Sectarian identities in Syria: pushed to the brink?

Failure to consider the potency of sectarian identities in Syria may produce the opposite effect intended for a strike, pushing parties further away from negotiations, and closer to the brink.

Genevieve Theodorakis
8 September 2013

A protestor outside the office of the Arizona Congressman Ed Pastor. Demotix/Parker Haeg. All rights reserved.

Over the last week, the question of intervention in Syria has increasingly divided the international community. Though the United Nations has yet to release its findings on the site of the alleged chemical attacks, or on the perpetrators behind the crime, the United States remains a steadfast proponent for a limited military strike. The logic behind military action is twofold: a strike could not only punish Assad for his alleged crimes, thereby deterring the use of chemical weapons by other ‘dictators’, but could also handicap Assad’s forces enough to bring the regime to the negotiating table. Nevertheless, US President Barack Obama continues to maintain that the objective of a military strike is not regime change.

The international media is currently aflame with discussions of the politics and ethics behind a military strike. Questions surrounding the rights of sovereign nations and the role of the United Nations in legitimising military action have enflamed global debates, pitting heavyweights such as the US and Russia against each other[1]. Other considerations provoking multinational disputes include the impact of a strike on civilian populations and the likelihood of increased casualties with a US-led attack. However, policymakers have paid relatively less attention to the likely dramatic impact that military action will have on the loyalties of Syria’s many fractious parties.

Historically, Syria has been one of the most divided societies within the Middle East and North Africa since independence. Characterised by the presence of potent regional, ethnic, religious and sectarian identities, Syria’s political elites have always encountered difficulties in uniting the country’s many groups under one national government, a challenge that necessitated a strong and cohesive military presence to maintain law and order. The general disorder of post-independence Syrian politics and the prevalent role of the army and security forces is exemplified by a notable number of coups; between 1949 and 1970, seven coup d’états took place, culminating in the ascent to power of the Ba’athist Alawite Hafez al-Assad. The brutal repression of state opponents often appeared to be the only card to play in the game to maintain power, notably during the late 1970s and early 1980s when Assad Sr. crushed an Islamist insurgency. Culminating in the infamous 1982 massacre in Hama, Assad’s security forces are believed to be responsible for killing an estimated 20,000 people alone in Hama, constituting what The Guardian called “the single bloodiest assault by an Arab ruler against his own people in modern times”.

Yet although the ongoing conflict has often been portrayed as a clash of sectarian identities from the start by the western media, it began as a genuine petition for increased political, economic and social rights, without overt sectarian overtones. While many of Assad’s supporters come from the Alawite sect and hold key positions within the regime, James Casey notes that some Alawites have aligned with the opposition, and major political and military figures supporting Assad also come from Sunni and Orthodox Christian backgrounds.

Nevertheless, the rapid militarisation of the conflict since March 2011 has encouraged a steady solidification of sectarian identities that, previously, often lacked salience within the context of the uprising. Before the uprising, notes managing editor of Asharq Al-Awsat, Eyad Abu Shakra, “never has a political entity been formed in Syria along purely sectarian or ethnic lines.” Since then, in the face of regime-sponsored terror campaigns in mainly opposition Sunni neighbourhoods, communities aligned with the Assad regime have become increasingly subject to reprisal attacks along sectarian lines by some opposition groups. In particular, many Alawite communities have become the target of opposition forces, which associate such groups with Assad, regardless of their actual alliances. Fighting for their own survival in a zero-sum game, many Syrians have therefore increasingly identified with sectarian identities within this state of affairs, propelling the west’s purported “Syrian sectarian conflict” towards a self-fulfilling prophecy.

There is little doubt that the civil war has hardened sectarian identities, but what will a US-led military strike entail for an increasingly divided Syria? Fears of an American attack will likely only fuel the aggression of the Assad regime and raise the stakes of those who support it, and those who are against it. Many observers have expressed concerns over the reactions of Assad’s supporters, particularly Alawites, who increasingly feel that their livelihood and their very survival are tied to the fate of the regime. Any serious blow to the Assad regime may very well heighten the sense of insecurity felt by those associated with the government, whether by allegiance or sect, by pushing them into a corner and away from negotiations with what is increasingly seen as a difficult, fractured and often violent smorgasbord of opposition militias. Indeed, one such group, Jund al-Sham, has made “the extermination” of Alawites a priority, blaming the sect for “Syria’s suffering”.

In the context of an increasingly sectarian conflict, any plans for an American-led strike cannot exclude considerations of the impact that such an attack will have on the divisions within Syria. In particular, efforts to include Iran in plans of action in Syria could very well help to limit a potential sectarian-based blow out on the ground.

A lesson of caution could be taken from Iraq, where the ignition of sectarian conflict following the 2003 American intervention continues to plague national and regional stability. Against the backdrop of an imminent US attack on Syria, a series of car bomb attacks killed at least 60 people in primarily Shia neighbourhoods of Baghdad and are believed to be the work of Sunni militants. Failure to consider the potency of sectarian identities in Syria may produce the opposite effect intended for a strike, pushing parties further away from negotiations, and closer to the brink.


[1] For more information, see Paul Rogers’ blog: http://www.opendemocracy.net/paul-rogers/syria-path-to-new-war ; http://www.opendemocracy.net/opensecurity/jonathan-githens-mazer/questions-raised-and-risks-posed-by-syrian-intervention-part-two

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