In the town of Azaz, in northern Syria, a trail of destroyed houses, mass graves, tank tracks, and shell casings provides a glimpse of the daily reality for millions of Syrians. At the nearby Bab al-Salameh border crossing with Turkey, children tell of fleeing their homes after being shelled by regime forces and attacked by pro-government militias.
"Why did Bashar have to send his community against us to kill our innocent people?" one man asks, framing the conflict as a war between the Alawite sect, a community to which President Bashar al-Assad belongs, and Syria's Sunni majority. Another man praises "the true righteous Muslims" of Jabhat al-Nusra, an al Qaeda-linked terrorist group known for its vitriol toward Alawites and support for fundamentalist Islamic rule.
Such scenes, which I saw on my recent trip to war-torn northern Syria, point to the worrying growth of jihadi and Salafi groups — but these forces are not the only players emerging in the new Syria. The secular and nationalist spirit that initially sparked the Syrian revolution is also still alive and well. Many grassroots activists and religious leaders are working to forge a country that is built on secular principles, against sectarian revenge, and supportive of equal rights for all its citizens. Even some of the sharia courts that have sprung up to administer justice in areas the Syrian government has abandoned contain surprising, nonsectarian trends.
Whether such a movement can survive as the uprising drags on is not yet clear. For the time being, however, these figures embody the sliver of hope that Syria may avoid an all-out sectarian war.
Among the best-known nonviolent protest movements on the ground is Tajammu' Nabd, or the Pulse Gathering for Civil Youth, which defines its purpose as to "fight the regime and fight sectarianism." It is led by Yamen Hussein, an Alawite originally from Homs, who joined the revolution in its earliest days. The relatively small, youth-led movement has served as a vehicle to empower minorities — especially Alawites, the bulk of whom have been hostile to the revolution.
With bases in secular strongholds like Yabrud, Salamiyah, Zabadani, and Homs, Nabd activists have taken on small but unique projects. On Christmas, its activists dressed up as Santa Clauses and gave gifts to the Christians of Homs. In protests throughout the country, Nabd sends minority and secular activists to hold up signs that read: "In Syria there are two sects: the sect of freedom and the sect of the oppressors," and "Before you call for sectarian revenge, remember that you trembled when you witnessed the massacre."
"A small proportion of the signs and chants in protests in parts of Syria are growing more radical and sectarian, so we want to be the counterforce and present our movement on the ground," Hussein told me. "But the hardest work will come after we overthrow the regime, where we will try to keep our country from being torn apart."
Beyond organizations like Nabd, individual activists also work independently to help the uprising and build bridges between the predominantly Sunni rebels and the country's minority communities. Half a dozen Alawite and Ismaili activists, who requested that their names not be mentioned, told me how they regularly work with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) to sneak humanitarian and military aid through regime checkpoints. The presence of uncovered women who speak with an Alawite accent allows these activists to avoid suspicion by the regime.
Other activists loudly broadcast their contribution to the anti-Assad effort: One woman I met, Loubna Mrie, a young Alawite woman from the city of Jableh, publicly goes in and out of Syria with FSA brigades to deliver wheat to civilians in war-torn areas.
Minorities and secular youth are only one part of the anti-sectarian revolutionary movement — religious leaders also play a prominent role. Sheikh Abu al-Huda al-Husseini, former director of religious endowments in Aleppo, split with the regime in August 2011 and defected to Turkey. He has teamed up with Sheikh Muhammad al-Yaqoubi, a former Sufi preacher at Damascus's al-Hassan Mosque who famously attacked the regime in a May 2011 sermon, to form the "National Bloc," which seeks to advance an anti-radicalization and anti-sectarian agenda.
Husseini, over dinner in the Turkish city of Iskenderun, made the case for a moderate interpretation of Islam. He noted that the Quran prohibits sectarianism and stressed the need for a general amnesty after the fall of the regime, arguing that forgiveness is a central tenet of Islam. Husseini also expressed his vision for a civil state and pluralistic government after the fall of the Syrian regime, proposing a bicameral system that gives each religious or ethnic community's leaders an opportunity to be heard in government. "Everyone should get a say, no matter how small his group is, even the atheists," he told me.
The National Bloc attempts to bring together 100 of Syria's most prominent, pro-revolution public leaders — including tribal chiefs, intellectuals, religious clerics, and scientists — to advance a message of national unity and reconciliation. The idea is that such elites can use their standing in Syrian society to push the country away from radicalism and revenge. The bloc advocates a return to Syria's 1950 constitution as a starting point for the post-Assad period.
Husseini is looking over the horizon to the post-Assad transition to expand the bloc's role. "There is too much fighting now, too much blood. It is hard to talk to battle-hardened fighters and tell them a message at this time," he said.
Impromptu courts established to dispense Islamic law might seem a prime vehicle for advancing radical ideas, but sometimes in Syria, they do just the opposite. In two sharia courts — one at the Bab al-Salameh border crossing and the other in the northern province of Idlib — these bodies are an antidote to the idea of collective sectarian revenge.
