Sectarianism in Syria

This is the transcript from a debate I recently took part in at Chatham House: ‘Syria: Fate of a nation’. The video can be found here.

Sectarianism is an aspect of the Syria conflict which unfortunately is being used to characterize the conflict overall. In a binary way, people are characterizing Syria now as simply a sectarian fight, part of a wider Sunni–Shia divide that we’re seeing across the Middle East. But this isn’t really a very accurate reflection of what’s going on and, I would argue, it is dangerous for policy-makers in particular to think through that mindset, as it will have a very negative impact on how this conflict goes forward.

A few policymakers I’ve spoken to are beginning to think that what you’ve got in Syria is at best a repetition of the Lebanese civil war, and therefore the only solution is a kind of confessionalization of Syria, whereby, as you saw in Lebanon, each of the different sects in Syria get different numbers of seats in government and parliament – or, a worst-case scenario, this is a second Balkans conflict and the only possible solution is to divide Syria up along ethnic and sectarian lines. For various reasons, this is not the best way to see Syria.

This conflict did not begin as a sectarian fight. It was primarily a political and an economic conflict. It was political – people who opposed the regime of Bashar Assad – and it was economic because the people who tended to oppose the regime tended to be those who had suffered most economically from his rule. Now, it became implicitly sectarian because it just so happened that the majority of those who had suffered economically from the situation in Syria were people from Sunni Muslim, or Sunni Arab Muslim, backgrounds. There were a few incidents of explicit sectarianism early on – we shouldn’t pretend there wasn’t – particularly, people making a chant that was heard repeatedly in areas of Homs: ‘We want a leader who fears God.’ That is a particularly anti-Alawite slogan, because the notion is that Alawites aren’t real Muslims and therefore they don’t fear God in the way the Sunnis do. However, other than a few incidents of that, in a few areas – particularly in Homs, where ethnic tension was high – the majority of the opposition tried very hard to be inclusive. A lot of slogans were ‘all the Syrians are one’. Indeed, they adopted deliberately national symbols. If you looked at the flag they adopted, it’s a national flag – it’s the flag from the pre-Ba’ath era. They formed groups like the Syrian National Council. It was all framed within the idea of Syria being an inclusive nation-state.

So it’s also important when we look at Syria to realize that Syria is not and has not been a sectarian state in the past. The comparisons with Iraq and Lebanon are quite crude. Lebanon was established as a confessional state, first by the French, and then it continued as a confessional state after independence. Iraq was not established as a confessional state but after the Gulf War in 1991 the state was hollowed out because of sanctions and because of Saddam Hussein’s policies, and as a consequence alternative identities, particularly those of sect, emerged and became stronger as a substitute for a state.

That has not occurred in Syria. Sectarian identity has existed but it’s been at a lower level. People are aware of what sect they are but they’re also very aware of their Syrian national identity. While there have been implicit signs of sectarianism – there is a perception, even though it’s not actually that accurate, that Alawites are a more privileged group, that Sunnis are underprivileged – It’s very much been under the surface and not a politicized identity. Therefore, it’s very worrying to start projecting from the outside the politicization of these identities that you find elsewhere.

The question then is then: why is it that people are talking about sectarianism? Why has sectarianism emerged as a problem in Syria now, if there wasn’t such a strong politicization of identity prior to the conflict? There are two main reasons for this.

The first one, and perhaps the most important one, is that the regime itself has deliberately played on sectarian fears. It’s done this in two ways. On the one hand, it has characterized the opposition as an Islamist Sunni movement. It has tried very hard to appeal to non-Sunnis – Alawites and Christians (Alawites make up about 12 per cent of the population, Christians about 8 per cent of the population) – and secular Sunnis, that if the opposition win, not only will they be Islamists and create a sharia-law-type state, but also they will not tolerate the minorities. By doing so, they have convinced a lot of people that they must stay with the regime or else face obliteration as a group.

The other thing they have done – highly cynically – was deliberately release in various amnesties early on radical Islamists who had been in their prisons. Effectively, they released them with the intention that they will go on to form radical groups. Surprise, surprise, a lot of these groups have been formed, such as Jabhat al-Nusra, who are radical jihadists, who seemed to confirm the fears of a lot of the minorities. Now the minorities that back the regime look at the opposition and see these active groups that are using violence and radical Islamism to oppose the regime, and they fear the alternative. They fear what will come next. So the regime has played a major part in sectarianizing this conflict.

