Sectarianism and the Syrian Uprising
By Edith Szanto
Introduction ............................................................................................................................. - 1 - Background of the Uprising .................................................................................................... - 1 - Sectarianism and the Uprising ................................................................................................ - 3 - The Shrine of Sayyida Zaynab ................................................................................................ - 5 - Conclusion .............................................................................................................................. - 7 - Endnotes .................................................................................................................................. - 8 -
When the Syrian Uprising broke out in mid-March 2011, experts who did not necessarily agree with Bashar al-Asad’s government, but who nevertheless valued stability, warned of sectarian conflict. Supporters of the Uprising dismissed these fears and claimed that patriotism would trump ethnic and sectarian identities. Two years later, sectarianism has indeed emerged as a major, though certainly not the only, issue at stake. Other divides include class differences and rural-urban divides. Generally, I look at the intersection of sectarianism and violence during the current Syrian Uprising, though I will also comment on the impact of other socio-economic schisms. First, I will provide an overview of the Syrian population and explain the main religious alliances before 2011. Secondly, I will recount the history of sectarianism in Syria starting with the French Mandate. Let me note that although I only look at the twentieth century here, it should be noted that sectarian differences have always existed in the Levant. Thirdly, I draw
attention to the case of Twelver Shi‘is, many of whom lived in the Syrian shrine-town of Sayyida Zaynab merely fifteen kilometers south of Damascus. My talk concludes by noting a couple of scenarios regarding how sectarianism may affect the future of Syria.
Background of the Uprising
The economic conditions which frame the Urpising spring from the fact that Rural Syria was hit by a major drought from 2007-10. [As] the peasantry was hit hard, Assad’s inept government exacerbate[ed] matters through mismanagement of agricultural resources and corruption. This prompted a wave of migration from the countryside to the over-crowded cities. Syria, like many Arab states, had witnessed a demographic boom in the 1980s that brought a glut of youth to the labour market that the economy could not accommodate. Just when more jobs were needed, Assad’s reforms actually shrank the labour market further.1
These economic changes further resulted in class divisions, as well as urban-rural divides which in turn affected the Uprising. At a conference on Syria at the University of Denver less than two months ago, the journalist Stephen Starr explicated that in the current Uprising, the “silent majority” consists of middle and upper middle class urban Syrians.2 He notes that while the recent droughts have forced peasants to migrate to poor suburbs, where the protests began, urban Syrians, especially those who benefitted from the state’s economic policies mainly want the Uprising to end. “They don’t care who wins.”3 For them, the Uprising is an obstacle and a nuisance. It hinders them from travelling outside Damascus because the proliferation of checkpoints has made travelling time-consuming and taxing. As the state’s economy shrank, the Ba‘ath Party and the army’s funding decreased, the influence of the ruling party lessened. At the same time, Bashar al-Asad broke with his father’s dedication to support Shi‘ism and secularism and allowed, maybe even encouraged, conservative Sunnism to flourish. For example, the previously banned conservative Sunni women’s
Qubaysiyyat group was permitted to spread by 2006. This trend towards piety in Syria mirrors similar developments across the region. Thomas Pierret from the University of Edinburgh attributes the fact that the first demonstrations made Sunni references and spatially extended from mosques to this growing piety.4 Yet, Pierret emphasizes that even though pious language and symbolism pervaded these early demonstrations, they cannot be labeled as “Islamist” because they did not articulate an Islamist agenda. Nevertheless, since then, there has been a proliferation of militias, some of which are more and some of which are less Islamist in their demands. In part, Pierret blames the lack of US and European support for the opposition for the growing popularity of Islamists.
Currently, Syria consists of 70% Arab Sunnis, 15% Alawis, 5% Christian, 3% Druze, one percent Isma‘ili Shi‘is, and one percent Twelver Shi‘is.5 There are 10% Kurds, who are mainly Sunni but do not necessarily support Arab Sunnis. In the past, Isma‘ilis have sided with Sunnis, while Alawis have sided with Twelver Shi‘is. These alliances were already visible during riots around Homs in 2005. While Christians are more likely to live in the major cities, Damascus and Aleppo, the Druze, Alawis, and Isma‘ilis are much more likely to live in the country-side.6 These divides complicate alliances and common perceptions. Not all minorities have sided with the Syrian government: most notably, Isma‘ilis have joined the opposition, while many city dwelling Christians simply want the conflict to end so that they may continue with their lives.
