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Understanding Syria’s Sectarian Wave


The sectarian wave that has swept over the Center East and North Africa because the Arab Uprisings has profoundly reshaped regional politics. Syria has turn out to be an epicentre of sectarian battle that has drawn in sectarian actors from with out and spilled out over the area. It’s subsequently a type of laboratory during which we are able to discover the dynamics of sectarianism within the area. Understanding the Syrian case requires some engagement with the theoretical debates on sectarianization. The principle debate is: to what extent does sectarian id decide political pursuits, methods, alignments and conflicts and to what extent is sectarianization an final result of those components?  The polar grasp narratives are the “primordialist,” which sees id figuring out politics, and the “instrumentalist,” which sees politics utilizing id: of their cartoonish type, they might be known as the “historical hatreds” vs. the “evil authoritarian leaders” approaches. Primordialists regard sectarian battle because the pure and inevitable consequence of the juxtaposition of long-standing non secular variations, whereas instrumentalists see it because the product of political methods by regimes and opposition actions. These polar opposites present a place to begin, however neither alone has enough explanatory capability; and the way far every shapes outcomes is determined by different intervening variables. This text will first define a framework of study that identifies the important thing variables and their inter-relations; then, the framework will probably be utilized to research the Syrian case.

A framework of study for understanding sectarianization

The dependent variable, that which we search to elucidate, is the extent of sectarianization at a specific time and place, together with its saliency in political agendas and its depth (starting from gentle non-politicized—banal types of sectarian id to militant politicized varieties that deny legitimacy to different sects). That is most instantly a operate of the ability of different identities relative to sectarian ones (the “id stability”). Two unbiased variables and intervening variables assist clarify this dependent variable.

Unbiased variable I

The historic id inheritance contains the distribution of sectarian teams: thus, concentrations of compact minorities particularly areas or the arrival of incoming sectarian “Others” in communities with homogenous sectarian affiliation are prone to enhance sectarian consciousness. Nonetheless, whether or not this occurs is determined by different components resembling historic reminiscences of amity or enmity amongst sects and the way far sectarian identities have been traditionally politicized. This, in flip, is prone to be affected by how sturdy different identities are. These might be both extra inclusive, and therefore might subsume sect, resembling Arab nationalism, or can dilute it by cross-cutting and dividing sectarian teams, as when the latter are divided by class (see beneath on intervening variables).

Unbiased variable II

Political actors’ strategic manipulations of id whether or not political entrepreneurs imagine it serves their pursuits to instrumentalize sectarianism or some rival id will probably be as decisive because the id inheritance in figuring out outcomes. These political actors—attainable “sectarian entrepreneurs”—are positioned at three ranges: on the state degree (regime and opposition actors); on the trans-state degree (social actions, outstanding non secular leaders and media activists); and on the worldwide degree (e.g. rival exterior powers utilizing sectarianization to foster proxies within the Syrian battle). The designation of each the historic inheritance and strategic manipulation of id as unbiased variables is as a result of each must be current earlier than sectarianization happens; if just one is current there will probably be no sectarianization.

Intervening variables

A number of “materials” components additionally have an effect on the stability amongst identities (their saliency and depth), in addition to whether or not they’re prone to be instrumentalized. The interplay of those variables is summarized in determine 1.

  • Socio-economic construction: this contains the impression on identitiesof ranges of modernization(literacy, training ranges) which can both generate broader identities (e.g. to the state or nation) diluting sectarianism or, alternatively, subsume smaller identities (e.g. tribe) in sectarian ones, thus rising sectarian saliency. Second, it contains the impression of class cleavages, which can both cross-cut and dilute sectarian variations or overlap with and reinforce them.
  • Political Establishments: this variable has two dimensions. First, the stability of political order issues, that’s, whether or not safety is maintained. If safety breaks down, unleashing ranges of violence and consequent emotions of excessive insecurity, sectarian solidarity and enmity towards the sectarian “different” will increase. Second, the inclusiveness of political order, that’s, the extent of incorporation—participation or co-optation—of teams and strata into state establishments issues: excessive inclusiveness tends to dilute sectarian identities and foster that with the state, whereas exclusion of sure sectarian teams drives sectarian consciousness and mobilization (for a extra detailed explication of the framework see Hinnebusch 2018; Hinnebusch 2019).