"There is no crime in Islam called being an Alawite," Sheikh Abu Jamal, head of the sharia and law division of Idlib Council, told me. "As religious leaders we have the important role of being against vigilante justice, and we have spoken out against many of the youths taking matters into their own hands. Most people listen to us."
Abu Jamal said that the purpose of sharia courts is to make sure that no one is punished without a trial. In his court, the accused is innocent until proven guilty; both a human rights activist and Islamic cleric are witnesses at the trial to advise and object to irregularities; and each accused is offered the right to a lawyer.
Still, the sharia courts are plagued with problems. Not all such courts are created equal, and the protections Abu Jamal offers may not be present elsewhere. There is no appeals process, and the system of choosing and electing judges is biased toward revolutionary justice. At the same time, however, the courts' role in supporting due process and rule of law has acted as a counterweight to sectarian vigilantism in this transitional period.
Some militant groups are also hostile to the growing radicalization of their anti-Assad brethren. In the northern town of Azaz, I met Capt. Bewar Mustafa, head of the Kurdish Salah al-Din Brigade, which largely fights in Aleppo. "We believe in democracy, equal rights for all, and representation," he told me. "This is automatically against sectarianism. We are the Free Syrian Army for all Syrians, not just for one group, and the Kurds in this are a moderating force."
Mustafa, a defected army captain, is afraid of the rising popularity of extremist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra. He also distrusts the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), an offshoot of the Turkish insurgent PKK, whose leadership he says holds extreme separatist views and cooperates with the Assad regime. While there might be a need for temporary alliances with the radicals now, he said, Kurdish fighters are determined to stand up against sectarianism when the regime falls.
"Now we Kurds are in the fight, fighting alongside even al-Nusra in Aleppo, and the day after, we will defend all Syrians," he said. "I swear to God, if some radicals want to go kill the Alawites, we will fight with our guns and die to defend the Alawites because we are the army for all Syrians."
The Salah al-Din Brigade's members, who also include Arabs and Turkmen, explicitly affirm their desire for a secular state respecting pluralism, minorities, and religious freedoms. With their identity as mostly secular Kurds, they see themselves as a bridge between Syria's Sunni Arab and minority communities.
Uniting Syria's secularists
Syria's secularists were initially unorganized, but they have increasingly banded together to combat the rise of radical Islamist factions. Muhammad Hussein, a cardiologist and human rights activist from Aleppo, has been one of the key figures in building bridges between the country's disparate nonsectarian revolutionary forces.
Hussein launched the National Coalition to Protect the Civil Peace in late 2012 to unite secular civil society groups and aid organizations with secular-minded rebel brigades. He is currently working to bring together forces like the Salah al-Din Brigade, the minority-led National Unity Brigades that operate in parts of Idlib and Hama, and small Christian brigades that exist near the city of Qamishli with their counterparts in aid organizations, schools, and grassroots movements.
"There are a lot of people here who still believe in our nation," Hussein tells me. This coalition of civil forces may not be able to halt the rise of radical jihadists, whom he refers to as "sick-minded people," but he hopes that it will at least give civil and anti-sectarian forces a foothold on the ground.
At this point, Hussein's coalition is mostly focusing on Aleppo. The city is particularly important due to its ethnic and religious diversity — Arabs, Kurds, Armenians, Christians, and Sufis all call it home — and the rise of radical groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra there. Hussein's plan is to establish "militants ready to protect the civil peace," composed of both rebel groups and secular activists, to police the neighborhoods. These local groups will police their own areas, protecting against sectarianism and radicalization.
Such forces are not yet fully in action, but their intent is to protect communities from both the regime's sectarian shabiha and radical Islamist groups. "There was never any option other than opposing this awful regime," Hussein says. "What's coming next may not be good in the short term, but we must at least have something in place to protect national unity. We cannot surrender to the extremists so fast."
Despite the energy of the anti-sectarian movement, the regime's increasing brutality is leading to worrying signs of radicalization across Syria. Of those I spoke to, only a few were willing to criticize Jabhat al-Nusra, saying that the al Qaeda-linked jihadi group is helping on the ground in ways the West has failed to do.
What I found most surprising was how many secularists and activists from minority backgrounds defended the jihadists. Ali al-Meer, a Shiite doctor and spokesman for the Local Coordination Committee of Salamiyah, a city whose majority is Ismaili, summed it up. "Look, I am Shiite, but these Salafis are helping us. Ahrar al-Sham is fighting the regime and delivering aid even to Shiite areas, even if we don't see eye to eye on many things."
One Alawite woman who wished to remain anonymous cast a more defiant tone: "I don't understand why the United States calls Jabhat al-Nusra terrorist, while Bashar al-Assad is the only terrorist in Syria."
Syria's revolution began peacefully, and hopeful anecdotes of national unity are still evident on the ground. As the conflict drags on, however, the anti-sectarian forces are slowing losing ground to the radicals — but still remain Syria's last, best hope for avoiding a sectarian civil war.