By Merve Gunenc (2017)
The Syrian civil war has been described as “the deadliest conflict the 21st century has witnessed so far” as the country enters its seventh year of turmoil. What started out as a peaceful protest calling for social justice and democracy, became an escalating, violent power struggle. The repressive hand of the Alawi regime led by Bashar al-Assad, son of Hafez al-Assad, who inherited the presidency from his father in 2000, was met with uproar in 2011 after the arrest and protest of some teenagers who painted revolutionary slogans on a school wall.
The Free Syrian Army, the name given to the Syrian armed opposition which can be considered as a synonym for “the resistance”, has won and lost control over territory in Syria since the violence started. A key development has been the rise of ISIS, a militant Islamist group, with the conflict further complicated by Kurds fighting for territory in the North Eastern region of the country, as well as US and Russian involvement along with a great many other actors.
This essay aims to explore the significance of inter-religious tensions and argues that rather than always being a driving factor of the Syrian civil war, inter-religious tensions have been accentuated by the conflict, not vice versa. That is not to say that religion should be underestimated, there is no doubt that it is a prominent feature of the region. However, arguably other factors such as the socio-economic disparity, the emergence of ISIS, the Kurdish issue, and foreign intervention prove more significant in driving the Syrian civil war than have inter-religious tensions. The religious element of each factor will be debated in order to determine the extent of the influence of inter-religious tensions on the Syrian civil war and to show that, on their own, such tensions are not significant but combined with other tensions, and they become deadly.
Acknowledging that the war has evolved over time is important. Some of the driving factors of the conflict have always been evident; others emerge later on in the seven-year period. For example, ISIS did not emerge as key actor in the civil war until 2014. The religious element of the Syrian civil war is certainly evident given the minority status of the Assad regime ruling over a rebelling religious majority. However, a ‘Sunni versus Alawite’ narrative, to explain the root cause of the conflict and its continuation, is not sufficient. It fails to both acknowledge the complexities of the conflict, and consider the plethora of non-religious actors, and their varying interests, that also play a role in driving the Syrian civil war.
Inter-religious tensions can arguably be described as a relatively prominent feature of modern Syrian social and political history. The Syrian population is made up of many minority groups; Alawi, Ismaili and Shia sects (13%), Christians (10%), Druze (3%); as well as a Sunni Muslim majority (74%). The Syrian state we know today has been significantly shaped by the Alawi sect and their rise to power following a coup d’état in 1963, overthrowing the ruling Sunni elite. This history of sectarian power struggle can arguably be seen as filtering into modern day Syria. However, a key weakness in the ‘Sunni majority versus Alawi minority’ narrative is its failure to acknowledge that the ‘Sunni’ side of the Syrian civil war is not a unified group with unified interests, rather it is made up of fragmented groups of both religious and non-religiously driven actors.
O’bagy claims that “the opposition movement in Syria has been fragmented from its inception, a direct reflection of Syria’s social complexity.” Despite this fragmentation, two main patterns have emerged in Syria’s complex opposition structure over the course of the armed struggle. The first of which she refers to as localised battalions. These are units that fight within a limited geographical scope typically in defence of their home, village or town, and are rarely ideologically driven. The second pattern she describes does have strong religious elements, in that some of the actors taking up arms do seem to have religious interests and motives. Such actors are categorised as “franchise” brigades, and tend to be the Islamist and Salafist groups led by civilians or other low-ranking defectors, usually driven by intentions to bring about an Islamist state. They arguably bring to mind the not so distant memory of the Muslim Brotherhood who attempted, but failed to overthrow the Assad regime in 1976.
To understand such inter-religious tensions, it is important to understand the Alawi sect. Farouk-Alli sets out a historical overview of the Alawites pointing out that their controversial beliefs, such as their veneration of Ali, the cousin of the prophet Muhammad, and apparent regard for him as a deity, are often perceived as heretical and evoke suspicion from other sects of Islam, Sunnis in particular. As a result, throughout history, the Alawi sect were “at best tolerated and at the worst of times faced terrible persecution.” Nevertheless, through a strong presence in the army and an alliance with the left-leaning, secularist Baathist Party, this minority sect took over control of the state. Alawi power was consolidated in 1970 by army officer Hafez al-Assad marking the beginning of, what is referred to in this essay as, the Assad regime. However, minority rule over a majority is no easy plight. In its early years, the regime wanted to improve its relations with Islamic forces in Syria. Hafez al-Assad’s participation in prayer at a Sunni mosque, for example, can be seen as a symbol of his desire for unity with the urban Sunnis. This attempt at unity was arguably in vain given that in 1976, militant Sunni Muslims, many of whom were members of the Muslim Brotherhood, “mounted a violent struggle against [the] regime designed to bring it down and replace it with an Islamic state.” It was met with military retaliation and violence from the regime.
