Sectarianism not solely to blame for the conflict in Syria
Describing Syria’s four-year-old civil war as simply a ‘sectarian’ conflict driven by ancient hatreds between rival ethnic and religious groups is not accurate, claims a leading expert on the Middle East.
Writing in the journal Third World Quarterly, Christopher Phillips of Queen Mary, University of London, outlines the other factors – including class, ideology and other non-sect and non-state ties – which have also contributed to a conflict which has so far left over 200,000 dead.
Phillips writes: “Sectarianism has been a feature from the beginning, whether explicitly in the form of massacres, sexual violence, ethnic cleansing and inflammatory language or implicitly through the regime and the opposition accusing each other of instrumentalising confessional identity. However, politicised sect is but one fault line of many and commentators are wrong to characterise Syria as a ‘sectarian war’.”
‘Semi-sectarian’, Phillips suggests, is a more accurate description.
After tracing the history of Syria’s people, politics and identities from the country’s birth as a French mandate after the First World War through to today’s war-torn state, Phillips concludes that political identity in Syria is more complex than a simplified ‘“ancient hatreds” narrative’ would suggest.
Sect identities have been consciously developed alongside a Syrian national identity for generations, Phillips notes, making the current politicisation of sectarian identity more a result of recent developments than a reawakening of ‘dormant’ ancient allegiances. The country’s elites, including the Assads, have ‘deliberately and subconsciously’ encouraged sectarianism as a ruling strategy. But, Phillips observes, ‘this has occurred alongside a successful attempt to promote a sense of Syrian national identity that has been deliberately ambiguous.’
He notes: “Syrians, like most people, have multiple layers of identities. That some at times are motivated by sect, others by nation, and some by region, ideology, tribe and class should therefore not surprise us, but the varying degrees of sectarianism perhaps reflect the particularly fuzzy nature of Syria’s identity development.”
But why do these sub-state identities mobilise into violence? While social, economic and political factors as well as elite manipulations all play a part, Phillips concludes that the extent of sectarian violence in a given region can be attributed to short-term structural changes and how the elites react to them.
He writes: “Violence has been pronounced in regions facing considerable structural change, either state collapse or a serious threat to the regime. That only some of these areas have witnessed sectarian attacks and ethnic cleansing is down to the local elites in control, with some regime and rebel actors favouring sectarianism.” In some areas at least, a Syrian national identity remains robust – but Phillips warns this is unlikely to remain the case as the war drags on and the state collapses further into chaos.
Sectarianism and conflict in Syria
Third World Quarterly
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