Can sectarianism explain the conflict in Syria?

Essay, 2017

15 Pages, Grade: 69/100


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Sectarianism
2.1 Doctrinal vs. Political Sectarianism

3. Case study: Sectarianism and the Armed Conflict in Syria
3.1 Conventional Understanding
3.2 Critical Perspectives
3.3 The Assad Regime
3.4 The Uprisings and Assad's Strategy
3.5 Regional Politics: International Involvement and Extremism

4. Conclusion

5. References

"In Great Britain, an author published a book in which he claimed that Jesus Christ had children. Such statements don't trigger civil unrest and bloodshed in Europe. But write similar statements about Islam in Syria and you might see bloody uprisings."[1] - Bashar al-Assad

1. Introduction

In mid-March 2011, protests against arbitrary leadership and for democratic institutions took place in Syria's major cities. The Syrian regime has responded brutally and the dynamics have since been developing into an ongoing armed conflict. Soon counting its sixth year, the Syrian conflict has been described as sectarian in character. Other scholars have criticized the usage of this term and the concept behind it in this particular context. Therefore, the question arises to in what way, if at all, the concept of “sectarianism” helps to explain the current conflict in Syria. In order to answer to this question, firstly, the concept at hand will be introduced, outlining both some main approaches to it, as well as its benefits and limitations. Then, a conventional analysis of the Syrian conflict and its relation to the given concept will be outlined. Some critical perspectives thereof will be consulted in order to highlight the limitations of the term, which will be followed by a discussion on further factors that may help to answer the research question.

Overall, this paper will argue that the concept of "sectarianism" does help to explain the current conflict in Syria, while listing and explaining the areas in which the concept helps, as well as stressing the dangers implied when using the term and which analyses have to accompany the usage of the concept, i.e. how the concept does not help to explain the conflict. For this purpose, a historical perspective will be avoided in order to account for the modernity of the involvement of sectarianism in Syrian politics. The author attempts to put the concept into its modern context. Main time frames and features of the conflict outlined in the following are regarded as critical in the sectarianization of the political sphere, and therefore in the development of the conflict. This includes Hafez al-Assad's coup to power, and the strategies employed by his regime before and after the uprisings. In particular, the building of a sectarian narrative and how it serves to supply resources to the regime will be described. Lastly, this paper will outline the involvement of sectarianism in international as well as extremist participation in the conflict. Taking all these factors into account, the main argument of this paper is that non-doctrinal sectarianism is involved in the conflict and needs to be taken into account when attempting an explanation of the conflict. However, it will also argue that sectarianism does not serve to superficially explain the conflict as an outbreak of age-old hatreds between Sunni and Shii Muslims, and that, most importantly, many more fault lines, additional to sect, are involved. These arguments lead to a conclusion that an explanation of the conflict will involve the concept of "sectarianism", but most importantly needs to go beyond simple binaries and has to include the multi-dimensionality, heterogeneity, and complexity of the political set-up before the uprisings, during the uprisings, as well as during the conflict up to this day.

2. Sectarianism

The concept of sectarianism has been used as a tool to analyze societal and political issues, especially so in regard to societal, as well as political issues in the Middle East. Before moving on to the case study of sectarianism in the current conflict in Syria, it is important to outline the main features of the analytical tool at hand. Peteet (2008) has argued that a sectarian fracture is one of many fractures that may lie at the basis of every society. Conventional writing used sectarianism to explain conflicts in the Middle East as age-old hatreds between different sects, that are based on perennial beliefs on an emotional base. This argument has been criticized, as more complex conflicts are reduced to a simplistic analysis among sectarian lines, which may fail to depict the actual features of a given conflict. For example, Makdisi (2000) has rejected the argument that the region has always been divided. Sluglett (2016) coined this trend an "invention of tradition" (p. 44), whereas almost every event in the Middle East is superficially explained as simply sectarian. Makdisi's work showed that sectarianism is a modern development, as religion is constantly in motion and not rigid. It is therefore important to place sectarianism and the process of sectarianization into its historical context.

2.1 Doctrinal vs. Political Sectarianism

At this point, it is important to emphasize the distinction between doctrinal and political sectarianism. When utilizing the term, one has to note that sectarianism can refer to a religious conflict, that is to a discussion over doctrinal issues and religious identity. However, not all sectarianism is necessarily religious (Ismail, 2016). This distinction plays an important role in the case of Syria. Furthermore, taking into consideration the above discussed criticism of the use of sectarianism as a depiction of age-old hatreds, it is important to note that on the contrary, sectarianism is not fixed, but a process in constant development. If the process of sectarianization is taking place in the political field, and the affiliation with a certain sect is politicized (whether from above or from below), one can speak of political sectarianism. This can, for example, take place through the privileged treatment of a certain group in regard to the access to resources, goods, and power (Ismail, 2016).

Lastly, it is important to mention that firstly, membership to a sect does not automatically lead to sectarianism, and that secondly, sectarianism does not automatically lead to conflict and violence. The aspects explained above are taken into consideration as both the concepts benefits as well as its limitations when it comes to the analysis of political issues as the one at hand.

3. Case study: Sectarianism and the Armed Conflict in Syria

In 2012, statistics counted 74% of the population of then 23 million as Sunni Muslim, 12% as Alawi, 8% as Christian, and 6% as either Druzes, Ismaili, or Twelver Shiis (Sluglett, 2016). The Syrian government is made up of a family associating with the Alawi minority, and Alawis dominate the military and the security sector, dating back to coups that brought Hafez al-Assad to power (Wimmen, 2014).

