it coming.”~Basel Absi
For Soma, the changes are more and more perceptible every day.
Last month, as he walked on the street with several friends, they were approached by two angry, non-Syrian Islamic extremists. As they chastised Basel Absi, one of Soma’s closest Sunni friends, for smoking in the street and Absi’s Kurdish wife for not wearing a full abiya, Soma could do nothing but watch in horror. Absi managed to talk their way out of the confrontation without anyone realizing Soma was Alawite. In his home shortly after the conflict, Soma related his feelings.
“I had a lump in my throat. I thought to myself, death has arrived,” said Soma, whose family name has been withheld for his own safety and that of his family.
“I had an image in my head of the people I should have said goodbye to. But the worse thing was the feeling of helplessness. I couldn’t protect my friends – I couldn’t even save myself. I was paralyzed. I kept thinking, this is not the way I want to die. If they hear my voice or check my ID – what can I do? I am in my house right now and I am still so afraid.”
The Syrian uprising began in March 2011, when anti-government protests erupted across the country. The movement began like the majority of the Arab Spring movements that swept across the Middle East that year. Protesters called for freedom, change and human rights.
But over time, that cry for freedom began to take on religious tones. The fight against a corrupt dictatorial government morphed into a fight between a Sunni majority and the leadership of a regime dominated by an Alawite minority – an offshoot of the Shia faith.
The population of Syria is as diverse as that of its neighbors Iraq and Lebanon, where sectarian violence has torn communities apart. Last month more than 1,000 were killed in car and suicide bombings across Iraq, and fighting between Shia and Sunni raged in Lebanon’s Tripoli. But for decades it had appeared that the Syrian people had managed to avoid the sectarian and religious turmoil that plagued the region.
An estimated 80 percent of Syria’s population is Sunni Muslim. This includes a Kurdish Sunni minority in the north who account for around 11 percent. The rest are predominantly Alawite, Shia and Christian with several smaller racial and religious groups dotting the country.
In those early days, protesters did not distinguish between religion, race and sect. Neither did the government. Alawite and Shia demonstrators were arrested and beaten alongside Sunnis. Hundreds, like Soma, had their cars burned, their homes targeted