Syria’s Sectarianization

A number of components established a beneficial context for Syria’s sectarianization even earlier than the rebellion broke out, however they grew to become far more highly effective because of it (Hinnebusch and Rifai 2017). Sunnis make up 74% of Syria’s inhabitants and Alawis about 12%. The latter are nevertheless significantly overrepresented in Syria’s ruling regime, with the president and plenty of high safety and army commanders from this sect (see Lust 2014, p 767.) The Identification Inheritance; the distribution of demographic teams—e.g. the Sunni majority vs. the Alawi minority—had not considerably altered over the a long time, so why did it come to matter a lot after 2011? There isn’t any escaping the truth that the strongest regime loyalists had been Alawis and, to a lesser diploma, different minorities, and that the overwhelming majority of the protests had been in Sunni neighbourhoods. There had been some incremental demographic alteration. Notably, the out migration of the Alawi minority was seen by Sunnis in locations resembling Homs and the Damascus suburbs to be intruding on their communities and alternatives. Nonetheless, this was a really incremental course of and had not been hitherto related to a lot overt sectarianism. Extra essential had been alterations within the id stability that weakened different identities that had diluted sectarian ones.

Pre-Rebellion Intervening variables had been arguably answerable for this. On the one hand, whereas class identities had lengthy diluted sectarian ones, they began to bolster one another within the decade earlier than the rebellion. Till 2000, the incorporation of great rural Sunnis into the regime, by way of land reform and populist insurance policies, had cut up Sunnis between such beneficiaries of the regime and its opponents (the outdated Sunni landed and service provider lessons), an element that defined the failure of the Muslim Brotherhood rebellion of the early Eighties (Hinnebusch 2011, 47-88, 93-103). Beneath the neo-liberal insurance policies adopted after 2000, nevertheless, the Ba’th Social gathering’s rural constituency was uncared for, whereas Alawis had been essentially the most salient beneficiaries of the rising crony capitalism—though appreciable numbers of the Sunni enterprise class remained aligned with the regime, which helps clarify its resilience. General, although, class identities had been coming to bolster greater than cross-cut sectarianism.

In parallel, the ruling social gathering that had included the regime’s constituencies was withering away, shedding ideological coherence as each neo-liberal and Islamic attitudes penetrated it. Within the succession wrestle of 2000 that introduced Bashar al-Asad to energy, lots of the senior Sunni lieutenants of Hafiz al Asad had been purged, and with them the regime, shedding essential Sunni clientele networks, grew to become much less inclusive. Thus, the regime was turning into each extra Alawi and extra higher class, and fewer inclusive of the agricultural majority, a state of affairs for inflaming sectarian identities amongst those that suffered from these developments.

Briefly, institutional inclusiveness, thus identification with the state, was declining amongst many extraordinary folks. Whereas the regime continued to take pleasure in some legitimacy from its instrumentalization of Arab nationalism, notably defying the US in its invasion of Iraq, Arabism’s historic energy to dilute sectarianism was in precipitous decline and proved inadequate to immunize the regime towards the Rebellion, as Bashar al-Asad mistakenly believed (Hinnebusch 2012, 2015; Matar 2016, 13-35).  

The Syrian Regime’s rhetoric vis-à-vis the Rebellion: taking part in with sectarian hearth?

Because the rebellion broke out, the rival sides started to instrumentalize sectarianism. It’s true that the primary slogan of the Syrian rebellion was al sha’eb al sourry wahed (the Syrian Individuals are one), an enchantment to a cross-sectarian Syrian id. The anti-regime protestors understood that solely united did they’ve an opportunity to drive a political transition and that the regime would attempt to divide them. Nonetheless, a decade of battle proved that they weren’t “one.” What began as a peaceable motion for social justice and freedom morphed right into a bloody battle during which sectarian identities had been instrumentalized by discourse from above and from beneath, inflaming id clashes.