It is clear, what with Alawi persecution and the presence of such religious rivalries in modern Syrian history, that religion should not be underestimated. It therefore seems logical to point its fault lines out when conflict erupts in the region. However, arguably inter-religious tensions never provide a complete explanation. With the case of the Muslim Brotherhood, for example, the conditions for their rise “were established because the Baath party primarily served to prioritize Alawi interests” and failed to alleviate economic difficulties of non-Alawi groups. A ‘Sunni versus Alawi’ narrative arguably oversimplifies the nature of opposition to the Assad regime and misses out key details. This is arguably the case with such a narrative of the Syrian civil war.
Various religious groups have always co-existed in Syria, mostly peacefully. Although the Assad regime has a tendency for violent reaction to opposition, as seen with the case of the Muslim Brotherhood, the various religious sects are allowed to follow their faiths relatively freely. The regime’s alliance with Ba’athist secularism was historically tactical. The party not only provided the Alawites with an organisational structure which was essential to their path to power, as Faksh argues many Alawites were drawn to the Party “because it advocated a secular, socialist political system that held the promise to free them from socio-economic discrimination and minority status.” Arguably, secularism remains vital to the Assad regime. Religious freedoms do exist. For example, in the very year he took office, Bashar al-Assad repealed a prohibition against school girls wearing headscarves in institutions of learning. Being a minority group, it would not be in their interest to actively antagonise a Sunni majority. It could be said that if inter-religious tensions were not an issue then the Assad regime would not attempt to pacify Sunni criticisms as it seems to have done. They arguably are an issue, but the regime seems to successfully minimise their significance.
However, it can be said that the success of the secularist nature of the regime is overshadowed by its tendency to prioritise Alawi status in society and politics. It is telling, for example, that Sunnis make up only a small fraction of the political elite, as Haklai argues,
the delegates to the congress are mostly Alawis (although there is a small representation of Sunnis and other minorities) and elections are prearranged, with candidates nominated by the ruling elite, thus ensuring their renewal of power.
But such criticisms are not on religious grounds. They are more to do with the class hierarchies created and maintained by the regime. It is arguably divisions on socioeconomic grounds that have accentuated religious divides and reignited old rivalries. The socioeconomic factor should not be underestimated as a key driver of the Syrian civil war.
Seul and separately, Rahima (with specific reference to Syria), both offer convincing explanations for religion’s role in conflicts driven by socio-economic difficulties. Seul argues that the phenomenon of conflict so frequently occurring along religious faultlines is down to the “peculiar ability of religion to serve the human identity impulse”. He emphasises the idea of identity competition, which is especially at play in times of crisis “when identities are most vulnerable”. According to Seul, in most cases, this vulnerability stems from resource scarcity or social difficulties faced by a group who cling to religion, in order to form cohesion and mobility of members toward the improvement of the group’s condition. He adds that “the elements of a tradition that are emphasised by a struggling group often provide implicit justification for the use of violent force.” This has arguably been the case in the Syrian civil war, whereby rather than being a driving factor, inter-religious tensions can more accurately be described as markers of identity that have been accentuated by competing socioeconomic interests. Alawites are arguably no longer penalised for, what some deem controversial beliefs and practices, but now for their affiliations with the regime who favour them in their ranks as opposed to Sunnis, for example. New hierarchies are formed around what seems to be religious identity, but it is actually class identities. In this way religion is almost symbolic, it is an identity marker in the sense that meaning is attached to a person’s religion. Which side is taken in the civil war is assumed to be known simply by what religious group one belongs to.
Rahima points to a framework of complex dynamics of class and sect for explaining the Syrian civil war, rather than the usual narratives revolving around religion politics and nationalism. She claims that:
each member of the lower class aspires to elevate economically, but rationalizes his/her ambition by an identity they belong to – that identity being religious affiliation in the case of Syria.
Religion is described as the “shell” of a conflict and socioeconomic inequality is the “core”. If we think back to the initial spark of the Syrian civil war with the arrest of the students, religion is not a feature, social injustice is more evident. Arguably, civil war exacerbates socioeconomic disparity even further. Members of a desperate and jobless population are more likely to take up arms having little to lose and a chance of gains through violent political struggle. So, in conflicts such as the Syrian civil war, divisions seem to be on religious fault lines, when in actual fact they are more significantly class identities and class tensions. Inter-religious tensions therefore do exist but are more of a disguise or “shell” for the socioeconomic issues which are a key underlying driving force of the Syrian civil war.
