The sectarian wave that has spread to the Middle East and North Africa since the Arab uprisings has fundamentally changed regional policy. Syria has become an epicenter of sectarian conflict that has attracted sectarian actors from outside and spread them across the region. It is therefore a kind of laboratory in which we can study the dynamics of sectarianism in the region. In order to understand the Syrian case, one has to study the theoretical debates on sectarianism. The main debate is: To what extent does sectarian identity determine political interests, strategies, alignments and conflicts, and to what extent is sectarianism a result of these factors? The polar master narratives are the “primordialist”, in which identity determines politics, and the “instrumentalist”, in which politics uses identity: in their caricature form, they could be described as “old hatred” for the “evil authoritarian leaders”. Approaches. Primordialists view sectarian conflicts as the natural and inevitable result of the juxtaposition of longstanding religious differences, while instrumentalists view them as the product of the political strategies of regimes and opposition movements. These polar opposites offer a starting point, but neither alone has sufficient explanatory capacity; and how far each shape affects the results depends on other intervening variables. This article first describes an analytical framework in which the key variables and their interrelationships are identified. The framework will then be used to analyze the Syria case.
An analytical framework for understanding sectarianism
The dependent variable we want to explain is the degree of sectarianism at a given time and place, including its importance in political agendas and its intensity (from mild non-politicized – banal forms of sectarian identity to militant politicized forms that deny legitimacy to other sects). This is most directly a function of the power of alternative identities versus sectarian ones (the “identity balance”). Two independent variables and intervening variables help explain this dependent variable.
Independent variable I.
Historical identity inheritance includes the distribution of sectarian groups: therefore, concentrations of compact minorities in certain regions or the arrival of incoming sectarian “others” in communities of homogeneous sectarian affiliation are likely to increase sectarian awareness. Whether this happens, however, depends on other factors, such as historical memories of friendship or enmity between sects and the extent to which sectarian identities have been historically politicized. This, in turn, is likely to be influenced by how robust alternative identities are. These can either be more integrative and therefore subsume sects such as Arab nationalism or dilute them by overlapping and dividing sect groups, as when the latter are divided into classes (see variables to be intervened below).
Independent variable II
The strategic manipulations of identity by political actors, regardless of whether political entrepreneurs believe they are serving their interests to instrumentalise sectarianism or a rival identity, will be just as crucial as identity inheritance in determining outcomes. These political actors – possible “sectarian entrepreneurs” – are on three levels: at the state level (regime and opposition actors); at the trans-state level (social movements, prominent religious leaders and media activists); and at the international level (e.g. rival external powers using sectarianism to promote proxy in the Syrian conflict). The designation of both historical inheritance and strategic manipulation of identity as independent variables is that both must be present for sectarianism to take place. If only one is present, there is no sectarianism.
Various “material” factors also influence the balance between identities (their expression and intensity) and the question of whether they are likely to be instrumentalized. The interaction of these variables is summarized in Figure 1.
- Socio-economic structure: This includes the effects of levels of modernization (literacy, level of education) on identity, which can either generate broader identities (e.g. vis-à-vis the state or the nation) that dilute sectarianism, or alternatively smaller identities (e.g. Tribe) in sectarian identities and thus increase sectarian activity. Second, it includes the effects of Class divisions, which can either cross and dilute sectarian differences or overlap and reinforce them.
- Political institutions: This variable has two dimensions. First the stability of questions of political order, that is, whether security is waiting. When security collapses, violence and the resulting feelings of high insecurity are triggered, and sectarian solidarity and hostility towards the sectarian “other” increases. Second, the Inclusivity the political order, i.e. the extent to which groups and strata are integrated – participation or co-optation – in state institutions: a high level of inclusivity leads to the sectarian identities being watered down and promoted with the state, while the exclusion of certain sectarian groups promotes sectarian awareness and mobilization (for a more detailed explanation of the framework, see Hinnebusch 2018; Hinnebusch 2019).
Several factors provided a favorable context for sectarianism in Syria even before the outbreak of the uprising, but they became much more powerful as a result (Hinnebusch and Rifai 2017). Sunnis make up 74% of the Syrian population and Alawis around 12%. The latter, however, are strongly over-represented in the ruling Syrian regime with the president and many high-ranking security and military commanders of this sect (see Lust 2014, p. 767.) The Identity Inheritance; the distribution of demographic groups – e.g. The Sunni majority versus the Alawi minority hadn’t changed much over the decades. Why was it so important after 2011? It cannot be overlooked that the strongest regime loyalists were Alawis and, to a lesser extent, other minorities, and that the vast majority of protests took place in Sunni neighborhoods. There had been some incremental demographic changes. In particular, the emigration of the Alawi minority has been viewed by Sunnis in places like Homs and the suburbs of Damascus as an encroachment on their communities and opportunities. However, this has been a very incremental process and so far has not been associated with much overt sectarianism. More importantly, changes in the identity balance that weakened alternate identities that sectarian ones had watered down.