The regime bore main duty for this. The 2 methods that had been utilized by the regime to quell the rebellion relied upon asabiyya (communal solidarity), which bolstered Alawite id. These two methods had been al-hal al-‘amny (the safety answer) and al-hal al-a’askary  (the army answer). The safety answer denotes the deployment of loyal safety forces, closely Alawi, towards protestors, in addition to al- lijan al- sh’abiyya (well-liked committees), and shabiyyaha. Shabiyyha refers back to the pro-Assad militias that consisted predominantly of Alawites whose principal mission was to punish anti-Assad activists, nearly all of whom are Sunnis (Rifai 2014; Rifai 2108). With the eruption of the rebellion, these loyalist forces steadily besieged mosques that had been main websites for anti-Assad protests, primarily in Sunni districts (Rifai 2014). Notably, forces loyal to the regime usually displayed identifiers of their communal belongings, such because the Zulfiqar sword. A sword with two blades that the Islamic Prophet Mohamed gave to his cousin Ali bin Abi Talib, this sword is a vital holy image for Alawites and Shiites. Such symbolic options acted as signifiers of Alawite id and emphasised the sectarian line between ‘us’ and ‘them’. (Rifai 2018)

In February 2012, the regime utilized the army answer that concerned a nationwide deployment of the Syrian military and heavy shelling of insurgent areas. Suburbs of Damascus and Homs had been among the many first areas to expertise the army answer. Regime forces established their bases in Alawite areas and began to focus on Sunni neighbourhoods. Lootings, kidnappings, and torturing incidents passed off inside a chaotic context of a safety dilemma (Rifai 2018). By deploying Alawite–dominated forces, the Syrian regime projected the picture of the rebellion as a sectarian battle threatening to all Alawis, making them really feel that they had been preventing for his or her survival.  Then again, discourse by many anti-Assad Sunnis (opposition figures and even extraordinary protesters), amongst whom regime violence had infected Sunni sectarian solidarity, verified the claims of the regime. Due to this fact, many Alawites couldn’t understand any different means of surviving aside from to battle for the regime, and for a lot of Sunnis, to battle towards it (see Rifai 2018).

Regional Powers within the reconstruction of sectarian identities

Earlier than lengthy, Iran and Hezbollah, on the one hand, and Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, on the opposite, instrumentalized sectarian identities of their regional energy wrestle, which got here to be centered on Syria, thereby aggravating id clashes within the area and in Syria particularly (Phillips 2015). From early on, Iran and Hezbollah had been intimately concerned in supplying the Assad regime with political and army assist to make sure its survival. As Mehdi Taeb, a senior Iranian cleric, put it when talking about Iranian stances within the Syrian wars: ‘Syria is the thirty fifth province [of Iran] and a strategic province for us. If the enemy assaults us and desires to take both Syria or Khuzestan [Western Iran], the precedence for us is to maintain Syria. If we hold Syria, we are able to get Khuzestan again too; but when we lose Syria, we can’t hold Tehran’ (Ya Libnan 2013).

Then again, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey sponsored proxies from the Sunni neighborhood, notably Muslim Brotherhood militias by Qatar and Turkey and salafists by Saudi Arabia; but in addition Qatar and Turkey at occasions flirted with Salafi jihadists resembling al-Qaida avatars, Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State (Phillips 2016). These regional powers, particularly Saudi Arabia, portrayed the battle as a part of a broader wrestle to defend Sunnis towards the Shiite axis within the area. Turkey’s rhetoric, its permitting of Jihadists to infiltrate into Northern Syria, and funding of militias in Idlib, whereas additionally deploying Syrians to battle in Azerbaijan and Libya below an Islamic banner −these all additionally helped in reproducing a specific model of Sunni id that will serve Turkish President Erdogan’s pursuits. For example, he steadily cited the Muslim’s holy e-book, emphasised Ottoman historical past and declared that rebels in Northern Syria had been members of the Military of prophet Mohamed (Rikar 2019).

Sectarianization from above propelled an identical course of from beneath. Inflammatory sectarian rhetoric flooded social media and satellite tv for pc TV, a lot of it by Arab Gulf-based preachers (Philips 2016). Hezbollah and Iranian forces preventing in sectarian blended areas, notably within the suburbs of Homs, fuelled sectarian clashes. Hezbollah fighters waved yellow flags and wore inexperienced headband (symbols of Shiites) whereas Sunni rebels waved the white and inexperienced flag and wore black headbands (Rifai 2014). This made id clashes and the replica of sectarian identities very seen. Photos of killed Shiite troopers are seen alongside a non secular citation from Imam Ali (a very powerful Shiite determine) in Homs and within the coronary heart of Damascus. Turkey’s method additionally interacted with discourse from beneath, the place many Syrians in Idlib waved Turkish flags alongside the white and inexperienced Salafi ones. Rebels named militias after Ottoman Sultans, and a few cafés in Idlib had been even named after Erdogan.

