Sectarianism was never a major factor in the Syrians’ identity. It is being thrust upon it with the rise of Daesh and other terrorist outfits, instigated by the Najdi Bedouins and their tribal allies.
Identity in the Syrian conflict is a topic usually glossed over by academics, especially of Syrian origin, when discussing the outcomes of the ongoing crisis. The thinking that the end of the conflict, militarily or diplomatically, will see all other issues washed away is naive and erroneous. Actors in the Syrian conflict have revived and politicized identity, especially sectarianism, to attract adherents. What are the effects of such politicization on post-conflict Syria?
The politicization of identity came in different forms including hate speeches, communal clashes, targeted kidnappings, as well as internal displacement of people on sectarian bases. Adversely, both sides of the conflict, the regime and some of the opposition (except for the extremists), deny any sectarian label to their struggle against the other. Indeed, the regime refers to opposition militants as terrorists, while opposition members refer to the regime as tyrannical and illegitimate; however, their practices indicate otherwise.
In reality, religious/sectarian tensions have reached alarming proportions throughout the country. A considerable portion of minorities such as the Christians, Druze, ‘Alawis, as well as Sunni loyalists, are supporting the regime in fear of the “Islamist threat” — a threat that is growing at an alarming pace. On the other hand, Islamist factions of the opposition and even non-Islamists supported by Gulf regimes are also using the sectarian card to mobilize supporters inside and outside Syria. So far, they were very successful in doing so by highlighting the ‘Alawi identity of the Asad family, which inflames Sunni sensitivities. Both camps are competing over the largest group: the undecided Syrians, who are living an identity crisis compounding nationalism, religious identity, secular orientations, and pan-Arabism.
The denial of talking about sectarianism as presently the most controversial layer of the Syrian identity is common to political analysts sympathizing with both sides as well. To avoid talking about sectarianism as an issue brought by the conflict saves them the trouble of refuting that this is not a sectarian conflict; and I do agree that it is not. It is a multidimensional conflict where identity politics have been exploited and used as a tactic against the adversary. But does this mean that, after sectarianism was politicized, it did not develop to become a problematic component of the Syrian identity? How is denying the existence of such problem or lumping it with other issues and arguing that it will vanish once the conflict ends the right approach? Rothman and Olson suggest otherwise by arguing that in order to resolve a conflict you have to “truly” address the identity issues ensuing from it.
Sectarianism always present…
Historically, identity politics have been a key component of Levant politics, even if at different capacities. This reality is generated by the diversity of ethnic and religious groups constituting the population. The mountainous regions in this area offered a safe haven for persecuted minorities from the hegemons that ruled the area throughout different eras. The 19th century witnessed events that saw the formation of numerous political entities in what is known today as Lebanon and Syria.
In Lebanon, sectarianism has historically been dealt with as primordial, both by Lebanese and foreign powers. Starting in 1841, the Ottomans designed a political system based on their view of the peoples of Mount Lebanon. They saw the indigenous as almost ontologically tribal, seditious, sectarian, and conflict-seeking. Accordingly, they introduced the first sectarian-based political and administrative system that institutionalized communalism: nizam al-qa’immaqamiyas (the system of the two districts), this set the basis for the Mutassarifiyah system in 1860. In Syria, the Ottomans viewed the Sunni Muslims as their subjects and they dealt with other minorities differently. While they gave the Christians and Jews their rights under the Millet system, they persecuted the ‘Alawis and Isma‘ilis. The Druze were given special status and a form of autonomy.
With the fall of the Ottoman Sultanate after World War I the victorious colonial powers redrew the borders of the region. Grand Syria was geographically divided and the modern states of Lebanon and Syria were created. They also empowered the minorities, for example, they gave the ‘Alawis and Druze their own local governments in Syria, while in Lebanon they gave many privileges to the Catholic Maronites, and helped the Shi‘i community form into an institutionalized sect. Under French administration, the Lebanese wrote their constitution based on a purely primordial view of sectarianism and hence instituted the Lebanese confessional system. These strategies were aimed at weakening the nationalistic pan-Arab sentiments and rhetoric at the time against foreign occupation.
In the postcolonial period, Lebanon and Syria experienced different trajectories when it came to sect-state relations. The political current in Syria was nationalistic and the pan-Arab rhetoric transcended all sectarian differences succeeding in unifying all the Syrians. This, however, was followed by a series of political turmoils that only ended by the accession of Hafez al-Asad to power in 1970. Coming from a minority, the ‘Alawis, al-Asad played smart politics. He fully adopted and propagated the pan-Arab secular rhetoric, established excellent relations with business classes in Damascus and Aleppo, and created an infamous police and intelligence apparatus. Surrounding himself with ‘Alawi and Sunni loyalists, he made sure to silence any objection to his rule, especially sectarian — for instance, the Hama massacre in 1982. Despite the relatively better position of the ‘Alawis under Hafez al-Asad compared to the era of the Ottomans and the French, they were still one of the poorest communities in Syria, and still are today. The priviliges given to his inner circle had more to do with forming a trusted clique than advancing a sectarian cause. Bashar al-Asad however was not as canny as his father in disallowing his competitors to exploit the sectarian card. The discourse used by Islamist forces in Syria today mainly concentrates on this point and uses it to mobilize Sunni Arabians and non-Arabs.
In postcolonial Lebanon, the confessional system started to endure internal and external pressures. The first breakdown of the system happened in 1958 when, disagreeing over policies regarding the Zionist occupation of Palestine, leftist forces (mainly Muslims), and the right wing (mainly Christians) soon clashed. The turmoil ended swiftly with the direct intervention of the Americans on the side of the rightists but it would fester and explode 15 years later in 1975, the year marking the beginning of a bloody civil war in Lebanon. With the war ending in 1990, the Lebanese agreed upon the importance of abolishing sectarianism from their system, making it a clause in their constitution. No advancement beyond this has been made so far and presently the country still suffers from the same divisions — effected mainly by state policies regarding external affairs, including the occupation of Palesitine, Iranian/American rivalry, Hezbullah’s armed resistance to Israel, and lately the Syrian crisis.