Sectarianism and the Uprising
While religious differences have always played a role in the Levant, it was the French who institutionalized these divisions in the twentieth century. The French used these divisions in order to justify their rule by portraying themselves as the protectors of minorities, especially Maronite Christians. To protect Maronites, they created Lebanon in 1920, and by 1922, they had divided Syria into four distinct states: the state of Damascus, the state of Aleppo, Jabal Druze in the south, and an Alawite state on the coast. In 1924, the French bureaucratically reunited the state of Damascus and the state of Aleppo, which in effect isolated the Druze and the Alawis from national politics and… ensured that whatever Syrian political life might exist would be dominated by a propertied and conservative class of urban Sunni Muslims. The destructive political instability that came to characterize Syria after independence in 1946 must be traced, in part, to the institutionalized fragmentation practiced by the French mandate authorities.7 Concurrently, the French founded a military academy, which became a way for marginalized ethnic groups and the poor to enter political life. The same happened in Egypt and -3-
Iraq. It was through the military that the Alawi Hafez al-Asad and his associates were able to rise above their modest origins, through the ranks of the armed forces, and finally take over the government. Moreover, the religious and political marginalization of Alawis also explains why they heralded the secular ideology of the Ba‘ath party, which was founded by a Christian, a Sunni – and notably an Alawi, Zaki al-Arsuzi. Under the Ba’ath, post 1963, Hafez al-Asad promoted both ethnic and religious minorities. For instance, he instituted Ahmad Kuftaro, a Kurd, as the grand mufti of Syria. Kuftaro proved his loyalty to Asad when he stood up to the urban Sunni Arab religious elites of Damascus and backed by backing the regime during the 1970s when the Muslim Brotherhood attempted to instigate rebellions. This alliance between Kuftaro and Asad complicates the presumption of simplistic Alawi-Sunni cleavages. Kuftaro was not the only Muslim leader who supported Hafez al-Asad in the 1970s. In 1974, the Lebanese Shi‘i cleric Musa al-Sadr gave a fatwa which declared Alawis Shi‘is. This fatwa marked the beginning of the alliance between Twelver Shi‘is and Alawis. At the same time, it positioned Isma‘ilis in opposition to Alawis and aligned Isma‘ilis with Sunnis. Again, this complicates the assumption that all minorities back the Alawi Syrian regime. As in Lebanon, sectarian divisions have made Syria receptive to external influences. For instance, Saudi Arabia has and continues to fund Sunni militias, while Iran funds Shi‘i militias (including Alawi ones). Before the rise of Saudi Arabia and Iran, it was the Soviet Union and the United States which funded and armed their respective allies in the Middle East during the Cold War. Proxy-wars, in other words, have always played a role in the region. At the same time, this does not mean that all trouble-makers come from the outside, as the Syrian regime claims these days. Moreover, as Thomas Pierret notes, the funding which Saudi Arabia and the
other Gulf countries are currently channeling to the rebels are rather minimal, which has forced the rebels to come up with creative solutions.8 Of course, this raises questions: What constitutes minimal funding? And from the rebels’ point of view, how much would be enough? In terms of outside influences, there are Iran and Saudi Arabia. Bashar’s father’s friends, China and Russia, continue to support the regime. In terms of the West, France is currently the only vocal supporter of the rebel forces. One may well deduce that France is counting on the regime to fall and wants to ensure its continued political and economic interests in its former colony. As for the United States and Germany, they have cautioned against selling weapons to the rebels, which puts them in an interesting position. Let me elaborate: The Nusra Front is one of the most controversial Islamist groups which has sprung up over the last year. Three months ago, the United States State Department blacklisted the Nusra Front. “Designating al-Nusra as a terrorist group means US authorities can freeze any assets the group or its members have in US jurisdictions. It also prohibits US citizens from giving it any material support.”9 Through its ban, the US echoes the language of the Syrian government which calls the rebels terrorists. On the one hand, it is ironic that they use the same terminology. On the other hand, it reveals the US’ intention not to get involved militarily.