Thus, the political and army assist given by the opposing exterior powers heightened the sectarian narrative and instigated id clashes amongst Syrians. The principle goal of those actors was to outlive and prevail within the regional energy wrestle–the drivers of their behaviour being political pursuits, not sectarian enmity and amity (Phillips 2016). Nonetheless, given their sectarian id and discourses, their intervention was perceived in sectarian phrases and henceforth infected the sectarianization of the battle.

Intervening variables: the impression of geography and social stratum

One frequent generalization concerning the battle in Syria is ‘Sunnis are in an influence wrestle towards the Alawites’. Nonetheless, whereas a few of them are, others aren’t. Whether or not actors, notably Sunnis, noticed the wrestle as a sectarian one between Sunnis and Alawis depended, to a substantial extent, on the neighbourhood they got here from and the social class they belonged to. Thus, within the centre of Damascus, each the regime and the Damascene Sunni elite tried to guard the established order throughout the battle. Sectarian militias and well-liked committees weren’t allowed in higher and upper-middle-class areas resembling Malki, Abu Rummaneh, Rawda, Kafrsouseh, and a few elements of Mazzeh. In contrast, Barzeh, a Ghouta city (or suburb) in northeast Damascus inhabited by decrease strata, was among the many first areas to host anti-Assad protests and to be focused by regime forces, principally residents in neighbouring ‘esh al warwar, (inhabited primarily by Alawite army households) (Rifai 2014). Due to this fact, the formation of sectarian identities throughout the battle shouldn’t be a easy course of and alters based on time and pursuits, with identities most sturdy when congruent with pursuits and weaker when incongruent.

How instrumentalization of sectarianism “fed again” on and altered Syria’s id stability: The facility wrestle between Islamism and Syrianism

Previous to the rebellion, the id stability that Hafiz Assad rigorously crafted was composed of Arabism as an umbrella id alleged to subsume sectarian identities and overlapping with and assimilating some content material from Syrianism and Islamism (Rifai 2014).  But, this stability was strongly shaken after the outbreak of the rebellion. Arabism declined and even gave the impression to be fading particularly after the suspension of Syria’s membership within the Arab League in November 2011 (Rifai 2014). For the Assad regime, what had been lengthy thought-about sister Arab States had been now enemies, supporting its opponents and looking for to alter the regime. The Assad regime had instrumentalized Arabism for 4 a long time as a result of it served its pursuits; put up 2011 actuality would drive the regime to instrumentalize completely different identities, notably Syrianism (Rifai 2014). Many professional Assad Syrians believed that the Arab States betrayed Syria. Even for the anti-Assad Syrians, assist by the Arab States was not enough and got here to imagine that the Arab world had ‘allow them to down’: a well-liked tune amongst protesters in 2011-2012 was known as ya Aarab khazlutna (Oh Arabs you failed us). Henceforth, what Chris Phillips (2013) termed ‘on a regular basis Arabism’ appears to be declining in Syria because of on a regular basis sectarianism.

Whereas, as has been seen, each regime and opposition deployed sectarianism to mobilize core supporters, solely extra inclusive identities had an opportunity to unify giant numbers of Syrians. Nonetheless, the rival Syrian actors promoted differing substitute identities. On the one hand, sectarianization had empowered Islamism on the expense of Arabism particularly among the many Sunni lots. However completely different variations of Islamic id had been being reproduced elsewhere and amongst completely different teams in Syria. Whereas the “reasonable” Sufi oriented model of Sunni Islam that the regime had promoted previous to the battle was pretty inclusive, it was challenged by extra fundamentlist Salafi variations of Sunni id, and much more radical Jihadi variations of Salafism had been used to mobilize armed anti-regime fighters (Rifai 2014).

