The Syrian War and “Sectarianism“

The declaration of a united Islamic opposition by leading Syrian rebel groups last month was particularly awkward for those of us who continue to insist that sectarianism does not explain the country’s ongoing conflict. With fighters on both sides violently insisting that this is indeed a religious war, we thought now was an important moment to offer a fresh explanation of why it still isn’t one but, more important, why it has come to look so much like one.

Several writers have mentioned the fact that, among other indicators of longstanding sectarian tension in Syria, even before the war intermarriage between Shia Alawites and Sunnis had always been “rare.” Also rare, of course, are interracial marriages in the United States, which by the most inclusive count represent around 10 percent of all unions.

It is hard, we hope, for most Americans to imagine this country descending into an all-out race war in the next several years. If a foreigner told us this was inevitable—claiming perhaps that mutual hatred between blacks and whites went back two hundred years to the founding of our republic—we would find the rationale absurd. Not because we have an overly rosy or naive view of race relations. Not because we’ve forgotten about slavery. Not even because, as many Syrians swear was the case between Alawites and Sunnis several years ago, we claim not to even know which of our friends are black and which ones are white. Rather, it seems absurd because in considering our own society we are aware of all the forces preventing the kind of inter-communal tensions we face today from descending into widespread and systematic violence. Ironically, the economic and political factors that pushed Syrian society into this abyss were the very ones that made so many people initially optimistic about Bashar al-Assad’s potential as a reformer.

A decade ago, Assad launched a sustained program of economic liberalization that boosted the prosperity of the urban merchant classes while also creating new opportunities for corruption. On the margins, small Syrian agricultural producers suffered. The Syrian government had always been careful to protect the rural majority and their livelihood with agricultural extension services, price supports, and tariffs. Assad’s regime opened the Syrian market to Turkish and Jordanian produce, and relatively undercapitalized Syria farmers found themselves unable to compete. Years of drought and a falling water table made a difficult situation untenable.

It is no surprise, then, that the revolt emerged from regions heavily reliant on agriculture. Deraa province in the south was the first to rise against the regime, followed by rural Idlib in the Syrian northwest. Deraa had long been considered “loyal” to the regime; opposition from those districts astounded the regime. The Sunni “tribal” leaders of Deraa had not pursued an alliance with Sunnis of the Syrian plain based in Hama, Homs, and Aleppo. Those cities, especially Hama, had been the traditional center of opposition to the regime. To the extent that those regions have now united under some sectarian banner, it is a novel development: sectarianism became a method of giving coherence to the rebel camp. At the same time, the Sunni businessmen and urban Aleppans who had benefited from Assad’s economic policies remained largely loyal to the regime well into the revolt.

Additionally, when Arab Spring revolts in Tunisia and Egypt fell like a spark on the dry grass of Syria’s strained economy, the country’s institutions lacked the strength to manage social tensions. Meanwhile, the institutional structures that did exist made sectarian mobilization appealing to both sides in the conflict. When they created the Syrian state, French colonial authorities followed a conscious “politique minoritaire,” or “minority policy,” recruiting Alawites and Christians into local military units that they used to control the largely Sunni population. For the French, the sectarian identities this policy inevitably fostered were an added benefit, rather than a drawback, but the Syrian army nonetheless remained a national, multi-confessional entity when Syria won its independence in 1946.

When Assad’s father, Hafez, came to power in 1971, the new country had already endured over a dozen coups and counter-coups. In this context, Assad’s policy of promoting relatives and trusted confidants to high-level political and military positions was crucial to solidifying his rule and ending this cycle of violence. It also made it easier for opponents to characterize his often brutal government as distinctly Alawite. Yet in addition to violently repressing his opponents, Hafez Assad worked to establish a broad base of support. The populist, socialist economic policies discussed earlier were one crucial element of this effort. Another was Assad’s consistent defense of the Palestinian cause, popular among all segments of Syrian society. Bashar al-Assad, the son, liberalized the economy and tried to make peace with Israel. As a result, when the 2011 uprising came, he had little to fall back on besides violence and an appeal to the shared sectarian identity of those in the regime.

Sectarian language should also be seen in its international context. Both sides use the language of realpolitik in making appeals to their supporters in the United States and Russia. But Assad can also use sectarian language in his appeals to Iran, and the rebels in their appeals to Qatar and Saudi Arabia. With their geopolitical position on the line, it is convenient for Iran’s religious establishment to overlook the fact that many of them consider Alawites heretics, not Shiites. Meanwhile, Turkey’s Islamist Justice and Development Party uses Islamic rhetoric to bolster its support for the opposition and hopes that no one remembers its enthusiastic efforts to improve economic and diplomatic relations with Assad three years ago—efforts that were widely cited at the time as evidence of the Turkish government’s Islamist foreign policy.

When we insist in light of these facts that Syria’s conflict is not sectarian, we don’t mean to suggest that the religious hatred seen in Syria today is somehow just a myth. Instead, we are arguing that sectarian violence should be seen as the result of these specific political and economic developments, rather than their cause—something that we would instinctively recognize when thinking about parallel issues in our own country.

Dissent is a quarterly, left-liberal magazine of politics and culture.