The Shrine of Sayyida Zaynab
Personally, I am particularly interested in the shrine-town of Sayyida Zaynab. It was the field-site for my doctoral research from 2007 to 2010. Located around 15 kilometers south of Damascus, the town is named after the saint buried at its center: Sayyida Zaynab, the
granddaughter of Prophet Muhammad, daughter of Fatima and the first Shi‘i Imam ‘Ali. There is another shrine that claims to hold the remains of Sayyida Zaynab in Cairo and it is mainly
Sunnis who visit her there, while in Syria her shrine was popular among Twelver Shi‘is. Zaynab’s shrine rose to prominence in the 1970s when it became difficult for devotees to visit the Iraqi shrine-towns of Najaf and Karbala, where Zaynab’s father and brothers are buried. Until 1948 when Palestinian refugees were settled in the area, the shrine stood in the midst of olive groves. Less than two decades later, internally displaced Syrians from the Golan Heights came and doubled the size of the shrine-town. From the early 1970s, Iraqi Shi‘is fleeing violence in the Iraqi shrine-city of Karbala took refuge in Sayyida Zaynab. In 1973, the exiled Iraqi Ayatollah Hasan Shirazi built the first Shi‘i seminary roughly 200 meters north of the shrine.10 When the Syrian Uprising intensified in Sayyida Zaynab in 2012, the first cleric who was shot and killed was the representative of Hasan Shirazi’s seminary.11 After 2003, waves of Iraqi refugees flooded the town. Many stayed for a couple of years and attended seminary classes. Others wanted to live near the shrine in order to benefit from Zaynab’s healing powers, before they moved on. Aside from Iraqis, Palestinians, and Golani Syrian, rural elderly Iranians were a common sight in Sayyida Zaynab before the Uprising. They came on pilgrimage seeking Sayyida
Zaynab’s blessings and combined their visits with shopping tours, as Syria offered relatively affordable goods. Other seasonal visitors included Shi‘is from the Gulf countries who sought respite from the summer heat and combined their vacations with religious summer classes for their children. All of this changed with the Syrian Uprising. It is difficult to tell what happened exactly. However, it is clear that that Sunnis and Shi‘is have turned on one another. Even Iraqi Sunnis and Iraqi Shi‘is have joined opposing sides in Syria. As the violence increased, Shi‘is began to leave. In the spring of 2012, Sunni rebels captured Iranian visitors (though some insisted they
were fighters).12 Since then, the number of Shi‘is has dwindled. Most Iraqi refugees in Syria have left – some have gone back to Iraq, others have tried to smuggle their way into Europe. On the one hand, they left because of generalized violence. On the other hand, many reported that they were individually threatened and told to leave, similarly to the way the Jaysh al-Mahdi has dealt with Sunnis and former Ba‘ath Party members in Baghdad.13 Also, the shrine itself was hit by car bombs at least twice in 2012: once in June and again in October.14 In the vicinity of Sayyida Zaynab, there are several more Palestinian camps. In
Yarmouk, located between the shrine-town and Damascus, shootings and fighting occurred regularly throughout 2012. Some Palestinians have sided with the government. Others have sided with the rebels. Last month, rebels hung two Palestinians in public for aiding the regime.15 This illustrates how divided the Palestinian community is in Syria.
Unfortunately, I cannot offer solutions. Whether or not the US or others get involved, I am afraid the killings will continue. Syria expert, Joshua Landis offers three possible scenarios: the Lebanon model, the Iraq model, and the Turkish model. Both the Iraqi and the Lebanese models predict a prolonged civil war before a power-sharing arrangement can be reached. The Turkish model predicts ethnic cleansing. Bashar al-Asad cannot simply let go of power, because similarly to some other minorities in the Middle East, the Alawis have everything to lose. This means there will be more violence.16 When will it likely end? According to historian Juan Cole, the regime will only fall if the capital rises.17 However, given that the Damascene upper and middle classes have much to lose should they rise up, it is difficult to say when and how that will happen – if at all.
