THE BLOG

Syria's Sunni vs. Shia Myth

A recent poll on Al Jazeera Arabic's website asked who was responsible for turning the Syrian revolution into a sectarian conflict: the Sunnis or the Shi'a? Around 95% of those who voted blamed the deterioration on the Shi'a.

Although this result is shocking in its own right, what I find more confounding is the question itself. One would expect of a reputable Arab news channel not to play the sectarian game and reduce the conflict in Syria to a simplistic Sunni v Shi'a equation.

In unspoken recognition of this, Al Jazeera quietly changed the options to "the regime and its allies" or "the jihadists," though this did not go unnoticed on social media.

And it is not just Al Jazeera that has been guilty of this intellectual folly and dangerous reductionism. Many segments of the Arab and the international media have been occupied with the supposedly growing clash between Sunni and Shi'a Islam.

"The Syrian civil war is setting off a contagious sectarian conflict beyond the country's borders," the New York Times informs us. In an article for the Sunday Independent, veteran British war correspondent Robert Fisk warned that the region was now in the grips of a "titanic Islamic struggle" between Sunnis and Shi'a which "now dwarfs the Arab revolutions."

I am well aware of the Sunni-Shi'a schism which dates back to the very dawn of Islam. I also recognize that a growing number of those involved in the Syrian conflict, especially foreign volunteers (both Sunni and the smaller number of Shi'a jihadists), increasingly see the conflict in such glaring sectarian terms.

However, the reality of the situation is that the civil war in Syria, though it has escalated tremendously, remains essentially a clash between an authoritarian, ruthless leadership and its associated elite (as well as those who feared instability) and the masses tired of bowing their heads.

The fact that Bashar al-Assad is an Alawite does not make Syria an "Alawite regime," as some contend. There are those who point to how the army's top brass is dominated by career Alawite officers.

But this is partly a legacy of the divide and rule of the French mandate with its view that the Alawites were the only "warlike race" in Syria, as well as the fact that the military is often one of the few means for the marginalized to get ahead. In addition, fearing how some Sunnis viewed his ascent to power, Hafez al-Assad, the current president's father, surrounded himself with some of the loyalist of these Alawite officers.

In addition, most of the regime and the Syrian civilian elite which profits from it are Sunnis. Meanwhile, the bulk of the Alawite population still festers in poverty and marginalization -- and many of these are struggling against the regime.

Over and above this, influential segments of the Alawite intelligentsia are on the side of the opposition, such as the courageous journalist and writer Samar Yazbek, who was jailed, discredited and persecuted for her opposition. "My heart is broken and I'll never be at peace again, but I will not stop fighting Assad's regime, no matter what the post-Assad future holds," she wrote defiantly.

More fundamentally, the state's official ideology is pan-Arabist, secular Ba'athism, which though authoritarian is, in principle, blind to ethnicity and religion. Appropriately enough, the original Ba'ath party was established by a Christian (Michel Aflaq), a Sunni (Salah al-Din al-Bitar) and an Alawite (Zaki al-Arsuzi).

This makes secular Syria's alliance with theocratic Iran in recent years all the more puzzling. There are those who attribute it to some form of Shi'a solidarity or even a sinister Shi'a plot to subvert the Sunni order. But the Syria-Iran axis can be explained simply -- and better -- using classical geopolitics.

When the Syrian and Iranian regimes first became strategic allies during the Iran-Iraq war, it was more out of a shared opposition towards Iraq than any admiration for each other. More recently, the two countries' increasing isolation, as well as western hostility towards them, brought them ever closer, as did their common animosity towards the United States and Israel.

However, under less desperate circumstances the two regimes would have likely been enemies. Their ideologies and political visions are mutual anathema, and as for any supposed Shi'a solidarity, Iranians, like Sunnis, traditionally perceive Alawites as heretics.

In fact, it wasn't until Hafez al-Assad became president that any real effort was made to integrate Alawites into the wider Shi'a community. Seeking recognition for his sect, the former Syrian president, who seized power in a 1970 coup, managed to persuade Musa Sadr, an Iranian-Lebanese cleric, to issue a fatwa recognizing Alawites as Shi'a.

What about Hezbollah, some might ask? Doesn't its close ties with Syria and the fact that it is fighting on the side of the regime betray this sectarianism?

No, not really. If anything, it reveals careful and cynical political calculations. Hezbollah does not want to lose one of its major backers, while the Assad regime needs all the firepower it can muster to survive.

Those who suspect the Assad regime of harboring overpowering sympathies for the Shi'a of Lebanon need only rewind to 1976. In this early stage of the Lebanese civil war, Syria intervened not on the side of the Shi'a but on the side of the Maronites to push back the advancing PLO-Lebanese National Movement forces, and sat by and did nothing when Israel invaded the Shi'a-dominated south of Lebanon. Hafez al-Assad even allegedly helped install the Maronite Elias Sarkis as president.

Despite all this evidence to the contrary, some insist on the Sunni-Shi'a dimension. But this folly has potentially very serious consequences. If the sectarian idea gains further traction, then it will likely tear the country apart once the Assad regime is defeated, derailing future efforts to rebuild.

More ominously, once the guns fall silent, the hapless Alawite minority could pay a heavy price for this mythical clash if the Sunni majority decide to blame them collectively for Assad's abuses, conveniently forgetting the fact that most of the regime is Sunni.

Beyond Syria's borders, if the conflict continues to be viewed through the Sunni-Shi'a prism, there is the danger that it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy and ignite the flames of sectarianism across the region.

The current conflict in Syria (and the tensions in the wider Middle East) are not about some ancient feud regarding the status of Ali, but were and remain essentially a battle between the disenfranchised population and the entrenched and corrupt establishment.

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