Intervention variables before the uprising were probably responsible for this. On the one hand, while class identities had long watered down sectarian ones, they began to reinforce one another in the decade before the insurrection. By 2000, the incorporation of significant rural Sunnis into the regime through land reform and populist politics had divided the Sunnis between such beneficiaries of the regime and its opponents (the old Sunni land and trade classes), a factor that explained the failure of the government’s uprising Muslim Brotherhood in the early 1980s (Hinnebusch 2011, 47-88, 93-103). However, as part of the post-2000 neo-liberal policies, the rural Ba’th constituency was neglected, while Alawis were the main beneficiaries of the emerging crony capitalism – although a significant number of the Sunni business class continued to assist with the regime to explain its resilience. Overall, however, the class identities reinforced more than the cross-section of sectarianism.
At the same time, the ruling party, which had included the regime’s constituencies, withered and lost ideological coherence when both neoliberal and Islamic attitudes invaded the regime. In the 2000 succession battle that brought Bashar al-Asad to power, many of the high-ranking Sunni lieutenants were purged of Hafiz al-Asad and with them the regime, which lost key Sunni customer networks, became less inclusive. Thus the regime became both Alawian and upper-class, including less of the rural majority, a scenario designed to inflame the sectarian identities among those who suffered from these developments.
In short, the institutional inclusiveness and thus the identification with the state decreased for many ordinary people. While the regime continued to enjoy some legitimacy through its instrumentalization of Arab nationalism, particularly against the US when it invaded Iraq, Arabism’s historical power to dilute sectarianism had declined sharply and proved insufficient to counter the regime to immunize the uprising, as Bashar al-Asad wrongly believed (Hinnebusch 2012, 2015; Matar 2016, 13-35).
The rhetoric of the Syrian regime against the uprising: Playing with sectarian fire?
When the uprising broke out, the rival sides began to instrumentalize sectarianism. It is true that the first slogan of the Syrian uprising was al sha’eb al sourry wahed (the Syrian people are one), an appeal to a cross-sectarian Syrian identity. The anti-regime protesters understood that only if they were united they had the chance to force a political transition and that the regime would try to divide them. However, a decade of war proved that they were not “one”. What began as a peaceful movement for social justice and freedom turned into a bloody war in which sectarian identities were instrumentalized through discourse from above and below, leading to identity conflicts.
The regime bore a great responsibility for this. The two strategies the regime used to quell the insurrection supported each other asabiyya (communal solidarity), which strengthened the identity of the Alawites. These two strategies were al-hal al-‘amny (the security solution) and al-hal al-a’askary (the military solution). The security solution denotes the use of loyal security forces, strong Alawi, against demonstrators as well al-lijan al-sh’abiyya (People’s Committees), and shabiyyaha. Shabiyyha refers to the pro-Assad militias, which consisted mostly of Alawites, whose main task was to punish anti-Assad activists, most of whom are Sunnis (Rifai 2014; Rifai 2108). With the outbreak of the uprising, these loyalist forces often besieged mosques, which were the scene of protests against Assad, mainly in Sunni districts (Rifai 2014). In particular, forces loyal to the regime often displayed hallmarks of their communal possessions such as the Zulfiqar sword. This sword, a two-bladed sword that the Islamic prophet Mohamed gave to his cousin Ali bin Abi Talib, is an important sacred symbol for Alawites and Shiites. Such symbolic features functioned as signifiers of the Alawite identity and emphasized the sectarian boundary between “us” and “them”. (Rifai 2018)
In February 2012, the regime applied the military solution, which included a nationwide deployment of the Syrian army and heavy shelling of rebel areas. The suburbs of Damascus and Homs were among the first regions to experience the military solution. Regime troops established their bases in Alawi areas and began attacking Sunni neighborhoods. Looting, kidnapping and incidents of torture took place in the chaotic context of a security dilemma (Rifai 2018). Using Alawis-dominated forces, the Syrian regime projected the image of the uprising as a sectarian conflict threatening all Alawis and made them feel like they were struggling to survive. On the other hand, the discourse of many anti-Assad Sunnis (opposition and even ordinary protesters), among whom the regime’s violence had inflamed Sunni sectarian solidarity, confirmed the regime’s claims. Therefore, many Alawites could see no other option for survival than to fight for the regime and for many Sunnis against it (see Rifai 2018).