3.1 Conventional Understanding

The analysis of current conflicts in the Middle East has brought about the argument of the involvement of sectarian issues. The ongoing conflict in Syria has largely been analyzed along sectarian lines. For example, in 2012, a United Nations (UN) investigatory panel stated that the conflict was at risk of developing into a sectarian conflict. One of their reports quotes the UN commission: "feeling threatened and under attack, ethnic and religious minority groups have increasingly aligned themselves with parties to the conflict, deepening sectarian divides” (UN, 2012, para. 11). According to this analysis at hand, the parties involved in the conflict divide into the ruling minority Alawite government supported by surrounding Shi'a governments (e.g. Iran), versus Syria's Sunni majority opposition, supported by the surrounding Persian Gulf. The report describes the "peaceful protests seeking political reform" as having revolved into a conflict "overtly sectarian in nature" (para. 10). Additional to the Alawite government versus the Sunni majority opposition, other minorities, such as the Armenians, Christians, Druze, Palestinians, Kurds and Turkmen, were said to have been drawn into the conflict by taking side as well, deepening said sectarian divides.

Moreover, Tomass (2016) argued that in Syria "sectarian identity has deep roots among the inhabitants" (p. 210). According to him, it is therefore indispensable to understanding religious identity when attempting to understand the conflict. This analysis reminds of the "invention of tradition" (Sluglett, 2016, p. 44) mentioned above, and views the discussed conflict as a manifestation of historical violent tensions between two parties.

3.2 Critical Perspectives

However, according to Sluglett (2016), visible signs of sectarian tensions date back to the mid-1970s only, and are therefore relatively recent and to be associated with a modern development. Furthermore, in his book titled "Syria", Abboud (2016) points out that the analysis of the Syrian conflict along sectarian lines does not account for the actual complexity of the conflict. According to him, "popular understandings of Syria reduce the conflict to simple binaries (Sunni/Shi'a or regime/rebel) […] betray both the complexity of the Syrian society and the conflict itself" (p. 1). He criticizes popular understandings because of their analysis in binary terms: for example, "regime versus rebels, good guys and bad guys, Alawi versus Sunni" (p. ix), while, according to him, the conflict is extremely complex. Here, his main argument is the variety of social groupings involved in the early protests. According to Abboud, no common demographic can be found among the minimum five social groupings involved in the early protests. The young and the old, the religious (Sunni Muslim as well as minority groupings), as well as secular and non-religious people were involved. Furthermore, no commonalities when it comes to social backgrounds as well as economic backgrounds were found. According to the author, this is mainly due to the absence of formal political institutions in Syria before the uprisings, where the protests were both decentered and leaderless.

The described converse depictions and analyses of the involvement of sectarianism in the current conflict raise the question as to what role the concept of sectarianism actually plays in the Syrian conflict. The first part of this paper introduced the concept of sectarianism as being a process. Taking the criticism on the argument that sectarianism has always existed into account, it is useful to look at the development of sectarianism, i.e. the sectarianization of Syria. Rather than arguing that the current armed conflict is an outbreak of age-old hatreds between Sunni and Alawite Muslims, it seems useful to consider recent developments. Figure 1 shows a timeline of events that seem applicable to the question at hand.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Figure 1. Selected time frames in Syrian history

In order to understand how the Alawite minority managed to rule Sunni majority Syria, we need to understand when the division between the sects was drawn. While both the Ottoman Era as well as the colonial intervention by the French colonial administration is connected to the division of the Syrian society by sect, an emphasis of this paper will be put on the latter three points in time that are included in Figure 1 (namely Syria under the al-Assad family, the uprisings in 2011, and the ongoing armed conflict). This focus serves to put the claim of sectarian conflict into a historical perspective and analyze the role of sectarianism at the point of time the conflict itself is taking place - the present. The main argument will be that the coup by Hafez al-Assad in 1971 is a critical starting point for the sectarianization of the political field in Syria setting the stage for the regime’s strategies of today. Furthermore, the initial uprisings of 2011 onwards and the following ongoing armed conflict will be analyzed as to their relation to sectarianism, or its influence on the events.

3.3 The Assad Regime

An analysis of Syria today is essential since, as Quilliam (2015) has noted "Hafez al-Assad is the architect of modern Syria" (para. 1). Assad seized power in 1971 following a number of coups, and after having previously been the post of commander of the Syrian air force and minister of defence. He then went on to personalize his power over the government and created a system that is coined "divide and rule", pointing towards an artificial split in society created by the ruling family. After Hafez al-Assad's death, his son Bashar al-Assad came to power. To the surprise of many, Bashar al-Assad replaced many of his father's close advisors that were mostly from the rural provinces with "children of the elite - a generation raised in the city, with no constituency other than their own concentric networks of influence" (Quilliam, 2015, para. 8).


[1] Der Spiegel (2005). Quote retrieved on January 02, 2016, from

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Can sectarianism explain the conflict in Syria?
School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London
Political Society of the Middle East
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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sectarianism, Syria, Assad, Sunni, Shia, Alawite
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Rebekka Schliep (Author), 2017, Can sectarianism explain the conflict in Syria?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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