How then do we explain the rise of ISIS? ISIS has arguably been a significant driving force of the Syrian civil war and it is useful to consider here exactly what role religion plays in such a significant faction of the armed struggle against the regime. Although much of their influence and significance in the conflict has subsided more recently, at their prime, ISIS conquered large parts of Syria, as well as Iraq, leaving death and destruction in their path. Their influence over the region has since declined, however in 2015 ISIS had control over vast region of Syrian territory including major cities such as Aleppo and Mosul. Their hyper violent nature meant that they were a key driver of the Syrian civil war.
ISIS arguably does not live up to its name in that its actions, in many ways, cannot be considered truly ‘Islamic’. Their brutality arguably oversteps the marker for religious justification of their actions to the point where even Al Qeada, architects of 9/11, have disavowed them. Other than the argument that their interpretation of “jihad”, as inciting of violence, is skewed given the peaceful nature of the majority of the 1.8 billion Muslims on the planet, it can be further argued that other characterisations of ISIS capture their essence in a better way than pointing to religion. There is no denying their allegiance to a radical religious ideology that differs greatly from the Alawites, this inter-religious tension is not the most significant element driving their violence. For example, the nature of their activity, especially their treatment of women, suggests an underlying violent masculinity that is not necessarily linked to religion. ISIS deploys sexual violence for example and gender specific terror, such as rape and enslavement, which has been brutal enough to gain worldwide attention, from the likes of Obama for example. Religion is merely a tool for achieving a broader (masculine fuelled) agenda with the final aim of removing the Assad regime. It is arguably this agenda that was driving the Syrian civil war, as opposed to inter-religious tensions.
There is also arguably an ethnic element to the Syrian civil war that should be explored. The Kurds have arguably used the civil war for their own agenda and carved out a large section of land in North Eastern Syria. They have been fighting ISIS, and more recently, gaining autonomous ground. It is noteworthy that, both ISIS and Kurdish groups are made up of Sunni Muslims yet they fought each other, demonstrating inter-ethnic, rather than inter-religious, tensions as a significant driving force of the last four years or so of the Syrian civil war. Syria’s Kurds make up around 10% of the population. “For most of their history, Kurdish political formations have run up against the precepts of Arab nationalism.” With their different language and customs, they are often seen as a threat to the project of Arab unity. Kurdish political activity, although covertly existent, is officially banned by Article 8 of the Syrian constitution which outlaws all political parties but the Baath party and its affiliations. Among other things, they seek cultural freedom and autonomy and have a long history of struggling for such freedom. Even though the Kurds in Syria are predominantly Sunni Muslims, arguably, the toppling of the Assad regime is in their geo-political, as opposed to religious, interests.
Foreign interests have also played a role in the Syrian civil war, and arguably have not been religiously motivated in doing so. Foreign involvement in Syria during the course of the civil war can be described as a complex network of alliances and rivalries, ones which have very little to do with religion. The most significant foreign actors at play are arguably the US, and Russia, the latter of which has “most prominently provided a diplomatic shield for the Syrian state and bolstered it with arms supplies.” The US has arguably played a similar role but instead has propped up the opposition forces against the Assad regime. The supply of arms is perhaps the most significant for driving the escalation of the Syrian civil war given that such an act inevitably escalates violence to a point that inter-religious tensions, on their own, would not have reached. Furthermore, having such equal but opposing forces arguably prolongs the war by adding another dimension of rivalry: that of the US and Russia.
Other actors are also noteworthy. Turkey, for example, has been implicated for covertly supporting rebel groups, including ISIS, fighting against the Assad regime. This may have been a show of Sunni solidarity in part, but arguably Turkey had a great many vested interests which explain its involvement in the civil war better than religious motives. Curtailing growing Kurdish influence in the region was one interest and supporting western endeavours to topple the regime with the hope of reciprocation of such support was another. The example of Turkey’s intervention highlights further the power politics at play in the region. Such politics seem rarely to be religiously driven in the sense that sides were not picked based on religion, but on self-serving interests. This is also the case with Russian intervention. The Russian state does not have a strong sense of religious affiliation or identity, instead, its position stems partly from a long-standing fear of western-led intervention, and also partly from material and geopolitical value of the region. Foreign interventions were therefore rarely religiously motivated and have significantly driven the Syrian civil war in terms of escalating and prolonging the violence.
