Women chant anti-government slogans during a demonstration in Idlib in northern Syria. (Rodrigo Abd — AP)
Syria has been embroiled in civil conflict for more than two years, with little end in sight. And, by some observations, religious intolerance and inflexible identities are a major reason why. The plethora of religious groups and actors in Syria and their ever-shifting relationships make the country a confusing place even for the most seasoned of regional experts.
As we analyze this complex situation, it’s important to ask: What are the most important religious dynamics shaping the Syrian conflict? What are the core interests of Syria’s religious groupings? And how easily can the country’s jumbled politico-religious landscape be demystified? Here are five keys to understanding the role of religion in the Syrian conflict.
1. Prior to the conflict, Syria was a regional beacon of religious tolerance.
Though it may be difficult to see now, Syria has historically been a successful example of co-existence in the Middle East. Home to ancient Christian communities, a variety of Muslim sects, and several indigenous and heterodox religions, Syria’s culture has always been more heterogeneous than Arab lands in the Gulf and North Africa. As fellow ‘People of the Book,’ Christians and Jews (prior to 1948) lived easily alongside their Muslim neighbors, while the country’s deserts and mountains provided geographic sanctuary to less protected religious and ethnic minority groups. Though sectarianism always lurked in its different forms somewhere beneath the surface, prior to the 2011 uprising, more than 87 percent of Syrians ‘agreed’ or ‘strongly agreed’ that they always treat members of other faiths with respect according to Gallup data. Meanwhile, in 2009, another 78 percent of Syrians said that they had a positive opinion of Christians, while 5 percent said they had a negative opinion. In pre-conflict Syria, it was common for friends of other religions to attend each other’s weddings and funerals, and it was considered rude to inquire into someone’s religious background.
2. Despite alliances with Iran and Hezbollah, the Alawites are Syria’s most secular faith group.
Following the decline of Christian power in Lebanon and the end of Sunni rule in Iraq, Syria’s ruling Alawites are the last of the three great minority-led regimes resulting from the “divide and rule” tactics of colonial powers. As an esoteric religion with only 12% of Syria’s population, Alawite beliefs and practices are not well-understood even among other Muslims, partially owing to the historical practice of
taqiyya whereby Alawites hid their beliefs in order to avoid persecution. An 8th century offshoot of Shia Islam, the Alawite faith is often considered heretical by both Sunni and Shia Muslims alike. Unlike mainstream Muslims, the Alawites do not consider the Five Pillars of Islam to be obligatory. Culturally distinct from other Muslims, Alawites don’t have mosques, they don’t encourage their women to wear headscarves, and many choose neither to fast during Ramadan nor to pray. Instead, Alawites venerate the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law Ali, for whom they are named, with a zeal which some other Muslim groups have labeled as deification.
Historically regarded as poor and backwards, and oppressed on account of their unorthodox beliefs, the Alawites’s fortune changed with the arrival of the French in 1920 when Alawite men were recruited into the minority-led military in droves. By swelling the officer ranks, Alawites were able to eventually take over the military and by 1971, one Alawite, Hafez Al-Assad, succeeded in taking over the entire country, installing many of his co-religionists into key political and security positions in consolidating power throughout the country. It did not take long however for Sunni Muslim groups such as the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood to label the new rulers as non-believers, forcing Assad to seek Islamic legitimacy from the Lebanese Shia Imam Musa al-Sadr, who for the first time recognized Alawites as Shia Muslims. Though there are rifts within the Alawite community, most continue to lend the regime their enthusiastic support.
3. The Sunni/Shia dimension of the Syrian conflict has a greater basis in international rivalries than on-the-ground realities.
As the main arena in which the Middle East’s principal Sunni and Shia antagonists, Saudi Arabia and Iran, find themselves battling for influence, one common perception of the Syrian conflict is that of another Sunni/Shia struggle. The “Shiafication” of Syria’s Alawites, the regime’s alliance with Iran, and the intervention of Iraqi Shia militias and Lebanese Hezbollah on the side of Assad have further fueled this sectarian view. Still, only two percent of Syria’s population identifies with central branches of Shia Islam. Further detracting from this narrative is the fact that the regime continues to receive important support from a minority of Sunnis. Most Shias in Syria are clustered around religious holy sites such as the Sayyida Zeinab Mosque in Damascus, and it is for the protection of these communities and shrines that Hezbollah has justified its military intervention. More salient to Iran and Hezbollah however is Syria’s crucial role in a geopolitical link which Jordan’s King Abdullah coined the “Shia Crescent,” a notional Shia alliance stretching from Iran to Lebanon. The survival of Assad’s regime remains key to Iran and Hezbollah’s ambitions in the region and they have gone all-in to defend it.
4. Many Christians support the regime, but they support stability even more.
Though Christian churches and monasteries existed and at times even thrived under centuries of Sunni Muslim rule, Christians have held a privileged position in Baathist Syria. In Assad’s Syria, Christians are not merely left alone to practice their religion, they are key partners in Assad’s strategy of minority rule. At approximately 10 percent of the population, Christians receive important business contracts and key government posts, including a disproportionate number of ambassadorships. Although Christian intellectuals and activists were prominent among the opposition prior to and early on in the uprising, Syria’s Christians have largely remained neutral or supportive of the regime out of distrust of the increasingly Islamist complexion of the opposition. Recent attacks on the ancient Christian monastery village of Maaloula by al-Qaeda aligned rebel Jabhat al-Nusra forces have struck at the very heart of Christian fears. For many of Syria’s Christians, the optics of Christians fleeing their communities from jihadists brings back memories of another war. After the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Syria played host to hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Christian refugees who oftentimes set up within local Christian communities. These refugees brought with them firsthand accounts of attacks on churches and targeted kidnappings, a narrative Syria’s Christians are eager to avoid. As Christians are geographically dispersed throughout the country and unorganized militarily, they seek the maintenance of law and order as the key to their community’s survival.
5. Hardline Islamist agendas likely have only a narrow base of support.
Early on in 2011, protestors’ calls for national unity and democracy held some appeals for members of religious minority groups. However, once the Syrian government crackdown on protestors led to armed insurrection, sectarian identities calcified and the opposition failed to expand its base beyond its Sunni Arab core. With 60-65% of the population, Sunni Arabs have the numbers even if they don’t have the weapons or the organization. Though the composition of Syria’s rebels today is a matter of some controversy, most analysts now admit that Islamist groups of different stripes are doing most of the fighting. Opposition Islamist fighters can generally be divided into three groups: Muslim Brotherhood influenced groups who seek to establish an Islamic-inspired legal system, Salafist groups aiming to create an Islamic state, and global jihadists who see Syria as only one battlefield in an effort to establish a wider Islamic Caliphate. In areas controlled by hardline groups, heavy-handedness and the implementation of Ad-hoc Sharia courts has led to resentment among locals and increased conflict with ostensibly secular Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebel units. Though the power of hardline Islamist groups has increased as a result of their military prowess and funding, there is little evidence that a wellspring of support for their goals exists in Syria. In 2010, Gallup found that 17 percent of Syrians agreed that “sharia must be the only source of legislation,” while another 32 percent said that “sharia must be a source of legislation but not the only source.”