Middle-East’s Sectarian Balance Shifts as Syrian Uprising Enters Fourth Year — by Jawad Anwar Qureshi
Posted by Matthew Barber on Thursday, March 20th, 2014
This month, Syria’s uprising enters its fourth year. So far, close to 150,000 people are confirmed dead, over nine million Syrians have been displaced, and carnage has been unleashed in virtually all of Syria’s urban centers.
One of the unintended results from what started out as peaceful protests has been the re-alignment of powers in the Middle East along sectarian lines. Syria has pulled away from Sunni neighbors that were previously invested in Syria—in particular, Turkey and Saudi Arabia—and has drawn itself closer to Iran, the region’s sole Shiite state.
The Arab Spring reached Syria in March, 2011, when the government arrested and tortured teenage boys in the southern city of Deraa for spray painting the Arab Spring slogan—“The people want to topple the regime”—on their school wall. In response, protests erupted throughout the country. Despite using Friday congregational prayer to launch their protests in the beginning months, the Syrian protests, like those in other Arab Spring countries, did not initially have an overtly ideological, sectarian, or even religious tone; protestors demanded freedom (hurriya) and dignity (karama).
However, the government’s violent reaction was, from the beginning, colored by sectarian divisions. President Bashar al-Assad’s brother, Maher, commander of the Republican Guard’s 4th Armored Division, was recruited to lead the crackdown. This division had, thirty years earlier, under the leadership of Bashar and Maher’s uncle, Rifaat, ruthlessly crushed an Islamist-led revolt in Hama, killing tens of thousands. In addition to the Republican Guards, Alawite gangs loyal to Assad known as theShabbiha were dispatched throughout the country to terrorize protestors and intimidate citizens.
The protests gave way to armed resistance when defectors from the army formed the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in July, 2011. A number of Sunni militias loosely affiliated with the FSA emerged throughout Syria shortly thereafter and several Arab countries funneled support to these militias, in particular Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
January, 2012, marks the creation of the al-Qaeda affiliated militia, Jabhat al-Nusra (The Victory Front), whose stated goal was the overthrow of the Assad regime and the establishment of a pan-Islamic state under the leadership of a Sunni caliph. In the wake of the Arab Spring, al-Qaeda’s Sunni leadership has focused on Syria and Iraq as new theaters for jihad, fighting Shiites in both countries. Thus, in April, 2013, the Islamic State of Iraq (i.e. al-Qaeda in Iraq) announced that it was expanding the scope of its operations to include Syria and re-branded itself The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The rhetoric of the opposition—for al-Qaeda affiliated jihadists and non-jihadis alike—is laden with sectarian language.
The Assad regime likewise adopted the language of jihad. In March, 2013, the last two Sunni clerics supporting the regime, the Mufti Ahmad Hassoun and Syria’s most prominent scholar Said Ramadan al-Bouti, issued fatwas, announcing from their pulpits and on Syrian national television that jihad in defense of the state was a religious obligation binding upon all Muslims.
As a result of its response to the Uprising, the Assad regime has been isolated by its neighbors and the international community. To subdue the country, President al-Assad has increasingly turned to Shiite Iran for financial support, weapons, and fighters. For example, in April, 2013, the Iranian backed Hezbollah provided fighters to aid the Syrian army’s siege of the city of Qusayr.
Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has pledged to continue fighting until he has defeated Syria’s Sunni jihadi-militias. At the same time, a number of Shiite militias have emerged with recruits from Iran and Iraq responding to calls for volunteers to protect Syrian mausoleums of Shiite saints.
For now, Assad appears to have weathered the storm. Various international peace conferences have accomplished nothing. Assad has even successfully navigated American pressure to disarm his chemical weapons. The armed opposition remains unable to inflict decisive defeats against the regime and the al-Qaeda affiliates have turned their guns on each other.
Assad might still be standing but Syria’s position in the Middle East has been radically altered. While Syria has long been an ally of Iran it has always balanced that relationship with that of its Sunni neighbors. The latter ties are now severed and Iran’s influence in Syria is unopposed.
To be sure, there is more to the Syrian Uprising—its origin, development, and future—than sectarianism. However, sectarianism remains an endemic problem through which many of the actors involved view, assess, and react to events.
Sources and Additional Reading:
Anonymous citizen in Damascus. “In Secular Syria, Top Muslim Cleric Picks Sides In Civil War.” NPR, March 12, 2013, International.
Chulov, Martin. “Controlled by Iran, the deadly militia recruiting Iraq’s men to die in Syria.” The Guardian, March 12, 2014, World News Iraq.
Haykel, Bernard. “Al-Qa’ida and Shiism.” Fault Lines in Global Jihad. Edited by Assaf and Brian Fishman. New York: Routledge, 2011.
Pierret, Thomas. The Syrian Baath Party and Sunni Islam: Conflicts and Connivance. Brandeis University, 2014. http://www.brandeis.edu/crown/publications/meb/MEB77.pdf.
Qureshi, Jawad Anwar. “Discourses of Damascene Sunni ‘Ulama During the 2011 Revolution.” State and Islam in Baathist Syria, 59-91. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2012.
Zelin, Aaron and Phillip Smyth’s “The Vocabulary of Sectarianism.” Foreign Policy, January 29, 2014, The Middle East Channel.