STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The Arab uprisings that have already overturned three governments and shaken several more continue in Syria. The government's response there has been brutal. Syrian officials have blamed the revolt on foreign agents and Islamist militants, and they have also cast the uprising as a danger to Syria's minorities. The state media play up sectarian tensions in a region that's already in the grip of a dangerous sectarian divide between different kinds of Muslims. As we continue our series on the aftermath of the Arab Spring, NPR's Deborah Amos looks at the danger of sectarianism.
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DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: One way to see how sectarianism works is to spend some time in this community, listen to the politics and the fears and just look around. Everyone here is an Alawite - that's a sect of Islam, the same faith as Syria's President Bashar al-Assad. And Assad is smiling down on this community, from posters at the barber shop on apartment buildings and in every restaurant.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)
AMOS: At this coffeehouse, over a heated card game, the players worry that a revolt that calls for an end to the Assad regime is directed against them.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Bashar Assad, he's the best, believe me.
AMOS: Do you believe it's best for Alawites if Bashar goes?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Yeah, of course. It's so bad.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: For Alawites and for Christians. He's a good man.
AMOS: Syrian television plays in the background, a big plasma screen next to a picture of Assad with his father, Hafez al-Assad, who began the Alawite dynasty in 1970. And that put an end to the domination of the Sunni Muslim majority in Syria. Stop in at Rifaat Eid's office, a political leader here. Ask if Alawites are endangered, and he says yes, definitely.
RIFAAT EID: I'm Alawite. But I feel like it's because I'm Alawite, someone want to kill me, OK. We are afraid from this idea.
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AMOS: Just outside his office, another generation sings the praises of the Syrian president, except this is not Syria. Syria is 15 miles away. This is Lebanon. But sectarian identity trumps borders for Rifaat Eid. Alawites are a minority in both countries, and he feels a shared destiny. You always need a protector, he says. And as long as Assad is the strongman in Syria, Eid feels safe here.
EID: You know now why we are with Bashar al-Assad? Because we are in the Middle East, and in the Middle East, the big fish always eats the small fish, OK.
AMOS: The fate of minorities - the small fish of the Middle East - is a crucial question in the Arab uprisings. In Egypt, minority Christians are wary of Islamists coming to power. Syria's minorities have largely sided with the Assad regime against a mostly Sunni Muslim revolt, says Fawaz Gerges, director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics.
FAWAZ GERGES: The Syrian government has branded itself as the protector of minorities - not just the Alawite, but even the Christians and the Druze and other minorities in Syria. So they have used sectarianism as a political tool.
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AMOS: In the heart of Damascus, churches built alongside mosques show a long history of tolerance. But Syria's diverse social fabric is fraying over the aims of the 10-month revolt.
GABRIEL DAOUD: I'm Father Gabriel Daoud, parish priest.
AMOS: Father Daoud's church has been a refuge for Iraqi Christians. They were targeted in a sectarian war and forced to cross the border for safety. Father Daoud is against any uprising he believes could turn Syria into Iraq.
Is this an anti-Christian movement? Do you feel that it is?
DAOUD: Oh, I feel some of it, yes. They do this chaos in this country.
AMOS: Syria's state media insists the chaos comes from militant Islamists, terrorists who will end the protection for Syria's Christians to freely practice their faith. It's a survival strategy, says Vali Nasr, a Middle East analyst at the Fletcher School of Government. He describes what might be called Sectarianism 101. The Syrian regime incites sectarian tensions, then presents itself as the only force that can hold the country together.
VALI NASR: It needs to make sure that its Alawite base, and also the Christians in the country remain in its corner, and then it can go to battle against the Sunnis trying to divide them, co-opt them and/or intimidate them. But it needs to make sure that the 20 percent of the country that has been with it remains supportive of the regimes. Without that, it doesn't have a chance.
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AMOS: Syria's protest movement is trying to break through the sectarian divide, says human rights activist Wissam Tarif.
WISSAM TARIF: In Syria, in particular, it is a revolution of young people, and the young people are not sectarian. We don't know the language. We don't understand the concept.
AMOS: He points to the young Christians and young Alawites who've joined the protest movement, standing with Sunni Muslims, risking everything for change.
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TARIF: Regimes have incited and played on differences for the last 50 years. What do you expect? It's not magic. We need the space to mature, to become citizens. The concept of becoming citizen is not known for us. That's what we need to learn. That's what we need to know.
AMOS: Democracy is the answer, he says, a system that guarantees minority rights. But it's an untested model in the region. And after 10 months of revolt, with more than 5,000 dead, Syria's divide is starker than ever, says Tarif, between pro and anti-government.
TARIF: And now people are gathered around a concept of fear. When a family are sitting at night before they go to bed, they are not sectarian. They are afraid. They are afraid from the neighbor who is different, who is loyal to the regime, or vice versa. It's fear.
AMOS: Assad has played his survival card well, says Fawaz Gerges.
GERGES: I don't believe that the Syrian crisis is about sectarianism. This is not about Sunnis versus Alawites and Christians. This is about national security and regional security. And President Assad has been basically relentlessly hammering this particular point: Do you want to be another Iraq?
AMOS: In a region already in a dangerous sectarian divide, what happens in Syria is watched closely by everyone in the region. The Sunni powers, led by Turkey and Saudi Arabia, have lined up to support the protests. Syria's allies - Iran, Iraq and Hezbollah, the Shiite power in Lebanon - stand against. A collapse in Syria, a sectarian war could inflame the region. It's the nightmare scenario that has paralyzed policy choices, stalled international intervention and prolonged the Assad regime. Deborah Amos, NPR News, Beirut.