There is a tendency among analysts to perceive the Syrian conflict in an overly simplistic way, giving too much attention to sectarian fault lines. For example, Fouad Ajami, in his recent book “The Syrian Rebellion”, offers an argument that is an example of falling into this trap. Ajami claims that Sunni-Muslims uniformly seek to avenge the humiliation of having been ruled by the Alawite clan of the Assad-family. Such a characterisation of the Syrian conflict is so imprecise and overly simplistic that it becomes misleading. There are at least two other fault lines, unrelated to the sectarian issue, which also need to be taken into account in order to understand the multi-dimensional Syrian conflict.
First, the political opposition of Syria can roughly be divided into two camps. On the one side there is the Istanbul-based Syrian National Council (SNC). This is the biggest and most internationally recognised coalition, consisting mainly of the Muslim Brotherhood and independent liberals. Since its foundation in October 2011, the council has called for an international military intervention to bring about the downfall of the regime. The backbone of the council is the Muslim Brotherhood. Although they were chased from Syria in the 1980s, they are keen on returning to the country as a powerful political force. They know however, that this will not be possible as long as their main opponents - those who killed supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and expelled them from the country 30 years ago - occupy all of the main power centres of Syrian politics.
The other opposition camp mainly consists of two secular, left-leaning councils: the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change (NCB) and Syrian Democratic Forum (SDF). These camps detest the regime and are aiming to end their grip on power. However, in contrast to the SNC, they do not want to remove all the existing structures of the present system. Rather, they tend to stress the need to preserve the Syrian state while insisting that those responsible for the tyranny must go.
According to Michel Kilo, spokesperson for the SDF, a collapse of the state will lead to Islamist and sectarian chaos. These secular opposition figures therefore want to preserve and strengthen the secular institutions of the Syrian state. They believe the best way of doing this is to succeed in bringing about what they call a “political solution”. They believe demonstrations and international economic and political pressure will push the regime into gradual concessions, ultimately leading to democracy. The secularist/leftist groups know perfectly well that the current regime would refuse to meet their nemesis, the Muslim Brotherhood, in negotiations over such a “political solution”. This gradual approach to the conflict, is therefore an effort to take control on behalf of the opposition and preserve the secular nature of the state before free elections are to be held.
This dimension clearly cannot be explained by the Sunni-minority division. The SNC's uncompromising stance against any concessions toward the current regime, and its support for foreign intervention, is not a question of Sunni-Muslims wanting to gain the upper hand after decades of humiliating Alawite rule. Instead, it is motivated by the effort to ensure the Muslim Brotherhood's return to the country. The question of military intervention versus a negotiated solution cannot be understood as sectarianism based on revenge, but as a conflict between Islamism and secularism. The military track endorsed by the SNC is not a collective Sunni-Muslim reaction drawn on sectarian lines, but a question of whether Islamists will gain a foothold in Syria’s future.
In addition to Islamism versus secularism there is another fault line often omitted in analyses of the Syrian uprisings. Within the SNC, there are people with secular inclinations too. So it begs the question: why have these people not joined the secular/leftist camp, which advocates a strengthening of secularism in Syria? The answer lies in the left/right divide.
Many observers draw comparisons between the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and the governing AKP party in Turkey: both are in broad terms promoters of liberal economic policies in combination with a religious and conservative worldview. The liberal members of the SNC who define themselves as right of centre, therefore, find themselves more comfortable allying with the Brotherhood, than do those in the secularist/leftist camp. The liberal SNC members seem to think that they share enough common political ground with the Muslim Brotherhood to be able to work well together in a coalition. At the same time however, Samir Nashar, a secular, liberal member of the SNC Executive Committee from his office in Istanbul expresses his conflicted views on the seemingly strange alliance:
“Even though I fear an Islamisation of society under the Islamists, I am optimistic on behalf of the group they represent”. Nashar is content with his alliance to the Brotherhood, as they share some basic political views. At the same time, he is not alarmed by the potential popularity of the Brotherhood, as they target different parts of the electorate. His Islamist allies will not be able to steal the support of urban, secular middle- to upper-class voters. This makes the liberal-Islamist alliance a suitable match.
On the opposite side of this scale is again the secularist/leftist faction, which does not campaign for increased economic liberalism at all. Quite the contrary, representatives of these groups tend to stress that a “social market economy” - the term Assad used for the half-hearted economic reforms he launched to gradually distance himself from the planned economy heritage of his father - marked the introduction of neo-liberal measures and exacerbated differences between the rich and poor in the country. This camp of the opposition therefore holds "social economic justice with redistributive tax policies" to be a key proposition for a future Syria. The sharp contrast between the economic future desired by both Islamists and secularists in the SNC, and the leftist take on economic policies, is also an important dimension of the Syrian conflict. Again, it has nothing to do with sectarian lines, but should rather be understood as a struggle between right and left in economic policies.
The international relationships forged by the two camps of the opposition play a pivotal role in their orientation. The SNC is openly backed by Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the US, and several EU countries. Samir Nashar admits that the financial backing from these allies come with strings attached, reducing the independence of the council. But Nashar accepts this constraint as a necessary cost of operating in an interconnected world: “Being a liberal, I support openness. Economic and social openness inside of Syria and openness to the rest of the world. This is unavoidable in the globalised world we live in.”
Conversely, the secularist/leftist camp has quite a different take on the role of international support. Using anti-imperialist rhetoric, it objects to any foreign military solution or arming of the Free Syrian Army. It notes that foreign support rarely comes as true charity, and that Syrian independence would be severely jeopardized by entangling itself in international involvement. This rhetoric is associated with the old generation of the Arab left; international support is undesirable as a matter of principle.
Clearly, the complexity of the Syrian opposition cannot be adequately captured by a simple sectarian schism. Although there is not much doubt that Syria will be faced with great sectarian challenges, one should not reduce the conflict to this single dimension. A Secularism-Islamism axis—similar to that in Turkey—and a left-right axis—similar to that in European politics—will also define the crucial fault lines that determine Syria’s political future.