Regional powers in the reconstruction of sectarian identities
It was not long before Iran and Hezbollah on the one hand, and Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar on the other, instrumentalized the sectarian identities in their regional power struggle, which focused on Syria, which intensified the identity struggles in the region and in Syria in particular (Phillips 2015). From the beginning, Iran and Hezbollah were closely involved in providing the Assad regime with political and military support to ensure its survival. Mehdi Taeb, a senior Iranian minister, said when speaking about Iranian positions in the wars in Syria, “Syria is the 35th province [of Iran] and a strategic province for us. When the enemy attacks us and wants to take either Syria or Khuzestan [Western Iran]The priority for us is to keep Syria. If we keep Syria, we can get Khuzestan back; But if we lose Syria, we cannot keep Tehran ”(Ya Libnan 2013).
On the other hand, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey have sponsored representatives of the Sunni community, particularly Muslim Brotherhood militias in Qatar and Turkey, and Salafists in Saudi Arabia. But Qatar and Turkey also flirted at times with Salafi jihadists such as Al-Qaida Avatars, Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State (Phillips 2016). These regional powers, especially Saudi Arabia, presented the conflict as part of a wider struggle to defend the Sunnis against the Shiite axis in the region. Turkey’s rhetoric, allowing jihadists to invade northern Syria, funding militias in Idlib as well as the use of Syrians in fighting in Azerbaijan and Libya under an Islamic banner – all of this also helped to reproduce a particular version of the Sunni identity that would serve the interests of Turkish President Erdogan. For example, he frequently quoted the Muslim holy book, emphasizing Ottoman history and declaring that rebels in northern Syria were members of the army of the Prophet Mohamed (Rikar 2019).
The sectarian activity from above fueled a similar process from below. Inflammatory sectarian rhetoric flooded social media and satellite television, much of it from preachers from the Arabian Gulf (Philips 2016). The forces of Hezbollah and Iran, fighting in mixed sectarian areas, particularly in the suburbs of Homs, led to sectarian clashes. Hezbollah fighters waved yellow flags and wore green headbands (symbols of the Shiites), while Sunni rebels waved the white and green flags and wore black headbands (Rifai 2014). This made identity collisions and the reproduction of sectarian identities very visible. Pictures of killed Shiite soldiers can be seen alongside a religious quote from Imam Ali (the most important Shiite figure) in Homs and in the heart of Damascus. The Turkish approach also interacted with the discourse from below, in which many Syrians in Idlib waved Turkish flags in addition to the white and green Salafi flags. Rebels named militias after Ottoman sultans, and some cafes in Idlib were even named after Erdogan.
The political and military support from the opposing foreign powers thus reinforced the sectarian narrative and led to identity conflicts among the Syrians. The main goal of these actors was to survive and assert oneself in the regional power struggle – the drivers of their behavior are political interests, not sectarian hostility and friendship (Phillips 2016). Due to their sectarian identity and their discourses, however, their intervention was perceived as sectarian and henceforth ignited the sectarianism of the conflict.
Intervening variables: the effects of geography and social class
A common generalization of the war in Syria is: “Sunnis are engaged in a power struggle against the Alawites”. While some of them are, others are not. Whether actors, especially Sunnis, viewed the struggle as a sectarian struggle between Sunnis and Alawis depended to a large extent on the neighborhood from which they came and the social class to which they belonged. In central Damascus, both the regime and the Sunni Damascus elite tried to protect the status quo during the war. Sectarian militias and people’s committees were not allowed in upper and upper middle class areas such as Malki, Abu Rummaneh, Rawda, Kafrsouseh and some parts of Mazzeh. In contrast, Barzeh, a ghouta town (or suburb) in northeast Damascus inhabited by lower classes, was one of the first areas to host protests against Assad and attacked by regime forces, mostly by neighbors Esh al Warwar, (mainly inhabited by Alawite military families) (Rifai 2014). Hence, the formation of sectarian identities during conflict is not an easy process and changes with time and interests, with identities being most permanent when they match interests and weaker when they are incongruent.
