How Sectarianism Can Help Explain the Syrian War

The Syrian war is not a clean-cut sectarian conflict as some would suggest. However, a study of sectarian trends and dynamics can illuminate some overlooked aspects of the war, says Fabrice Balanche of Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

Written by Hashem Osseiran Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
A map of Syria's sectarian and ethnic distribution in 2011. Fabrice Balanche & Mary Kalbach Horan, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy

BEIRUT – The Syrian war has often been cast as a sectarian conflict between a Sunni majority population and a minority Shiite ruling elite. However, sectarianism is only one component of a multi-faceted conflict that is also partially driven by socio-economic grievances, according to Fabrice Balanche, a visiting fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

That being said, understanding the conflict solely through the lens of its socio-economic dimensions would overlook critical trends that can only be fully understood through an evaluation of sectarian dynamics. For example, the geography of early protests, the Syrian government’s ability to mobilize minorities and the limits of resistance against President Bashar al-Assad, Balanche said.

Syria Deeply spoke to Balanche, who recently authored a new study titled “Sectarianism in Syria’s Civil War,” about the limits of the sectarian frame, its potential for explanation and how the conflict has altered sectarian identities.

Syria Deeply: By focusing on sectarian dynamics, do we risk overlooking socio-economic or political factors that could also help explain the roots and causes of the Syrian conflict?

Fabrice Balanche: The Syrian conflict is not only sectarian. It should not be understood solely as a war between Shiites and Sunnis. It is also a class conflict between a wealthy ruling elite and marginalized communities. This is why early protests in 2011 started in peripheral areas that were neglected by the state for years.

A good example that shows that the conflict is not purely sectarian is that a lot of Sunni Syrian businessmen were opposed to the early demonstrations because they thought that this was harming the Syrian economy. So not all Sunnis were supportive of the revolution. Some of them, especially the bourgeoisie, wanted Assad to crack down more forcefully on the opposition. In this sense, the war is not a clean-cut sectarian conflict, as some people would like to make it seem. But the issue of sectarianism does help us look at things that have been overlooked when looking just at the socio-economic side of the conflict.

Syria Deeply: What are some of the things it can help explain?

Balanche: One thing sectarianism can help us understand is the early geography of protest in Syria. For example, you had significant protests in Sunni neighborhoods in Daraa, but in nearby Suwayda, there weren’t as many protests because the Druze community was generally loyal to the regime. You also had virtually no protests in Alawite neighborhoods in Homs or Latakia. Nor were there any demonstrations in the Christian parts of Aleppo, unless they were in support of the government. Meanwhile, Sunni areas were hotbeds for protest.

More importantly, it can help us understand one of the reasons why the revolution did not succeed: The revolt was mostly confined within the Sunni Arab community of Syria. By failing to incorporate other ethno-sectarian groups such as the Christians, the Druze, the Alawites or the Kurds, the opposition inadvertently pushed these groups into the lap of the Syrian government. It basically gave Damascus a stronger mobilization capacity. The government could reach out to these minorities and tell them the state will protect them from the “terrorists” or the “Islamists.”

Syria Deeply: Are the sectarian trends you observe in Syria relatively modern or are they more historically rooted?

Balanche: Sectarianism in Syria is not new. You can find traces of it from an inherited Ottoman millet system. In this sense, it’s historically rooted, of course. For example, sectarianism is embedded in the country’s political structure. Even though the Baathist system of governance is avowedly secular, administrative appointments and the distribution of administrative districts often privilege certain sects over others. Even military appointments and military promotions often privileged Alawite officers over Sunnis officers, for example. Also, in lower-class communities, inter-religious or inter-sectarian marriage is not extremely common. It is more common in higher social classes, but not among the poor.

Infographic showing changes in Syria’s sectarian distribution between 2011 and 2017. (Fabrice Balanche & Mary Kalbach Horan, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy)

Syria Deeply: Did the conflict harden these sectarian identities?

Balanche: Of course. The conflict reinforced people’s sectarian identity. You can see that in the proliferation of sectarian militias across the country. Here we are not just talking about Shiite militias like Hezbollah and Iranian-backed proxies, but also Christian militias in places like Wadi al-Nasara between Homs and Tartus and Ismaili militias in places like Salamiyah. You did not have these sectarian militias before the war.

Furthermore, the conflict has created more sect-homogeneous territory in places like Idlib and Aleppo, which are now even more predominantly Sunni than before. Because of the lack of trust between communities, many Christians and Alawites would be reluctant to return to these places, which would, in turn, reinforce sectarian differences.

Syria Deeply: Do you think this will translate into a new power structure in Syria?

Balanche: Today, everybody knows that the Baathist ideology is nothing more than a smokescreen. There is going to be a need for a new governance model for Syria because the state is weak and it will be very difficult for the state to come back as it was before 2011. Assad will have to share power with local authorities and different sectarian and tribal groups. We are going to have to wait before we can say definitively how this will translate into a new power structure. Especially because it is going to be difficult to acknowledge a sectarian distribution of power in the Syrian constitution. But even if it is not formally adopted, I think there will be a de facto distribution of power between rival sects.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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