A field commander in the Syrian opposition forces told us that during a recent visit to his hometown in the Hasakah province, his four-wheel drive vehicle suddenly fell into an irrigation canal. He said, “Fortunately, we were able to lift the car out of the canal in less than 45 minutes, otherwise the neighboring townspeople — known for their support of the regime — would have attacked us and killed us.”
“Why are the people of this town in particular still supporting Bashar al-Assad’s regime, two years after the beginning of the revolution?” I asked. “Out of ignorance,” he replied, adding that numerous other towns are still today supporting the regime in Damascus, owing to tribalism.
On the same day, a longtime active opponent of the regime told us how one of his relatives from the village of Maarrat Al-Nuaman died during the recent battles in the city of Raqqa, while serving in the Syrian regime army. The usual explanation we hear as to why so many men are staying in the Syrian regime’s armed forces is either out of fear for their families or due to their ignorance of the situation on the ground, as a result of the information blackout imposed on officers loyal to the regime. But this explanation does not apply to this case, since the family are longtime supporters of the regime and remain so today. “There are a lot of senior Sunni officers who are still in the Syrian army and security institutions,” the man added.
The above examples are only two pieces of evidence from a large pool of proof contradicting the prevailing interpretation about the essence of the current Syrian crisis — invoking that that the war is a sectarian war between the ruling Alawite minority and the rebelling Sunni majority.
News reports and analyses outside Syria refer to the conflict as one between the “ruling Alawite minority and the Sunni popular majority.” This interpretation falls within the scope of a broader understanding of political conflict in the Middle East as a whole, considering that conflicts are arising between the Shiite axis on the one hand — led by Iran and allied with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the Assad regime, and extending to Lebanon with the pro-Iranian Hezbollah — and the Sunni alliance on the other hand — including Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the Syrian Revolution, in alliance with other Sunni groups in Iraq and Lebanon.
Fouad Ajami wrote in The Washington Post [on May 9, 2013], “Alas, it was perhaps optimistic to ever imagine that the fighting between Syria’s Alawite regime and the Sunni-led rebellion would remain within the country’s borders. Syria is at once the pivot and a mirror of the Fertile Crescent, and its sectarian and ethnic fissures reproduce themselves in neighboring Arab states. ”
The increasing sectarian talk about the region, especially regarding the incidents in Syria, is not a mere Orientalized and foreign interpretation of the situation. It has become the language representing an expression of anger, disappointment and the inability to understand the horror of what is happening.
Sectarian talk flared up with the escalation of violence, especially with the series of massacres that were committed against civilians in Jdeidet al-Fadel, Baniyas, al-Bayda and other regions. Many activists and opposition commentators described this as a form of sectarian violence. Moreover, the massacres are considered an attempt at sectarian annihilation in the context of the Assad regime’s alternative project — establishing an Alawite state in the rural and west coastal regions of Syria.
Undoubtedly, the Syrian conflict has sectarian insinuations, and the political scene in the Middle East has increasingly been reduced to the different confessions that the region includes. However, the overuse of the sectarian aspect in this conflict as the main underlying cause will impede us, not only at the level of understanding the general picture of Syrian politics, but also in asking the right questions to comprehend the Syrian conflict.
When the peaceful popular Syrian movement took off, a few weeks after the fall of the Ben Ali and Mubarak regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, respectively, many of those who sympathized with the popular Syrian movements believed that they would witness within a few weeks or months the fall of the Assad family. At the same time, the supporters of the regime — whether Syrians or their allies in Iran or Russia — thought that the Syrian security forces would oppress this social movement in a matter of weeks or maybe months. Didn’t Iran oppress a similar popular movement in 2009 after the disputed elections?
However, the Syrian crisis lasted much longer than anyone expected. We must understand how it is that Assad’s regime still stands its ground. Yet a sectarian interpretation of the conflict does not help us to understand the reason the ruling regime in Damascus has surprisingly persisted for so long. A militant in Deir al-Zour told me, “Until now, the majority of the Syrian army (around 60%) are Sunni.” When I asked him why they are not divided, he gave me two typical answers: the soldiers are isolated from the outside world and do not watch Al-Jazeera, only getting their news from the [semi-official] Addounia TV channel. And their commanders have spoon-fed them that the battle is against jihadists who are backed by foreign conspirators. Here, we can only say that it is hard to believe that the soldiers are really so isolated in the current era of communications, especially two years after the outbreak of the conflict.
The second interpretation is that the soldiers fear their commanders. The man told me how a group of 20 soldiers who were arrested admitted that their commanders watch them like hawks, and may kill them if they learn of any attempts at dissidence. When I asked him about the number of commanders, he said there were three.
But the fear factor alone does not explain why many Sunni soldiers continue to fight alongside Assad’s regime, two years after the outbreak of the revolution. Weren’t there 20 soldiers carrying Kalashnikovs to face the three intimidating commanders who gave the orders?
The most dangerous fallacy in the sectarian interpretation of the conflict lies in visualizing a united “Sunni” identity among the ranks of the opposition, whether politically or militarily. The Syrian political opposition is a disjointed group; it is represented by different political, social, religious, sectarian and even ideological movements. It is true that the majority of opposition fighters are Sunnis, but considering that the armed revolution is Sunni by nature suggests some sort of unity and uniformity. If the armed Syrian revolution were really Sunni, then why do we find multiple armed groups? Why have repeated efforts to unite them failed time after time? Describing the conflict in sectarian terms and considering the armed revolution Sunni are two assumptions that do not help us think about or understand the reasons behind the deep schism among the opposition groups — one that clearly indicates the presence of groups with other affiliations hiding behind the supposed religious unity.
The regime, which represents a minority (as per the sectarian analysis) and must be isolated and defensive, is still behaving as if it is ruling the country and is deploying its forces from north to south and from east to west. As for the opposition militants — who constitute around 80% of the Syrian people, according to the same sectarian perspective — they are supposedly deployed all over the country. However, when consulting the military map, we notice that the opposition militants are acting like local defense committees in the villages and neighborhoods, instead of behaving like a unified powerful entity holding the majority card.
Lately, there has been increasing talk about the regime’s impending withdrawal to an Alawite stronghold. The regime’s alternative plan, which consists of establishing an Alawite state in the rural and west coastal regions, has always been on the table. Many people interpreted the horrendous Baniyas massacres as a prelude to this project. Yet Assad’s regime is still claiming that the aim of the battle is to keep the Syrian territories under its rule. Assad is still giving orders to his forces and making huge logistical efforts to maintain his grip on regions like Qamishli, Hasakah, Deir al-Zour and half of Aleppo. This would be illogical if he really envisioned establishing an Alawite state. We are not trying to deny the sectarian identity of Assad’s rule nor the persisting sectarian violence that usually ends in self-destruction. Yet, we must say that the regime is still fighting to preserve the status quo and to keep Syria the way it was before the March 2011 revolution. It does not want to provide a better place for itself at the negotiation table, as some might believe.
The sectarian interpretation of the Syrian conflict is easy, but far from deep. It does not explain the unexpected success of the regime in its persistence until this stage of the conflict, nor does it justify the constant failure of its opponents.