From media coverage to academic debate on the Middle East, the dominant narrative since the attack on the twin towers has been about the ‘D word’ – democracy. The Arab world was traditionally portrayed in western eyes as an exception in terms of modernisation and democratisation. Meanwhile, Iraq was torn to pieces in the name of ‘democracy’ and its political system remains as authoritarian as ever. Since 2011, the Arab Spring has introduced a powerful counter-narrative, a homegrown narrative of political change and justice. Despite this, the new buzzwords are now about the ‘S words’ - ‘Sectarianism’ and the 'Sunni-Shi’a divide'.
Proponents of the new Sunni-Shia ‘Great Game’ owe a debt of gratitude to the Bush and Blair governments for putting religion back on the agenda. In Iraq, however, as in Syria, Egypt and other parts of the Arab world, a strong and vibrant national identity has prevailed over the years. Many of the thinkers and founders of Arabism were Syrians and Lebanese of Christian descent. They all strongly identified with a shared identity based on common history and language. Yet, another powerful counter-narrative is now on the rise: the myth of sectarianism. However, states in the region are mainly involved in a battle of realpolitik over conflicting interests.
The unintended consequence of the Iraq War of 2003 was to favour the rise of Iran as a powerful challenge to the conservative Arab Gulf monarchies. Sectarian strife in Iraq, however, was a result rather than a cause of war. It is heartbreaking today to see how Syria is drawn into similar patterns. The Syrian revolution was not about Sunnis fighting Alawites to establish a Sunni fiefdom in Syria. Started as peaceful and inclusive popular movements striving for social and economic justice, the uprisings in Syria posed a serious threat to the regime: they carried legitimacy and a powerful narrative. This required the construction of a counter-narrative: the presumed fight against transnational religious extremism exported into Syria by external actors.
As discourses are best implemented by practices, the regime’s strategy was to bring confrontation onto its favourite ground early on: military and sectarian conflict. The country’s harmonious social fabric and long-standing tradition of coexistence was destroyed. Borders with Iraq were made porous for the return of Sunni extremists fighting the US-led occupation of Iraq; and who were later joined by offshoots of al-Qaeda.
Syria’s secular revolution was tragically transformed into the century’s new Jihad – although foreign Jihadis constitute a mere 5-10% of the armed opposition. The regime is indeed dominated by a specific branch of the Alawite community (the Kalbiyyeh tribe from the clan of Karahil) and many within the armed resistance have turned to religion to draw strength and mobilisation. It is also true that Islamic Front militias have taken over areas in the north and north-eastern parts of the country where they impose a practice of religion which is foreign to the country’s tradition of moderate and tolerant Islam.
In the rest of the country, however, the battle lines are not between Sunnis and Shi’as. All communities, Sunnis, Christians and Alawites alike, share a fear of radicalism and a descent to chaos as the country follows in the dreaded footsteps of neighbouring Iraq. Other Christians and Alawites have joined the mainly Sunni-dominated political opposition; and a secular civil society is still actively engaged in Local Coordination Committees.
The real divide is not religious or sectarian but geopolitical; and foreign intervention is not motivated by religious affiliations nor the promotion of democracy. The Great Game being played in Syria is between a broad coalition of US-Israeli-Saudi-Qatari-Turkish interests on the one hand and Syria, Russia, Iran and Hizbollah on the other.
Yet again, the overall picture is not so simple. Although Syria has traditionally been a champion of Palestinian rights, the Syrian regime is not currently resisting western imperial interests. It is merely struggling for its survival and in the process causing death and destruction; targeting armed fighters but also scores of Syrian civilians; and bombarding Palestinian protestors from the Yarmuk refugee camp outside of Damascus. To the bitter disappointment of many of his supporters in the Arab world, Hassan Nasrallah has allied Hizbollah alongside the Assad regime. Hizbollah is a Shi’a organization and the Alawites have been recognised by Ayatollah Khomeini as a branch of the Shi’as. Nasrallah’s intervention, however, was not prompted by religious affinity but by pressure from his Iranian allies.
The Iranian government perceives the preservation of the Assad regime in Damascus as part of its own survival rather than an opportunity to export a Shi’a-inspired agenda. Backed by the US, Israel is intent on breaking the ‘axis-of-resistance’ and exploit the Syrian crisis to isolate and weaken Iran. Russia wants to prevent further regime change after the Libya intervention. Turkey’s AKP government is eager to boost its religious and political leadership in the region. By funding radical Sunni groups within Syria, the Gulf States have found a golden opportunity to weaken Iran in the Gulf at lesser cost through the Syrian quagmire.
Meanwhile, Syria is being sacrificed for the sake of foreign interests. Consequently, the battle at home for freedom and legitimacy is becoming more and more elusive by the day. The way forward lies in de-escalation, in the ‘de-sectarianization’ of both narratives and practices. Solutions to end the current tragedy have to be sought along inclusionary rather than exclusionary lines, by keeping the country’s once cohesive national identity, territorial integrity and independence away from religious rivalries and regional interests. At stake lies the future of Syria, the Syrians and possibly the whole region.