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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 develop into an epicentre of sectarian battle that has drawn in sectarian actors from with out and spilled out over the area. It’s subsequently a form of laboratory through which we will discover the dynamics of sectarianism within the area. Understanding the Syrian case requires some engagement with the theoretical debates on sectarianization. The primary debate is: to what extent does sectarian id decide political pursuits, methods, alignments and conflicts and to what extent is sectarianization an consequence of those elements?  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 referred to as the “historic hatreds” vs. the “evil authoritarian leaders” approaches. Primordialists regard sectarian battle because the pure and inevitable consequence of the juxtaposition of long-standing spiritual 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 relies on different intervening variables. This text will first define a framework of research that identifies the important thing variables and their inter-relations; then, the framework might be utilized to investigate the Syrian case.

A framework of research for understanding sectarianization

The dependent variable, that which we search to elucidate, is the extent of sectarianization at a selected 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 facility of other identities relative to sectarian ones (the “id stability”). Two impartial 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 more likely to improve sectarian consciousness. Nevertheless, whether or not this occurs relies on different elements reminiscent of historic reminiscences of amity or enmity amongst sects and the way far sectarian identities have been traditionally politicized. This, in flip, is more likely to be affected by how strong various identities are. These might be both extra inclusive, and therefore could subsume sect, reminiscent of 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 might be as decisive because the id inheritance in figuring out outcomes. These political actors—doable “sectarian entrepreneurs”—are positioned at three ranges: on the state stage (regime and opposition actors); on the trans-state stage (social actions, outstanding spiritual leaders and media activists); and on the worldwide stage (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 impartial variables is as a result of each must be current earlier than sectarianization happens; if just one is current there might be no sectarianization.

Intervening variables

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

  • Socio-economic construction: this contains the influence on identitiesof ranges of modernization(literacy, schooling 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 growing sectarian saliency. Second, it contains the influence 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 elements established a beneficial context for Syria’s sectarianization even earlier than the rebellion broke out, however they turned rather 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 nonetheless vastly overrepresented in Syria’s ruling regime, with the president and lots of prime 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 many years, so why did it come to matter a lot after 2011? There is no such thing as a escaping the truth that the strongest regime loyalists have been Alawis and, to a lesser diploma, different minorities, and that the overwhelming majority of the protests have 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 reminiscent of Homs and the Damascus suburbs to be intruding on their communities and alternatives. Nevertheless, this was a really incremental course of and had not been hitherto related to a lot overt sectarianism. Extra vital have been alterations within the id stability that weakened various identities that had diluted sectarian ones.

Pre-Rebellion Intervening variables have been arguably accountable 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, through land reform and populist insurance policies, had cut up Sunnis between such beneficiaries of the regime and its opponents (the previous Sunni landed and service provider courses), an element that defined the failure of the Muslim Brotherhood rebellion of the early Nineteen Eighties (Hinnebusch 2011, 47-88, 93-103). Beneath the neo-liberal insurance policies adopted after 2000, nonetheless, the Ba’th Celebration’s rural constituency was uncared for, whereas Alawis have 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. Total, although, class identities have been coming to bolster greater than cross-cut sectarianism.

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

In brief, institutional inclusiveness, thus identification with the state, was declining amongst many peculiar individuals. Whereas the regime continued to get pleasure from 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: enjoying 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 attraction 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 struggle proved that they weren’t “one.” What began as a peaceable motion for social justice and freedom morphed right into a bloody struggle through which sectarian identities have been instrumentalized by discourse from above and from beneath, inflaming id clashes.