Syria following in Lebanon’s footsteps?
In Syria, the regime has benefitted from secular mutant identity to prolong its autocratic rule. The Asads have endorsed, and at many junctions exploited, pan-Arab causes and rhetoric to justify their practices. The secularization policies applied in Syria by the Asads to maintain their rule had a direct impact on the fabric of the Syrian society. The conflict has severely damaged the national identity in Syria as much as it did to the economy and the infrastructure. Although different in some respects, this is very similar to what Lebanon endured throughout its history. Has Syria become a larger version of civil-war Lebanon?
The Syrian conflict has definitely acquired most of the characteristics of a civil war, as described by the United Nations. The two countries, Lebanon and Syria, do share demographical, religious, and geopolitical communalities, which makes the comparison valid, as much as necessary. However the two Levantine countries differ over their approach in dealing with sectarianism.
Lebanon has always had an open and clear dialogue on sectarianism between its communities. Even though this dialogue turned violent at certain junctures in history, it still occurred. It was out in the open and communities were outspoken about their fears and ambitions. In Syria, this did not happen and perhaps it did not need to with sectarianism being a trivial layer of the Syrian identity in the postcolonial period. The recent conflict, however, politicized sectarian differences in the most terrible way imaginable. Moreover, no matter what the outcome of the civil war, the post conflict authority has to deal with the sectarian issue. The question then becomes: will the political mobilization against decade long authoritarian practices lead to an integrative and civic version of national identities or will it give way to populist, sectarian, and radical forms of identity politics? And how will that affect the nature of the state to come?
There is no easy, or definite, answer to this question. Many would even consider posing it at this point in time naive, considering the recent developments, especially the threat of anarchy and terrorism brought by Da‘ish (the “Islamic State”). But even with all this, discussing the post-conflict period is never too early. When the conflict comes to an end, and it will, the devastated country will want to rebuild its political system and social fabric tainted by human tragedy and sectarianism, and I believe for that matter it has a lot to learn from Lebanon.
The confessional system in Lebanon was initially formed to manage the relationships of the nation’s multisectarian society. However, perceiving the sectarian identity as primordial and “unique” compelled the founding fathers in Lebanon to choose a system that enforces sectarian identities over a strong national identity.
Lebanese nationalism has endured severe tests throughout the country’s postcolonial history. On a few occasions, the Lebanese have found security in embracing their national allegiance over sectarian ones. On many other occasions, however, this was not the case. In the absence of a unified view of the country’s national interest, the sects aligned themselves to external countries and projects, which perpetuated sectarian conflict.
The indicators of change do not look promising. The same confessional system persists, and sectarian tensions are extremely high. The Lebanese experience does not bode well as an ideal example of political systems in deeply divided societies. However, with Syria’s civil war turning into a “protracted social conflict,” a type of conflict that Lebanon suffered from for decades, the Lebanese experience can provide invaluable lessons for the Syrians.
The concept of “protracted social conflict” (PSC) was first used by Edward Azar to describe conflicts taking place in deeply divided societies with dynamics generated by internal factors as much as external ones. The triggers for such conflicts are diverse (communal discontent, structural imbalance, state role, and external interference) and they result in in phsychological ossification and a culture of war, institutional deformity, and deterioration of human security.
Indeed, the protraction of the Syrian conflict has severely damaged the Syrian national identity. Sectarianism is becoming increasingly associated with the political consciousness. Loyalty to the sect has overcome that of the nation for some groups. A Sunni sectarian authority that reaches power will have the incentive to act like a hegemon and thereby marginilize minorities. Even if secularists hold power they have to tackle the problems generated from lack of trust between communities, ethnic and sectarian. In that respect, consociationalism à la Libanaise, can offer a temporary solution to guarantee representation of different groups in the state institutions.
A consociational system based on sectarian representation can serve as a transitional phase where trust between communities, and between communities and the state, is re-established, and the social fabric is carefully rebuilt. Otherwise, a permanent consociational system in a sectarian environment has the potential of entrapping political and social life in circles of clientalism, sectarian allegiances, and external patronage; such is the case in Lebanon. While those symptoms are taking hold in Syria today they are not as entrenched.
Subsequently, and following the reconciliation and trust building efforts, integrative policies such as a proportional representation electoral system; a mixed, or non-ethnic, federal structure; an inclusive, centralized unitary state; majoritarian but ethnically neutral, or non-ethnic, executive, legislative, and administrative decision-making bodies can be gradually introduced or reintroduced (since some already existed from before) to replace the consociational system in place. Such policies have the potential to limit the power monopoly of sectarian leaders, as well as political parties.
Unlike Lebanon, Syria should be able to make the transition from a confessional to an integrationist system faster since it does not have the two centuries old cultural, historical, political, social, and economic baggage that Lebanon has. The destructive outcomes of this conflict, as intense as they are, can be managed through the right mechanisms that deal with the preconditions and the outcomes of “protracted social conflict” theory.
There are many hypothetical outcomes that can be envisaged while awaiting the end of the conflict. However, a certainty is that any postwar authority has to find mechanisms to include and accommodate all groups of the society, especially vulnerable ones. The shape and nature of these accommodations will depend largely on the ideological orientations of forces that will take over the power in Damascus. Nevertheless, whichever group takes over has to deal with the sectarian problem through trust building measures as well as institutional and constitutional design. If anything good comes out of this conflict, it will be an honest dialogue between the Syrians about their fears and aspirations.