In conclusion, what is arguably most striking about the Syrian civil war is its complexity of actors, motives, allegiances and rivalries, which goes to show that religion is just one factor out of a great many at play. Arguably, it only tells a partial story and on its own does not explain the Syrian civil war fully. Inter-religious tensions have been evident throughout the Syrian civil war but claiming that the conflict is driven by these religious elements is an over statement. It can be said that old rivalries do still exist but arguably, rather than driving the Syrian civil war such rivalries have been accentuated by it. Not only are they shaped by other factors, inter-religious tensions are a red herring when it comes to the Syrian civil war in that if overestimated, prevents us from arriving at a complete understanding of the conflict. This essay has offered more significant explanations of the drivers of inter-religious tensions. As the civil war evolved so too did the role of inter-religious tensions. Arguably, initially as a driving force, religion did play the role of being an identity marker of socio-economic class in Syria. Later, as ISIS emerged as a key player in the conflict religion became a justification for terror and hyped violence. As the civil war evolved further over time other driving factors emerged such as the Kurdish in the North-East and foreign interventions. In all cases, inter-religious tensions are just one, usually underlying, dimension and even then their significance are questionable. On their own, inter-religious tensions fail to fully explain the Syrian civil war, and on their own, do not drive the conflict.
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 Elizabeth. O’Bagy, “Middle East security report 9: The free Syrian army.” Institute for the Study of War (2013): 10.
 Statistics from U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, “The World Fact Book”, https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/fields/2122.html (accessed May 2017).
 Elizabeth. O’Bagy, “Middle East security report 9: The free Syrian army.” Institute for the Study of War (2013): 9.
 Ibid, 10.
 Aslam. Farouk-Alli, “Sectarianism in Alawi Syria: Exploring the Paradoxes of Politics and Religion.” Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs 34, no. 3 (2014): 210.
 Aslam. Farouk-Alli, “Sectarianism in Alawi Syria: Exploring the Paradoxes of Politics and Religion.” Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs 34, no. 3 (2014): 211.
 Ibid, 217.
 Eyal. Zisser, “Syria, the Ba ‘th Regime and the Islamic Movement: Stepping on a New Path?.” The Muslim World 95, no. 1 (2005): 45
 Oded. Haklai, “A minority rule over a hostile majority: The case of Syria.” Nationalism and Ethnic Politics 6, no. 3 (2000): 35
 Mahmud A. Faksh, “The Alawi community of Syria: A new dominant political force.” Middle Eastern Studies 20, no. 2 (1984): 140-141.
 Eyal. Zisser, “Syria, the Ba ‘th Regime and the Islamic Movement: Stepping on a New Path?.” The Muslim World 95, no. 1 (2005): 54.
 Oded. Haklai, “A minority rule over a hostile majority: The case of Syria.” Nationalism and Ethnic Politics 6, no. 3 (2000): 35.
 Jeffrey R. Seul, “Ours is the way of god’: Religion, identity, and intergroup conflict.” Journal of peace research 36, no. 5 (1999): 553.
 Ibid 562
 Jeffrey R. Seul, “Ours is the way of god’: Religion, identity, and intergroup conflict.” Journal of peace research 36, no. 5 (1999): 563
 Badr Eddin. Rahimah, “The Class Oriented Rationale: Uncovering the Sources of the Syrian Civil War.” The Muslim World 106, no. 1 (2016): 171.
 Ibid, 176.
 Ibid, 178.
 The Atlantic, “What ISIS really want”, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/03/what-isis-really-wants/384980/ (accessed May 2017).
 Akil N. Awan, “Introduction” in Jihadism Transformed: Al-Qaeda and Islamic State’s global battle of ideas, edited by Simon Staffell and Akil N. Awan. (London : Hurst & Company, 2016) 12-13.
 Ariel I. Ahram, “Sexual Violence and the Making of ISIS.” Survival 57, no. 3 (2015): 57.
 Middle East Research and Information Project, “The Evolution of Kurdish politics in Syria”, http://www.merip.org/mero/mero083111?utm_source=twitterfeed&utm_medium=twitter (accessed May 2017)
 Middle East Research and Information Project, “The Evolution of Kurdish politics in Syria”, http://www.merip.org/mero/mero083111?utm_source=twitterfeed&utm_medium=twitter (accessed May 2017).
 Roy. Allison, “Russia and Syria: explaining alignment with a regime in crisis.” International Affairs 89, no. 4 (2003): 795.
 Roy. Allison, “Russia and Syria: explaining alignment with a regime in crisis.” International Affairs 89, no. 4 (2003): 796.