Recent reports on the Syrian civil war depict a messy conflict, with terror and atrocity on both sides. The New York Times captured this in a story yesterday concerning the Alawite people, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s own sect.

Reporter Robert Worth spoke with Alawites who related stories of brutality and murder. One Alawite woman named Ibtisam Ali Aboud, whose husband was killed by a Sunni friend, said, “We never used to feel any distinction between people of different sects … Now they are ready to slaughter us … We are the ones who are being targeted.”

The Alawites have justly received condemnation for their abetting of Assad’s atrocities in the past (and present): Worth reflects back on the 1982 Hama massacre, in which Alawites helped kill 10,000 to 30,000 people in less than a month.

But Worth describes the Alawite community as the war’s “opaque protagonist, a core of loyalists whose fate is now irrevocably tied to Assad’s.”  He writes:

“Most outsiders agree that Assad cynically manipulated the fears of his kinsmen for political survival, but few have asked — or had the opportunity to ask — how the Alawites themselves feel about Assad, and what kind of future they imagine now that the Sunni Arab world has effectively declared war on them.”

Aliaa Ali, daughter of a retired Alawite military officer and French teacher, told Worth she used to be pro-revolution. But she now believes Alawites who join the opposition “are being used as tools. Or they think they can turn this jihadi war into a democratic revolution. But they will never succeed.”

Alawite novelist Samar Yazbek disagrees. She said Assad has used the Alawite community as “human shields” to maintain power. “They believe the regime’s rhetoric, that they would be massacred if Assad falls … They are very afraid, and very confused.”

An April 2013 special report by the U.S. Comission on International Religious Freedom noted,

“Many minority religious communities have tried to stay neutral in the conflict, but opposition forces increasingly see their non-alignment, or perceived non-alignment, as support for the al-Assad regime. Minority religious communities thus have been forced by circumstances to take a position either in favor of the al-Assad regime, which historically provided them some religious freedom protections, or in favor of the uncertainties of the opposition. As these sectarian fissures deepen, it is increasingly likely that religious communities will be targeted not for their political allegiances, but solely for their religious affiliation.”

The Alawite religion, according to Worth, is “a strange, mystic blend of Neoplatonism, Christianity, Islam and Zoroastrianism.” Islamist theologian Ibn Taymiyya said in the 14th century that Alawites were “more infidel than Jews and Christians, even more infidel than many polytheists,” and authorized a jihad against them.

Alawites are not the only minority feeling fearful and trapped. The aforementioned U.S. Commission reported, “the Christian population of the city of Homs—approximately 160,000—has almost entirely fled for safety, with reports suggesting that only 1,000 Christians remain.” As Andrew Doran noted in an article for The American Conservative in May, many Christians “fled [Iraq] to the relative freedom and tolerance of Syria, only to find themselves again fleeing persecution, often hunted by Syria’s rebels… The Obama administration, bewilderingly, has chosen to support Syria’s rebel groups without any apparent thought of the consequences.” Two Syrian Orthodox bishops were kidnapped by an unknown party on April 22, and although the opposition has reported they are “in good health,” there is no actual news on their whereabouts.

Aliaa Ali also speculated on fears inherent in the toppling of Assad: “Yes, there have been atrocities… But you have to ask yourself: What will happen if Bashar falls? That’s why I believe victory is the only option. If Bashar falls, Syria falls. And then we, here, will all be in the niqab, or we will be dead.”

As America steps into this chaotic civil war, it is becoming increasingly evident that we may not necessarily know who we are fighting for – or for that matter, who we are fighting against. Worth’s story illustrates the fact that “loyalty” does not always stem from admiration or love. Sometimes, it stems from fear.