Understanding Syria’s Sectarian Wave

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 due to this fact a type of laboratory wherein 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 primary 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 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 may very well 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 adequate explanatory capability; and the way far every shapes outcomes is dependent upon 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 will probably 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 specific time and place, together with its saliency in political agendas and its depth (starting from delicate non-politicized—banal types of sectarian id to militant politicized varieties that deny legitimacy to different sects). That is most instantly a perform of the facility 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. Nevertheless, whether or not this occurs is dependent upon different elements similar to 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 various identities are. These might be both extra inclusive, and therefore might subsume sect, similar to Arab nationalism, or can dilute it by cross-cutting and dividing sectarian teams, as when the latter are divided by class (see under 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—potential “sectarian entrepreneurs”—are situated 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 outdoors 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 should be current earlier than sectarianization happens; if just one is current there will probably 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 prone 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, 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 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 grew to become 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 nevertheless enormously overrepresented in Syria’s ruling regime, with the president and plenty of prime safety and navy commanders from this sect (see Lust 2014, p 767.) The Id 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 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 similar to 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 liable for this. On the one hand, whereas class identities had lengthy diluted sectarian ones, they began to strengthen one another within the decade earlier than the rebellion. Till 2000, the incorporation of serious 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 outdated 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). Below the neo-liberal insurance policies adopted after 2000, nevertheless, the Ba’th Occasion’s rural constituency was uncared for, whereas Alawis have been probably 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 have been coming to strengthen greater than cross-cut sectarianism.

In parallel, the ruling occasion that had included 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, grew to become much less inclusive. Thus, the regime was changing 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.

In brief, institutional inclusiveness, thus identification with the state, was declining amongst many strange 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 fireplace?

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 power a political transition and that the regime would attempt to divide them. Nonetheless, a decade of conflict proved that they weren’t “one.” What began as a peaceable motion for social justice and freedom morphed right into a bloody conflict wherein sectarian identities have been instrumentalized by discourse from above and from under, 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 strengthened Alawite id. These two methods have been al-hal al-‘amny (the safety resolution) and al-hal al-a’askary  (the navy resolution). The safety resolution denotes the deployment of loyal safety forces, closely Alawi, towards protestors, in addition to al- lijan al- sh’abiyya (fashionable committees), and shabiyyaha. Shabiyyha refers back to the pro-Assad militias that consisted predominantly of Alawites whose major mission was to punish anti-Assad activists, the vast majority of whom are Sunnis (Rifai 2014; Rifai 2108). With the eruption of the rebellion, these loyalist forces ceaselessly besieged mosques that have been major 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 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 navy resolution 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 navy resolution. Regime forces established their bases in Alawite areas and began to focus on Sunni neighbourhoods. Lootings, kidnappings, and torturing incidents befell 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 preventing for his or her survival.  Alternatively, discourse by many anti-Assad Sunnis (opposition figures and even strange 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 struggle for the regime, and for a lot of Sunnis, to struggle 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 navy help 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 preserve Syria, we are able to get Khuzestan again too; but when we lose Syria, we can not preserve Tehran’ (Ya Libnan 2013).

Alternatively, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey sponsored proxies from the Sunni group, notably Muslim Brotherhood militias by Qatar and Turkey and salafists by Saudi Arabia; but additionally Qatar and Turkey at occasions flirted with Salafi jihadists similar to 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 struggle in Azerbaijan and Libya below an Islamic banner −these all additionally helped in reproducing a specific model of Sunni id that might serve Turkish President Erdogan’s pursuits. As an example, he ceaselessly cited the Muslim’s holy e book, 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 analogous course of from under. 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 (crucial Shiite determine) in Homs and within the coronary heart of Damascus. Turkey’s method additionally interacted with discourse from under, 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 navy help 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 frequent generalization concerning the conflict in Syria is ‘Sunnis are in an influence wrestle towards the Alawites’. Nevertheless, whereas a few of them are, others will not be. Whether or not actors, significantly 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 conflict. Sectarian militias and fashionable committees weren’t allowed in higher and upper-middle-class areas similar to 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, principally residents in neighbouring ‘esh al warwar, (inhabited primarily by Alawite navy households) (Rifai 2014). Subsequently, the formation of sectarian identities through the battle isn’t a easy course of and alters in response to 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 fastidiously crafted was composed of Arabism as an umbrella id speculated 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 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; publish 2011 actuality would power 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, help by the Arab States was not adequate and got here to imagine that the Arab world had ‘allow them to down’: a preferred track 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 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 completely different variations of Islamic id have 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 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 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 appeared to be in a wrestle to dominate, as completely different actors sought hegemony through 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. Otherwise, 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 research: 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 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 turn out to be not solely salient but additionally militant and illiberal of the “Different,” many issues needed to go very unsuitable.

Importantly, the post-2000 better 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. 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. Alternatively, regime violence stimulated the rising use of Salafist Islam to mobilize opposition fighters. Moreover, not simply the fighters on either side but additionally non-combatants have been drawn into sectarianism by the insecurity unleashed via the breakdown of order below civil conflict. Every group sought safety by self-arming, sectarian cleaning, and many others., 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—enormously aggravated sectarianism whereas additionally making a decision of the battle very troublesome. A primary situation for de-sectarianization is due to this fact 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 rely upon what dominant nationwide id is constructed to switch (or restore) Arabism.

Determine 1: Framework of Evaluation


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Hinnebusch, Raymond (2012) “Syria: from Authoritarian Upgrading to Revolution?” Worldwide Affairs, January.

Hinnebusch, Raymond and Zintl, Tina (2015) “The Syrian Rebellion and Bashar al-Asad’s First Decade in Energy,” in Hinnebusch and Zintl, eds., Syria: From Reform to Revolt: quantity 1: Politics and Worldwide relations, Syracuse, NY: Syracuse College Press, 285-310.

Hinnebusch, Raymond (2019) “Sectarianism and governance in Syria,” In Research in Ethnicity and Nationalism. 19, 1, p. 41-66. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1111/sena.12288

Hinnebusch, Raymond (2020) “Id and State Formation in multi-sectarian societies: between nationalism and sectarianism and the case of Syria, Nations and Nationalism, January, https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/nana.12582

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.

Lust, Ellen (2014), The Center East, Thousand Oaks, California: CQ Press.

Matar, Linda (2016) The Political Financial system of Funding in Syria, Basingtoke, UK: Palgrave MacMillan

Phillips, Christopher (2013) On a regular basis Arab Id: the day by day manufacturing of the Arab world, Abingdon, UK: Routledge.

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

Ya Libnan (2013) Iranian cleric: dropping Syria is like dropping Tehran on Iranian cleric: Losing Syria is like losing Tehran – Ya Libnan, February 16, ya Libnan web site accessed on 3/26/2021.

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