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.