There's more to the country's ongoing strife than religious differences.
As the U.S. contemplates a more active role in Syria, many journalists and policymakers are focused on the civil war's sectarian violence. A December 2012 UN Commission of Inquiry stated that "as battles between government forces and anti-government armed groups approach the end of their second year, the conflict has become overtly sectarian."
A headline in the Atlantic Wire on March 4 warned ominously that "Syrian Troop Ambush in Iraq Heightens Fear of Bigger Sectarian War." PRI's The World reports that, "the sectarian fighting has echoes of the Sunni-Shi'ite violence that dominated the middle years of the war in Iraq."
That's dangerous -- because while the Syrian civil war isn't yet a sectarian conflict, the discussion itself could make it one.
To be sure, a compelling story is making the rounds. Such voices as Patrick Cockburn at The Independent , Joseph Olmert in The Huffington Post, and countless others describe the Syrian war as an armed conflict pitting Sunnis, who make up the majority of Syria's population, against the Alawites, who back the Assad regime, and their Shiite allies, Iran and Hezbollah. In this telling, Christians and other innocent minorities are under siege, caught in the crossfire and afraid they will be oppressed by a Sunni majority in a post-Assad Syria. This would make Syria just the latest in a long string of Middle Eastern countries riven by intractable sectarian differences that lead to interminable chaos and violence. Because religious divisions define people's identities in this region, the story goes, history tells us that there is no choice but to let them "fight it out" while we do everything in our power, including possibly arming the opposition, to ensure that those who support U.S. interests in the region prevail.