That the conflict in Syria has taken on an increasingly sectarian dimension over time is undeniable. For example, the New York Times recently interviewed children of Sunni Syrian refugees in a camp in Jordan, expressing their desire to exact revenge on the Alawite community (to which Bashar Assad belongs). On YouTube, one can find numerous videos uploaded by opponents of the regime, in which suspected operatives and supporters of the Assad government have been tortured into confessing that they are Shiite, whether they are or not. (Strictly, the Alawites are not Shiites, but there are Shiite communities in Syria, like the Ismailis.)
In May, a particularly gruesome video emerged in which some Syrian rebels beheaded a captive suspected of backing the regime, denouncing him as a rafidi (a derogatory term for a Shiite). The video did not garner any real mainstream coverage because it was falsely presented in an online article as showing the killing of a convert to Christianity in Tunisia, even though it was apparent that the speaker’s accent did not suggest any kind of Maghrebi origin (or even Iraqi, as some speculated; on the contrary, the accent is distinctly Syrian). Further, nowhere in the video was the victim denounced as a Christian.
Outside of Syria, perceptions of a Sunni-Shiite conflict have long been in evidence in the wider Middle East, notably in Turkey and Iraq.
For example, on 7 September, during a conference in Istanbul on the Arab Spring, the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, likened the violence in Syria to the Battle of Karbala in 680. That battle resulted in the massacre of Hussein ibn Ali — a grandson of Mohammed — and his supporters (the Shiites) at the hands of the Umayyad caliph Yazid I.
The Turkish premier further elaborated: “I know it very well that killing is religiously forbidden for Shiites as it is forbidden by religion for Sunnis. I know very well that killing is forbidden in Christianity and Judaism, as it is forbidden in Islam.”
While one adviser to Erdogan, Ibrahim Kalin, told Reuters that the Assad regime is guilty of playing the sectarian card in order to mask its growing weakness (hardly an unjustified allegation), the fact is that Erdogan’s rhetoric is similarly playing on a Sunni-Shiite dichotomy, which has alienated minority Alawites and Alevis in Turkey.
The stance of the Iraqi government toward the conflict is similarly based on perceptions of a Sunni-Shiite civil war. To be sure, there is resentment in many quarters toward Assad himself as someone who has Iraqi blood on his hands through his support for the Sunni insurgency in the country over many years.
However, the presence of foreign, al-Qaeda-aligned jihadists — many of whom fought in Iraq — in areas like Aleppo and Deir ez-Zor, the backing of rebel fighters by Saudi Arabia and Qatar (both still widely suspected in Iraq of supporting the remaining Sunni insurgency), and the evidence from Syria itself of a Sunni-Shiite element to the conflict only fuel the concern of many Iraqis that hardline Sunni Islamists could come to power in the absence of a peaceful transition away from Assad’s rule: a development they fear could spread renewed sectarian conflict over the border. This anxiety is aggravated by reports of sectarian clashes between Alawites and Sunnis in the town of Tripoli in Lebanon.
In fact, for a long time there has been evidence that some Iraqi Shiite militiamen have been heading toward Syria to push back against the rebels. In January, the Iraqi newspaper al-Mada reported that an official in the (Shiite) Badr Brigade, Sheikh Hassan Rasheed, called for men affiliated with the brigade and with the Sadrist Mahdi Army to organize in Basra and head to Syria in order to support the regime’s attempt to crush the rebellion and thus prevent the rise of Sunni Islamist rule there.
In April, Balad News released a video of a man who, captured by rebel fighters, said that he was a Sadrist from Iraq’s Diyala province and that he was assisting the Assad regime. Though it is easy to dismiss this clip as rebel propaganda, the man’s accent is very distinctly Iraqi. Moreover, it should be noted that Diyala province was an active hotspot for militiamen in the Mahdi Army — above all during the U.S. surge — and many of them subsequently demobilized there.
Nevertheless, it is important not to focus too much on the sectarian paradigm. In Syria itself, the regime still maintains a sizable Sunni support base. In truth, the regime would not have been able to survive so long without a considerable degree of support from the Sunni population.
Indeed, the pace of defections of Sunni soldiers and officers from the army has been greatly exaggerated. Yes, the very best of the elite divisions — namely, the Republican Guard and the Fourth Armored Division — are dominated by Alawites, but one cannot agree with Joshua Landis, a scholar of Syria quoted by the New York Times, when he describes the current Syrian security forces as an “Alawite army.”
In Aleppo, where it has often been noted that the regime enjoys the support of much of the Sunni urban middle class, the battle between rebel fighters and the Syrian army has only stirred up local resentment against the former, such that even pro-revolution activists like Edward Dark have become disillusioned.
Likewise, in the wider Muslim world, it would be wrong to generalize about attitudes toward the Syrian civil war on a sectarian basis. Pakistan, a predominantly Sunni country, is a case in point. According to a contact in Peshawar with whom I spoke, there is at the popular level sympathy for Assad as the victim of a foreign conspiracy, just as there was sympathy for Qaddafi during the Libyan civil war. This should not come as a surprise. After all, the Pakistani population (unlike the Arab world) is not exposed to the intense coverage of the conflict by al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya, and — given the West’s current stance against Assad — it will have only a vague perception of Syria as just another Muslim country under threat from foreigners. Indeed, the only evidence of protests in Pakistan against Assad’s rule has been video footage of Syrian exiles in Pakistan holding their own demonstrations; this contrasts strongly with the solidarity with the Syrian opposition shown by many Egyptians, for example.
At the level of government, it is worth noting that while Pakistan, out of deference to the Gulf Arab states, voted in favor of a U.N. General Assembly resolution back in February condemning the Syrian regime, it chose to abstain from a similar Saudi-sponsored resolution this summer condemning the regime and deploring the lack of action on the part of the U.N. Security Council, even as Afghanistan and Bangladesh voted in favor of the resolution.
While one can rightly draw attention to Pakistan’s economic ties to Iran and China as reasons for abstention, it is also worth noting what government sources told the Pakistani newspaper The Nation at the time: namely, that the efforts to oust Assad and install a new government in Syria would lead to “further instability in the entire region,” in which other Muslim countries “might face the same fate.” This illustrates that sympathy with Assad as the victim of a foreign conspiracy permeates the Pakistani government as well as the general population.
In short, the sectarian paradigm does have its role in assessing the nature of the conflict in Syria and determining how outsiders view the civil war, but one should also recognize that other interests and considerations are in play here, including friendly relations with countries either actively supporting the regime (e.g., Iran) or opposed to any outside interference (e.g., China), along with general anti-American sentiments.
For the U.S., the best policy to pursue in the event of the downfall of the regime and the establishment of some kind of stable transitional government (NB: I am skeptical of the possibility of the latter development) is to emphasize national unity rather than notions of sectarian quotas and identity politics, as happened in Iraq post-2003. This may help to counter the influence of foreign powers like Qatar, which has an interest in promoting the Muslim Brotherhood and by implication a sectarian outlook.
— Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum. His website is http://www.aymennjawad.org.