The regime bore main duty for this. The 2 methods that have been utilized by the regime to quell the rebellion relied upon asabiyya (communal solidarity), which bolstered Alawite id. These two methods have 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 (widespread committees), and shabiyyaha. Shabiyyha refers back to the pro-Assad militias that consisted predominantly of Alawites whose fundamental 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 often besieged mosques that have been major websites for anti-Assad protests, primarily in Sunni districts (Rifai 2014). Notably, forces loyal to the regime typically 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 crucial 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 have 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 happened 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 have been combating for his or her survival.  Then again, discourse by many anti-Assad Sunnis (opposition figures and even peculiar protesters), amongst whom regime violence had infected Sunni sectarian solidarity, verified the claims of the regime. Subsequently, many Alawites couldn’t understand any various method of surviving apart 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 targeted 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 needs to take both Syria or Khuzestan [Western Iran], the precedence for us is to maintain Syria. If we hold Syria, we will get Khuzestan again too; but when we lose Syria, we can not 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 instances flirted with Salafi jihadists reminiscent of 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 beneath an Islamic banner −these all additionally helped in reproducing a selected model of Sunni id that might serve Turkish President Erdogan’s pursuits. As an example, he often cited the Muslim’s holy ebook, emphasised Ottoman historical past and declared that rebels in Northern Syria have 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 combating 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. Footage of killed Shiite troopers are seen alongside a spiritual citation from Imam Ali (crucial 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 have 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 primary 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). Nevertheless, given their sectarian id and discourses, their intervention was perceived in sectarian phrases and henceforth infected the sectarianization of the battle.

Intervening variables: the influence of geography and social stratum

One widespread generalization concerning the struggle in Syria is ‘Sunnis are in an influence wrestle towards the Alawites’. Nevertheless, 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 through the struggle. Sectarian militias and widespread committees weren’t allowed in higher and upper-middle-class areas reminiscent of Malki, Abu Rummaneh, Rawda, Kafrsouseh, and a few components of Mazzeh. Against this, 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, largely residents in neighbouring ‘esh al warwar, (inhabited primarily by Alawite army households) (Rifai 2014). Subsequently, the formation of sectarian identities through the battle will not 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 ability 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 imagined 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 appeared 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 have been lengthy thought of sister Arab States have been now enemies, supporting its opponents and searching for to vary the regime. The Assad regime had instrumentalized Arabism for 4 many years as a result of it served its pursuits; submit 2011 actuality would drive the regime to instrumentalize totally 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 music amongst protesters in 2011-2012 was referred to 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 as a result 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. Nevertheless, 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 totally different variations of Islamic id have been being reproduced in other places and amongst totally 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 have 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 harassed 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 searching 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 searching for to unite Syrians (Rifai 2014). Therefore, Islamism and Syrianism appeared to be in a wrestle to dominate, as totally different actors sought hegemony through totally 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 another way, Jihadi Islam overlaps with Sunni sectarianism and tends to impress, in flip, a form of “anti-takfiri” sectarian id amongst some Syrian minorities. If this trajectory prevails and permeates Syria’s id heritage, co-existence will develop into more durable than ever (Rifai 2014).

Returning to the framework of research: classes from the case

How can we summarize what the empirical information tells us about why Syria skilled excessive ranges of sectarianization in the midst of the Rebellion? Syria’s inherited id sample had stored 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 develop into not solely salient but in addition militant and illiberal of the “Different,” many issues needed to go very fallacious.

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 turned much less inclusive, the door was doubtlessly opened for sectarian entrepreneurs to mobilize opposition among the many Sunni underclasses. Nevertheless 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 have been drawn into sectarianism by the insecurity unleashed via the breakdown of order beneath civil struggle. Every group sought safety by self-arming, sectarian cleaning, and so on., which solely enhanced the insecurity of all sides, to not point out the depth of enmity. The intervention of exterior powers—via arming, funding or offering fighters parallel to sectarian discourses—vastly aggravated sectarianism whereas additionally making a decision of the battle very troublesome. A primary situation for de-sectarianization is subsequently the tip to such exterior aggressive intervention in Syria’s battle. However finally what occurs might be right down to the company of Syrians. On this regard, a lot will depend upon what dominant nationwide id is constructed to interchange (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 through 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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