Sectarianism as Plan B: Saudi-Iranian identity politics in the Syria conflict

By Christopher Phillips, The Foreign Policy Centre

Saudi Arabia and Iran have both been deeply involved in the Syrian civil war from its beginning in 2011, each sponsoring rival sides. Both have utilised sectarian identity politics to further their goals and both have contributed to the growth of violence along sectarian lines. This has led to a characterisation by many that both are sectarian actors that immediately reach for identity politics as a tool of influence. However, a closer examination of the Syrian case would challenge this. Drawing on research by myself and Morten Valbjorn that examines the relationship between Syrian fighting groups and their external sponsors, this article argues that in Syria identity politics was not the immediate policy pursued by either Saudi Arabia or Iran.[1] Instead, sponsoring sectarian actors was a plan B after backing other, more inclusive actors failed. This suggests a degree of pragmatism from both governments, rather than being driven exclusively by sectarian zeal.

The Syrian conflict is often characterised as sectarian, but this is one strand of several driving the civil war.[2] There has been variation across Syria and over the course of the conflict. In some areas, the war has been driven more by political, economic and international factors than sectarianism. That said, an identity component has often been present, with violence, sexual assault and looting taking place along sectarian lines. Saudi Arabia and Iran have contributed to this. Saudi Arabia has sent arms and money to overtly sectarian Sunni Islamist fighters. Its government turned a blind eye for the first few years of the war to private Saudi donors sending money to radical Sunni groups, and it did little to clamp down on its sectarian preachers appearing on satellite television watched in Syria.

Iran’s sectarian activity was even more pronounced. From 2012 it sent Islamist Shi’a militia to Syria to fight for President Bashar al-Assad, with up to 8,000 fighters from its Lebanese ally Hizballah and 12,000 Afghani and Pakistani fighters present by 2017. It sent its own Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force officers, led by Major General Qassem Suleimani, to direct the war effort and retrain Syria’s military. Several of these retrained units were based around sectarian identities, as were the non-governmental pro-Assad militia they encouraged. The presence of Shi’a militia in the Syria conflict, many with an explicitly anti-Sunni agenda, helped to radicalise anti-Assad fighters, who were overwhelmingly Sunni, and further sectarianized the conflict.

However, it is important to note that turning to sectarian fighters was neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia’s first reaction, and their policies evolved from the failure of earlier options. Riyadh, initially sponsored moderates among those who took up arms against Assad. From early 2012 Saudi Arabia backed the Free Syria Army (FSA), which had a national Syrian rather than a Sunni sectarian focus, even though most were Sunni Muslims. Unlike other sponsors of the opposition like Qatar and Turkey who turned to more Islamist and sectarian fighters earlier, Saudi Arabia feared Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood and preferred the mostly secular former army officers of the FSA.

It was only after the FSA proved unable to defeat Assad and its fighters started joining more radical Islamist groups that Riyadh looked for alternatives. It eventually backed the Salafist Jaysh al-Islam in Damascus in late 2013, led by Zahran Alloush whose father was an imam in Saudi Arabia. This connection also led to it briefly backing the mostly Islamist Jaysh al-Fatah coalition in Idlib in 2015. Both included Sunni sectarianists. However, it encouraged Alloush and his successors to moderate their slogans.[3] This suggests that Saudi Arabia was pragmatic enough to recognise that ultra-sectarian actors would struggle to win in multi-faith Syria and must compromise. Moreover, Saudi did not abandon the FSA completely and maintained its sponsorship of the Southern Front, a south Syria FSA militia until 2017 at the same time. This shows a degree of expediency from Riyadh. It turned to Alloush in desperation, when plan A of backing the FSA failed. Yet even then it stuck with the southern FSA in the hope it would still triumph.

Iran was also more nuanced, turning to sectarian actors only after others failed. Tehran first sent weapons and advisers to help Assad’s army, the nominally inclusive Syrian Arab Army (SAA). Though its elite units were dominated by members of Assad’s Shi’a-linked Alawi sect, it was no sectarian institution, boasting Sunnis, Shi’as, Alawis and Christians in its ranks and utilising inclusive national symbols and slogans. However, the SAA performed poorly in the first year of the war, prompting Iran to send Suleimani to Damascus to salvage the situation. Within a few weeks, the Quds force commander reportedly stated, “The Syrian army is useless! Give me one brigade of Basij [the IRGC’s paramilitary force] and I could conquer the whole country!”[4] Soon Suleimani turned to Hizballah and other Shi’a militia from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan to come to Syria. Having trained many of them himself, especially in Iraq during the post-2003 campaign against the US, Suleimani saw such sectarian actors as more dependable than the SAA.

Yet, as with the Saudis, this suggests a pragmatic rather than an exclusively sectarian motivation. These militias were utilised for their reliability and fighting ability rather than purely ideological reasons. Moreover, Iran used these groups to supplement rather than replace Assad’s national forces and the SAA continued to receive support. Indeed, when the Iranians reorganised Syria’s paramilitary forces in 2013 they gave it a national rather than sectarian name: The National Defence Forces (NDF). While the NDF did include sectarian militia, it retained a deliberately national character. Again, expediency may have driven this. Shi’as make up barely 1-2% of Syria’s population, and Alawis are barely 12%. Were Iran to encourage a purely sectarian chauvinistic discourse, they would have isolated key Christian, Druze and Sunni constituents that continued to back Assad.[5] Unlike in Iraq, where over 60% of the population is Shi’a, demographics in Syria were not in Suleimani’s favour. Even had he wanted to adopt a sectarian approach from the beginning, it would have been counter-productive.

Both Saudi Arabia and Iran, therefore, were not as sectarian as often characterised in their sponsorship of fighting groups in the Syrian civil war. Though both would eventually turn to sectarian militia, each did this only after their first option, more inclusive national-focused fighters, failed. Yet each continued to sponsor national groups alongside these sectarian actors, possibly recognising the impracticality of backing only exclusionary actors in a multi-faith country. In both cases, governments often portrayed as arch-sectarian actors showed a considerable degree of pragmatism and expediency.

[1] Chris Phillips and Morten Valbjorn, ‘What is in a Name?’: The Role of (Different) Identities in the Multiple Proxy Wars in Syria’, Small Wars & Insurgencies 29 (3), 414-433

[2] G. Abdo, The New Sectarianism: The Arab Uprisings and the Rebirth of the Shia–Sunni Divide. Brookings, SD: Saban Center for Middle East Policy Paper. April 10, 2013.

[3] Phillips and Valbjorn, ‘What is in a Name?’

[4] Dexter Filkins, ‘The shadow commander’, The New Yorker, September 2013, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/09/30/the-shadow-commander

[5] Chris. Phillips, The Battle for Syria: International rivalry in the New Middle East, 2016, London: Yale University Press, pp. 50-53.

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