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Deepening ethnic rifts reshape Syria’s towns

World News : Syria: The villages that dot the valleys and terraced hills of Syria’s northwest used to epitomize the country’s diversity. Each one was dominated by a different religion or sect.

The settlements coexisted – sometimes peacefully, sometimes less so – for centuries, a patchwork of distinct but interwoven communities that, for many Syrians, was central to the nation’s identity.

Over the past two years, that order has fallen apart.

In Zambaki, a concrete-block village in a valley near the border with Turkey, Sunni families have moved into homes abandoned by Alawite owners; Sunni instructors teach in the Alawite elementary school; and Sunni religious slogans in black paint mark the walls.

Mohamed Skafe, a 40-year-old Sunni maths instructor remembers how the Alawites began to flee nearly a year ago. As government troops withdrew and rebels took over, he phoned a friend in the village and pleaded with him to stay.

“He told me, ‘Can you protect me?’” Skafe recalled, holding his hands out, palms upward. “I said, ‘I have no guarantee.’”

As the revolt against Bashar al-Assad that began as a mostly secular call for democratic reform descended into civil war, communities have split along religious and ethnic lines. Majority Sunnis have come to dominate the opposition, while Shi’ites and Alawites, the offshoot sect of Shi’ite Islam that Assad belongs to, have largely sided with the government. Other minorities, such as the Christians, Druze and Kurds, have split or tried to stay neutral.

Across the country, violence and fear have emptied entire villages, forced millions of people to flee their homes, and transformed the social landscape.

The involvement of Shi’ite power Iran on one side and the ascendancy of hardline Islamists, including groups linked to al Qaeda, on the other has accelerated the process. For some fighters, the war has taken on an apocalyptic overtone. For others, enmity is rooted in old resentments and suspicions.

During a 10-day journey through rebel-held territory, Reuters saw first-hand how the sectarian divisions are transforming the country. Those splits, and the risk of large-scale communal retribution, are one reason Western powers have hesitated to intervene.

Now, as the United States prepares to arm the rebels, it risks getting entangled in an intricate conflict that often pits neighbor against neighbor. As in Yugoslavia or in neighboring Iraq, where conflicts were marked by sectarianism and ethnic cleansing, Syria is unlikely to go back to the way it was. Even when the war ends, the reordering of villages and towns will leave behind a very different country, a change which could reverberate through the region.

In Zambaki, in a house once owned by Alawites, a Sunni family of 10 has moved in after fleeing their own homes outside Hama, in central Syria. “The whole village was completely empty. We were in a Turkish camp, but it was so crowded. We decided to come back,” one man in the family said, asking not to be named.

“The regime is playing a big game, a very big game. We had Alawite neighbors and I swear we were living like brothers. But the regime played with their minds, and frightened them. We were neighbors.”

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