Conversely, Syrian nationwide id was being reproduced as an inclusive id for secular and non-Muslim Syrians. The Syrian regime sought to empower Syrian id, emphasizing Syria’s distinct historical past and Aramaic language, and even creating a brand new curriculum that recalled Syrian nationwide figures and pressured the glory of Syrian historical past. This would possibly sound surreal for Syrians of the older technology who grew up chanting slogans like one Arab nation and who for lengthy recognized themselves as Arabs born in Syria, the beating coronary heart of Arabism. The secular opposition was additionally looking for to breed a Syrian nationwide id. A myriad of charitable networks, political actions, and communication instruments adopted nationwide names like “My Syria” and “Syrians throughout borders,” denouncing sectarianism and looking for to unite Syrians (Rifai 2014). Therefore, Islamism and Syrianism gave the impression to be in a wrestle to dominate, as completely different actors sought hegemony by way of completely different legitimating ideologies. If the extra inclusive identities, Syrianism or reasonable Sufi Islam, win out, sectarianism could also be diluted by being subsumed in such broader identities. In a different way, Jihadi Islam overlaps with Sunni sectarianism and tends to impress, in flip, a type of “anti-takfiri” sectarian id amongst some Syrian minorities. If this trajectory prevails and permeates Syria’s id heritage, co-existence will turn out to be more durable than ever (Rifai 2014).

Returning to the framework of study: classes from the case

How can we summarize what the empirical knowledge tells us about why Syria skilled excessive ranges of sectarianization in the middle of the Rebellion? Syria’s inherited id sample had saved sectarian consciousness alive, albeit suppressed by the dominant Arab nationalist discourse—thus, remaining banal or, for Alawis, instrumentalized as wasta (clientele connections). For sectarianism to turn out to be not solely salient but in addition militant and illiberal of the “Different,” many issues needed to go very incorrect.

Importantly, the post-2000 larger Alaw-ization of the regime ruling core and the reconfiguration of the regime’s social base to embrace crony capitalists whereas comparatively neglecting its former Sunni peasant constituency, began to generate sectarian resentment amongst these affected by this course of. Because the regime grew to become much less inclusive, the door was probably opened for sectarian entrepreneurs to mobilize opposition among the many Sunni underclasses. However it took company for this to occur. On the one hand, the sectarian methods the regime used to counter protestors, notably violence, implicated the Alawis on this repression, stimulating their sectarian solidarity and forcing them to stay loyalist. Then again, regime violence stimulated the rising use of Salafist Islam to mobilize opposition fighters. Moreover, not simply the fighters on either side but in addition non-combatants had been drawn into sectarianism by the insecurity unleashed by means of the breakdown of order below civil battle. Every group sought safety by self-arming, sectarian cleaning, and so forth., which solely enhanced the insecurity of all sides, to not point out the depth of enmity. The intervention of exterior powers—by means of arming, funding or offering fighters parallel to sectarian discourses—significantly aggravated sectarianism whereas additionally making a decision of the battle very troublesome. A primary situation for de-sectarianization is subsequently the top to such exterior aggressive intervention in Syria’s battle. However finally what occurs will probably be right down to the company of Syrians. On this regard, a lot will depend upon what dominant nationwide id is constructed to exchange (or restore) Arabism.

Determine 1: Framework of Evaluation


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Hinnebusch, Raymond and Rifai, Ola (2017) “Syria id, state formation and citizenship” in N Butenschon and R. Meijer, eds.  The Disaster of Citizenship within the Arab World Arab, Leiden: Brill.

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Phillips, Christopher (2015) ‘Sectarianism and battle in Syria.’ Third World Quarterly 36:2, pp. 357-376

Phillips, Christopher (2016) The Battle for Syria: Worldwide Rivalry within the New Center East, New Haven and London: Yale College Press.

Rifai, Ola (2014) The shifting balance of identity politics after the Syrian uprising | openDemocracy, April 28, Open Democracy web site accessed on 3/26/2021

Rifai, Ola (2018) “The Sunni/Alawite id clashes throughout the Syrian Rebellion” in R, Hinnebusch and O. Imady, The Syrian rebellion; home origins and early trajectory, Abingdon: Routledge.

Rikar, Hussein (2019) How Turkey’s Erdogan Portrayed Syria Offensive as a Pan-Islam Struggle | Voice of America – English (voanews.com), November 13, VOA Information web site accessed on 3/26/2021

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