How the instrumentalization of sectarianism “fed back” and changed the identity balance of Syria: The power struggle between Islamism and Syrism
Before the uprising, the identity equilibrium carefully worked out by Hafiz Assad consisted of Arabism as the umbrella identity, which subsume sectarian identities and overlap with content from Syrism and Islamism and was supposed to incorporate them (Rifai 2014). However, this balance was severely shaken after the outbreak of the uprising. Arabism refused and even appeared to be waning, especially after Syria’s membership of the Arab League was suspended in November 2011 (Rifai 2014). For the Assad regime, the Arab sister states were now enemies who supported their opponents and tried to change the regime. The Assad regime had instrumentalized Arabism for four decades because it served its interests. The post-2011 reality would force the regime to instrumentalize different identities, especially Syrism (Rifai 2014). Many pro-Assad Syrians believed that the Arab states had betrayed Syria. Even for the anti-Assad Syrians, the support from the Arab states was insufficient and they came to the conclusion that the Arab world had “let them down”: A popular song among demonstrators in 2011-2012 was mentioned ya Aarab khazlutna (Oh Arabs, you have failed us). From now on, what Chris Phillips (2013) called “everyday Arabism” seems to be decreasing in Syria due to everyday sectarianism.
While both the regime and the opposition have been seen to use sectarianism to mobilize key supporters, only broader identities have had a chance to unite large numbers of Syrians. However, the rival Syrian actors promoted different surrogate identities. On the one hand, sectarianism had strengthened Islamism at the expense of Arabism, especially among the Sunni masses. But different versions of Islamic identity have been reproduced in different places and among different groups in Syria. While the “moderate” Sufi-oriented version of Sunni Islam that the pre-conflict regime had promoted was fairly comprehensive, it was challenged by more basic Salafi versions of Sunni identity, and even more radical Jihadi versions of Salafism were used to mobilize armed anti-regime fighters (Rifai 2014).
Conversely, Syria’s national identity has been reproduced as an integrative identity for secular and non-Muslim Syrians. The Syrian regime tried to strengthen Syrian identity by highlighting Syria’s diverse history and Aramaic language and even created a new curriculum that was reminiscent of Syrian national characters and emphasized the glory of Syrian history. This may sound surreal to older generation Syrians who grew up with slogans an Arab nation and who long identified as Syrian-born Arabs, the beating heart of Arabism. The secular opposition also tried to reproduce a Syrian national identity. A multitude of non-profit networks, political movements and communication instruments adopted national names such as “My Syria” and “Syrians across borders”, denounced sectarianism and tried to unite Syrians (Rifai 2014). Hence, Islamism and Syrism seemed to be in a struggle for dominance as different actors sought hegemony over different legitimizing ideologies. If the broader identities, Syrism or moderate Sufi Islam, prevail, sectarianism can be watered down by being grouped into such broader identities. In other words, Jihadi Islam overlaps with Sunni sectarianism and in turn provokes a kind of “anti-takfiri” sectarian identity among some Syrian minorities. If this path asserts itself and Syria’s inheritance of identity permeates, coexistence will be more difficult than ever before (Rifai 2014).
Back to the analytical framework: lessons from the case
How can we summarize what the empirical data say about why Syria experienced high levels of sectarianism during the uprising? Syria’s inherited identity pattern had kept sectarian consciousness alive, although it was suppressed by the prevailing Arab nationalist discourse – that is, it remained banal or was instrumentalized for Alawis as Wasta (Customer relations). In order for sectarianism to become not only outstanding, but also militant and intolerant of the “other”, many things had to go very wrong.
It is important that the increasing strengthening of the ruling core of the regime after 2000 and the reconfiguration of the regime’s social base to accept Crony capitalists, while the former Sunni peasant group was relatively neglected, led to sectarian resentment among those affected. As the regime became less inclusive, the door may have been opened to sectarian entrepreneurs to mobilize opposition from among the Sunni lower classes. But it took agency to do that. On the one hand, the sectarian strategies used by the regime against protesters, especially violence, embroiled the Alawis in this oppression, stimulated their sectarian solidarity and forced them to remain loyal. On the other hand, violence in the regime stimulated the increasing use of Salafist Islam to mobilize opposition fighters. Furthermore, not only the fighters on both sides but also non-combatants were drawn into sectarianism by the insecurity caused by the breakdown of order in the civil war. Each group sought protection through self-arming, sectarian cleansing, etc., which only increased the uncertainty on all sides, not to mention the depth of the hostility. The intervention of external powers – through arming, financing or providing fighters in parallel to sectarian discourses – intensified sectarianism considerably and at the same time made it more difficult to resolve the conflict. A first prerequisite for de-sectarianism is therefore the end of such external competitive intervention in the Syrian conflict. But what will ultimately happen is in the hands of the Syrians. In this regard, much will depend on which dominant national identity is constructed to replace (or restore) Arabism.
Figure 1: Analysis framework
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