What to remember in Syria from Iraq’s sectarian war

A Free Syrian Army fighter runs after a Syrian Army tank shell exploded in the Salah al- Din neighbourhood of … Continued


A Free Syrian Army fighter runs after a Syrian Army tank shell exploded in the Salah al- Din neighbourhood of central Aleppo

Last week, in a effort to reassure a skeptical American public, President Obama declared that a U.S. intervention in Syria, currently in debate in the Congress, would not be the same as the ones in Iraq and Afghanistan.

If by that the president meant that the goal of the U.S. intervention is not to send troops on the ground and to play an active role in the current civil war, indeed Syria is different from Iraq. In the same vein, the Russian mediation to make Syria surrender its chemical weapons is the first serious political alternative to a military intervention that creates a context very different from 2003. It will not however be sufficient to find a way out of the sectarian war. In this regard, there are some troubling similarities between Iraq in 2003 and today Syria. First the resistance of the international community to the U.S. and most significantly of Middle Eastern countries, borrows some resemblance to the 2003 situation. Second, like in Iraq, any external intervention will affect the balance of powers between the different groups on the ground and intensify the sectarian war without ending the conflict.

Like in 2003, the international environment, including America’s traditional allies are reluctant and skeptical about the efficiency of a military intervention. Even France, which was the only western country in support of the intervention (like the U.K. was the exception in 2003,) is now asking for more time.

Most importantly all Muslim countries, except Turkey and now Saudi Arabia are against the intervention. Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have actively supported the Sunni rebels, but none has publicly endorsed the idea of an American intervention. This reserve is partially linked to the very negative image of the U.S. across the Middle East and North Africa regions that has been continuously deteriorating since the war on Iraq in 2003. According to a Pew Global Attitudes Poll released in May 2011, this is particularly true in Turkey and Pakistan, with favorability ratings of only 10 percent and 11 percent, respectively. In Jordan 84 percent gave negative ratings as did 80 percent in the Palestinian territories and 79 percent in Egypt. Equally concerning, the same poll indicates that most of the respondents believe the U.S. does not consider the interests of their respective countries in making foreign policy decisions and, rather, tends to act unilaterally in the world. There is also considerable fear that the U.S. has the potential to pose a military threat to their country; that belief is found in 71 percent of the population in Indonesia, 67 percent in Pakistan, 59 percent in Lebanon, 59 percent Turkey and 54 percent in Egypt. In these conditions, the moral argument advanced by the Obama administration to justify an attack on Syria is unlikely to convince the people of the region, including the Syrians.

Second, the political situation of Syria bears a lot of resemblances with Iraq under Saddam and therefore will entail similar political consequences for Syria and for the U.S.. Hafez Al Assad, the father of Bashar Al Assad, built his power by privileging the Alawite minority over the Sunni majority and the Christian minorities, in a way parallel to how Saddam built his power through the Sunni minority over the Shia population. In both cases, there was an explicit denial of the religious diversity of the national community and even worse, a discriminatory use of religious groups and interests in the building of the state institutions.

In these conditions, it is no surprise that the end of the Saddam regime opened a Pandora’s box of sectarian divides, since religious and ethnic diversity was negated at the very foundation of modern Iraq. In other words, post-Saddam Iraq could be nothing else than sectarian by allowing groups previously persecuted to express themselves and compete for power. In Syria, the conflict started as a political upheaval against the authoritarian regime of Bashar Al Assad. But it has turned into an sectarian conflict, mostly because the state apparatus and the military, dominated by the Alawite minority have remained loyal to the Assad regime, feeding the resentment and suspicion of the Sunni rebels toward the Alawites. The sectarian rift has been aggravated by Sunni and Shia external intervention with the emergence of jihad-seeking Sunni groups among the rebels and the support of Iran and Hezbollah on the Alawi side. Like in Iraq, the Christians have not been spared from the growing sectarian conflicts and being associated with the Assad regime are also the targets of the Sunni rebels.

The U.S. intervention in Iraq did not create the sectarian tensions; they were already simmering under the iron fist of Saddam. But it can be argued that the American strategy post-Saddam did not facilitate the relationships between Sunnis and Shias. In fact by siding with the long time oppressed Shias and not working efficiently on a reconciliation process between the communities and a more equitable redistribution of power, the U.S. has exacerbated the suspicions and hostility between the two groups without gaining any real allies in the process.

The same will be true of an intervention in Syria. It will not create the sectarian violence but it will probably intensify it and will certainly not make the Sunni rebels tilt in favor of the US. For this reason, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey has expressed his disagreement with a potential military intervention in Syria by asserting repeatedly that the Sunni rebels are not in any capacity possible allies of the U.S.

In fact, no political future in Syria is possible without negotiations involving all parties. A coordinated international diplomatic intervention could be the right push in that direction. A good precedent for such a coordinated approach may be found in the Sudan after Darfur. There, USAID was involved in the successful reconstruction of the country following the Darfur crisis. The key lesson from that scenario is that it is possible to create a national platform that moves beyond sectarian resentments and ideological differences. Another element of this success was the multilateral approach that coordinated the efforts of the U.S. alongside other (European) powers.

Yes, preventing the use of chemical weapons is morally justified. But if anything can be learned from the Iraq experience, neither a U.S. unilateral intervention nor a surrender of chemical weapons by Bashar Al Assad will be sufficient to end the conflict or the sufferings of the Syrians. To head in this direction requires a much stronger international diplomatic initiative including the Syrian neighbors, in order to rebalance the power between the different factions on the ground.



Jocelyne Cesari is senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, and director of Harvard University’s program on Islam in the West.

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  • haroun

    “We, the Jewish people, control America, and the Americans know it.”—Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon

  • Critic46

    This is a most well thought out and intelligent article. The Syrian problem, and its treatment by the US, is much different from Iraq. The prior US government under George Bush did a great deal to undermine US credibility and popularity in the Middle East and North Africa. The current government is trying to act as a benevolent power without unduly interfering. It is a tightrope with no net.