Stop Trying to Make Syria's War Into a Sectarian Conflict

There's more to the country's ongoing strife than religious differences.

sy sectarianism banner.jpg
A resident walks with children along a street in Deir al-Zor on March 13, 2013. (Reuters)

As the U.S. contemplates a more active role in Syria, many journalists and policymakers are focused on the civil war's sectarian violence. A December 2012 UN Commission of Inquiry stated that "as battles between government forces and anti-government armed groups approach the end of their second year, the conflict has become overtly sectarian."

A headline in the Atlantic Wire on March 4 warned ominously that "Syrian Troop Ambush in Iraq Heightens Fear of Bigger Sectarian War." PRI's The World reports that, "the sectarian fighting has echoes of the Sunni-Shi'ite violence that dominated the middle years of the war in Iraq."

That's dangerous -- because while the Syrian civil war isn't yet a sectarian conflict, the discussion itself could make it one.

To be sure, a compelling story is making the rounds. Such voices as Patrick Cockburn at The Independent , Joseph Olmert in The Huffington Post, and countless others describe the Syrian war as an armed conflict pitting Sunnis, who make up the majority of Syria's population, against the Alawites, who back the Assad regime, and their Shiite allies, Iran and Hezbollah. In this telling, Christians and other innocent minorities are under siege, caught in the crossfire and afraid they will be oppressed by a Sunni majority in a post-Assad Syria. This would make Syria just the latest in a long string of Middle Eastern countries riven by intractable sectarian differences that lead to interminable chaos and violence. Because religious divisions define people's identities in this region, the story goes, history tells us that there is no choice but to let them "fight it out" while we do everything in our power, including possibly arming the opposition, to ensure that those who support U.S. interests in the region prevail.

This all-too-familiar story appeals to a range of interests inside and outside Syria. It paints a picture of a Middle Eastern conflict in which religious and sectarian differences inexorably determine political outcomes. Because it suggests that such violence is inevitable and may even be biologically or culturally predetermined, it exonerates the Assad regime and other countries that have failed to act even in the face of extreme state-sponsored violence against innocent civilians -- as when Syrian government forces bound and shot 49 children during a massacre of 108 civilians in Houla last spring.

The sectarian story is also wrong for a less obvious reason. Syrians -- the real people on the ground who happen to live in Syria -- don't conform to the sectarian stereotypes that policymakers and pundits are promoting with such gusto. Of course, some Syrians identify strongly with their ethnic or religious communities. But like people all over the world -- including here in the United States -- many Syrians hold multiple allegiances, sympathizing with more than one sectarian identity or none at all, or are of mixed backgrounds. Such individuals do not fit neatly into the boxes of religious identification demanded by the narrative of sectarianism. This narrative's logic insists that an individual be this or that--rather than both or neither. Individuals who refuse to define themselves in these rigid terms are put in an impossible position: Either they are compelled make political claims based on sectarian identities, or they are left with no grounds from which to speak. This happened in Bosnia in the 1990s, when individuals who called themselves atheists before the war suddenly found themselves publically identified -- and divided -- by a newly salient and inescapable religious identity.

But this narrative -- and the devastation that could come from it -- can be avoided if we debunk at least three myths. First, sectarianism is not about intractable religiosity. As civil rights attorney and Middle East commentator Yaman Salahi observed recently in Al Jazeera, "religiosity is not a prerequisite to today's sectarianism (if it ever was), as even those who never fast or pray will not hesitate to indulge in it."

Rather, sectarianism is about politics. To call a conflict "sectarian" is to single out religious difference from among the many salient aspects of human identity and hoist it above all the others as the factor that determines political outcomes. The narrative assumes that religious identities are fixed and immutable, with bright lines between the groups -- even though in real life those identities are often much more fluid. Recent reports from the International Crisis Group, for example, describe the complex dynamics of the war in Syria, including numerous actions by individuals and groups that defy presumably rigid sectarian lines of affiliation. The ICG reports tell story after story of courageous individuals from differing ethnic and religious backgrounds attempting to meet the everyday humanitarian needs of fellow citizens in extraordinarily difficult circumstances. A compelling new BBC documentary following the lives of five Syrian women on different sides of the conflict offers a similar message, showing that the lines of this conflict are drawn not based only on sectarian affiliation but on a complex mix of factors including personal history, employment background, geographical location, family situations, and past experiences with the regime.

Second, Syrians have been mobilizing against Assad for reasons that are not in fact sectarian. The goal of the opposition, including the nonviolent opposition that has been tragically marginalized in recent months, was to stop the state's brutal treatment and exploitation of the Syrian people. Syrians did not take to the streets in order to realize a Sunni takeover of the Syrian state. As in Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, and Tunisia, the revolt in Syria has complex roots in economic grievances, social injustice, and everyday oppression. All that is erased when pundits and policymakers focus on sectarianism as the engine of revolt.

Third, framing the war as sectarian is anything but objective. When American observers explain the situation as sectarian, they unwittingly reinforce Assad's attempt to portray his rule as the only way to head off an endless cycle of sectarian violence. A New York Times piece on sectarianism in Syria, for instance, reproduces this story by quoting Rev. Bernardo Cervellera, the editor-in-chief of the Catholic news agency AsiaNews: "Christians are all saying that Syria risks becoming the new Iraq, a country divided among ethnic and religious lines where there is no place for Christians." Syria, while not a democracy, "at least protects them."' This is a myth: the Assads have ruthlessly oppressed all opponents, regardless of religious affiliation. Depicting the conflict as deeply sectarian also strengthens Iran and Hezbollah, who have an economic and strategic stake in maintaining Assad's regime in power for as long as possible as they work anxiously behind the scenes to build a post-Assad order that will serve their interests.

To be sure, entrenched and violent sectarianism in Syria is a real possibility. Being Christian or Muslim, Sunni or Alawite, could indeed become hard, fast, and divisive identities for some people. Syrians' religious and ethnic identities could even become more important than their pro- or anti-regime stances, tragically contravening everything the opposition stood for in early days. But all this depends, in part, on whether analysts and parties to the conflict allow the sectarian storyline to gain currency, both locally and regionally. A recent Global Post article bucks the trend, suggesting that the real problems haunting the people of Tripoli, including the many Syrians on both sides of the conflict who reside in this northern Lebanese town, are poverty, education, lack of employment, and poor infrastructure -- and not sectarianism. Such careful reportage offers not just information, but also hope.

Sectarianism is a real possibility. But it isn't the only one.