Christopher Phillips, “Syria’s Bloody Arab Spring’ After the Arab Spring: Power Shift in the Middle East?” (London: LSE IDEAS Special Report, May 2012), 2. 2 “The Assad Regime & the Evolving Dynamics of the Opposition,” University of Denver, 23 January 2013 <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EYB3cv_TOmY&noredirect=1> (accessed 10 March 2013). 3 Ibid. 4 Ibid. 5 “Library of Congress Country Studies: Syria Religious Life,” April 1987 <http://lcweb2.loc.gov/cgibin/query/r?frd/cstdy:@field(DOCID+sy0044)> (accessed 10 March 2013); “What Would a Post-Assad Syria Look Like?” University of Denver, 23 January 2013 <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B_ykq4J4bPM> (accessed 10 March 2013). 6 “The Assad Regime & the Evolving Dynamics of the Opposition.” 7 William Cleveland and Martin Bunton, A History of the Modern Middle East, 4th edition (Philadelphia: Westview Press, 2009), 222. 8 “The Assad Regime & the Evolving Dynamics of the Opposition.” 9 “US blacklists Syrian rebel group al-Nusra,” Al-Jazeera, 11 December 2012 <http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2012/12/2012121117048117723.html> (accessed 9 March 2013). 10 Sabrina Mervin, “Sayyida Zaynab, Banlieue de Damas ou nouvelle ville sainte chiite? (Sayyida Zaynab, a suburb of Damascus or a new Shiite holy city?)” in Cahiers d’Etudes sur la Mediterranée Orientale et le Monde TurcoIranien: Arabes et Iraniens, vol. 22 (1996), 149-162. Electronic document, <http://cemoti.revues.org/document138.html> (accessed 23 March 2009). 11 “Head of Hawza e Zainabia Martyred By Target Killing in Syria,” Jafrian News, 15 April 2012 <http://jafrianews.com/2012/04/16/head-of-hawza-e-zainabia-martyred-by-target-killing-in-syria/> (accessed 20 April 2012). 12 The Iranian pilgrims were later released. “Fate of 18 Iranian citizens abducted in Syria remains unknown,” Press TV <http://www.presstv.ir/detail/229787.html> (accessed 21 March, 2011); Babak Dehghanpisheh, “Iranian pilgrims kidnapped in Syrian capital as fighting flares anew,” Washington Post, 4 August 2012 <http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/iranian-pilgrims-kidnapped-in-syrian-capital-as-fightingflares-anew/2012/08/04/8a2ed31e-de61-11e1-9ff9-1dcd8858ad02_story.html> (accessed 24 August 2012). 13 Lara Jakes, “Iraqi refugees flee Syria to avoid sectarian revenge,” Times of Israel, 31 July 2012 <http://www.timesofisrael.com/iraqi-refugees-flee-syria-to-avoid-sectarian-revenge/> (accessed 24 August 2012); Ryan Villarreal, “Refugees, Twice: Iraqis in Syria Displaced Again by Conflict,” International Business Times, 26 July 2012 <http://www.ibtimes.com/articles/367226/20120726/syria-iraq-refugee-un-conflict-unhcr-civil.htm> (accessed 24 August 2012). 14 “Bomb attack targeting Syrian holy shrine leaves 14 people wounded,” Press TV, 14 June 2012 <http://www.presstv.ir/detail/2012/06/14/246193/car-bomb-hits-holy-shrine-in-damascus/> (accessed 24 August 2012); “Syria jets bomb rebel strongholds in Damascus and north,” BBC News, 31 October 2012 <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-20151424> (accessed 10 March 2013). 15 “Syrian rebels hang two ‘collaborators,’” Al-Akhbar English, 3 March 2013 <http://english.alakhbar.com/node/15131> (accessed 10 March 2013). 16 “What Would a Post-Assad Syria Look Like?” 17 “Syria and the US: The complicity of silence,” Al-Jazeera, 30 January 2013 <http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/empire/2013/01/20131278582910669.html> (accessed 10 March 2013).