The second group really responsible for sectarianizing the Syria conflict are external powers, in particular powers from the Gulf – notably Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Ever since the 2003 Iraq war, which empowered Iran and increased Iran’s position in the MENA region, Saudi Arabia and, latterly, Qatar have been worried. They have attempted to push a form of Sunni nationalism to oppose Iran. They have characterized Iran as a dangerous Shia external threat that the Sunnis must rally together to oppose. Now actually, for the majority of the 2000s, most people in the Sunni street across the Arab world did not buy that line. Remember when King Abdullah of Jordan talked about the Shia crescent emerging across Syria and Iraq and Iran – the average person in the street didn’t seem to respond to that.

The Syrian civil war has changed that, because it has been much easier for people to recognize, with Iran playing an active role in Syria, this actual Iranian threat to the Sunnis on the ground. I think that’s very important, that this external factor has served to radicalize some elements of the Syrian Sunni population . Not all of them, but important elements. But again, a lot of it has come from the outside. We have seen this also in terms of the groups that they’ve been backing. Saudi Arabia has been backing Salafist groups, and Qatar has allegedly been backing some jihadi groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, albeit through third parties and not directly.

So we’re in a situation where there is a lot of sectarianism emerging and it is spreading across the region as well. We’re seeing on Qatar’s Al Jazeera television network, one of the clerics, Qaradawi, recently declared a jihad on the Shia on behalf of the Sunnis. Similarly, I was shocked to discover that last week there was a poll on Al Jazeera and the question was: who is more to blame for the Syrian civil war, the Sunnis or the Shia? Not surprisingly, the people that voted, 95 per cent blamed the Shia. Sectarianism is being projected on Syria from the outside.

It’s important to note that in spite of all this, Syria is not yet at this point where its conflict has become explicitly sectarian. And thankfully, the majority of the population on both sides, I would argue, are actually resisting the sectarian language. There are non-Sunnis who are supporting the opposition and there’s a lot of Sunnis who are actually supporting the regime still, for various reasons. Also very importantly there haven’t been that many sectarian massacres, thankfully. This is not the Balkans. We have not yet seen whole villages wiped out because of their ethnic identity. People might characterize it as sectarian from the outside but it’s not necessarily seen like that at the moment.

The danger is, of course, that these identities that are being encouraged by the regime and from outside become solidified, and the longer the conflict goes on, the more people actually begin to ascribe and identify with those identities. We saw this certainly in Iraq. Once political identities become solidified, it’s hard to take them away. So the priority really, when looking at this conflict, is trying to find a situation whereby sectarianism will not become solidified so that you have to Balkanize and chop Syria up.

Why does it matter? Syria, I would argue, is too big to fail. A lot of the features you see in Syria are characterized in other parts of the region as well. We’ve already seen sectarianism boil over into Lebanon recently. We’ve seen a resurgence of sectarianism in Iraq as well. There’s the potential for sectarianism to take place in Turkey: 20-odd per cent of the Turkish population are Alevi, which is a relative of the Alawite sect. Prime Minister Erdoğan has actually, rather like Qatar and the Saudis, started using quite irresponsible language. When a bomb went off in the border town of Reyhanli recently, he started talking about how Sunni lives have been lost – not Turkish lives, Sunni lives. That really aggravated the non-Sunni community within Turkey. Thankfully, the majority of the Turkish public don’t seem to be biting to this bait, but the potential is there. Likewise, we’ve seen in Egypt recently there has been some fighting with the small number of Shias being targeted. And of course, if we start setting into motion the notion that ethnic identity and sectarian identity should form the basis of states in the Middle East, all the other multi-ethnic states could face collapse: Jordan, with its Christian community; Egypt, with its Christian community; The multinational communities of Lebanon and, of course, Syria.

So, to conclude, on the one hand, it’s important to understand the complexities of this conflict, but on the other hand, it’s important to realize that the sectarian threat is there – and as we speak, as this conflict goes on, sectarianization is happening. But rather than see it as an isolated problem, you’ve got to see this as a problem for the whole region. Rather than wading into a conflict on one side or the other because you want to topple a bad regime, you’ve got to look at the wider picture of how this is going to impact across the region as a whole.

In the short term, I would prescribe for Western diplomats to put pressure on their Gulf allies to de-escalate the sectarian language. In the long term, I think whenever we reach a point where hopefully we can come to a conclusion, some sort of a settlement in this conflict, policy-makers have got to steer away from any attempt to place the Balkans or the Taif accord from Lebanon onto Syria. This is not how Syrians see their political identity, and if you end up imposing it upon them, all you will do is entrench these identities for good. That could have a massive destabilizing effect, not just in Syria but across the whole region.