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Syria: from fight for justice to sectarian stalemate

The horror of the Syrian conflict appears to know no bounds. Every day brings news of a new atrocity and it is clear that both the rebels and the Assad government are guilty of human rights abuses on an…

The Free Syrian Army may claim democratic ideals, but it is almost exclusively a Sunni Muslim grouping fighting the Shia and Alawite forces of the dictator Bashar Al-Assad. EPA/Maysun

The horror of the Syrian conflict appears to know no bounds. Every day brings news of a new atrocity and it is clear that both the rebels and the Assad government are guilty of human rights abuses on an enormous scale.

We are beyond the point where one side can be said to be worse than the other. We are also beyond the point of the Syrian war being seen purely in terms of a rebellion against a dictatorial regime.

It is now largely a sectarian conflict and as the experience in Iraq in the middle of the last decade, and over many years in the north of Ireland, demonstrates, sectarian warfare brings with it a brutality all of its own.

An analysis of the current state of Syria that pays close attention to the antecedents and driving forces behind the sectarian tension and fighting may help to explain the many and varied aspects of this religious, ideological and military crisis.

Within a relatively short space of time, the situation in Syria deteriorated into a war that not only involves governments, but also ideological/political groups, non-state militants, multi-national corporations and, most importantly, sectarian groups.

A wounded civilian being treated for injuries sustained in the crossfire of a firefight between rebels and Assad’s forces. EPA/Anadolu Agency

It is crucial to recognise the fact that the traditional regional powers have turned to Syria as a zone for engaging in sectarian warfare which takes the forms of military attacks, ideological propagation, business affiliations and garnering popular support.

The overwhelming amount of evidence indicating Iran’s collusion with the Syrian government leaves no doubt that not only are significant Shiite factors contributing to the war but, in addition, Hezbollah and the Iraqi Shiites are contributing to the Shiite coalition.

On the other hand, governments including Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Qatar, who are either majority Sunni or identify as Sunni-based states, constitute the anti-Syrian government constituency; i.e., representatives of the other side of the equation. The Al-Nusra Front, Ahrar al-Sham, and Al Qaeda fighters from Iraq, Pakistan and other parts of the Sunni Muslim world are also strengthening the anti-Assad resistance.

But the Syrian crisis neither generated nor fuelled the contemporary Muslim sectarian conflict. It is more accurate to understand the situation in Syria as a stage wherein sectarian divisions have taken on new forms and intensity, now possibly claiming centrality in a long-running regional sectarian rivalry.

The history runs deep

The 1979 Iranian Revolution, which was led by Shiite leader Ayatollah Khomeini, was based on an explicitly Shiite political ideology. However, Khomeini and his politico-religious discourse was, from North Africa to South-East Asia, largely perceived as being more Islamic than Shiite. From the time of its initial phase, Khomeini’s discourse was admired by the world’s Muslim population and Islamic movement and reviled by governments in the Muslim world.

Free Syrian Army members preparing to attack loyalist forces in Aleppo: are they motivated more by religion now? EPA/Maysun

One outstanding reaction to Khomeini’s discourse was the promotion of Salafism as a transnational movement with strong Saudi ideological and financial investment. The Taliban and al-Qaeda were two prominent products of the globalisation of Salafi theology.

Simultaneously, Iran invested ideologically, emotionally, financially and militarily in the Shiite sects scattered throughout the Muslim world. Consider, for example, Iran’s financial, political and military support for the Huthis in Yemen, The Shiites of Bahrain, Iraq and Afghanistan and, most importantly, Iran’s intimate and indispensible connections with Hezbollah in Lebanon.

With these historical and political considerations in mind, it is clear to see that the current sectarian conflict playing out in Syria has its roots deeply embedded in the evolution of political Islam from the 1970s onwards. Since that time, a distinct rivalry between the Shiites and the Sunni has persisted based upon political and theological rivalries.

However, with the existence of common enemies in the form of the United States and the former Soviet Union, this opposition expressed itself in the form of a competition vis-a-vis who could direct the most adamant and conspicuous antagonism against the imperialist powers.

In effect, the rivals strived to win the hearts of the Muslim world by challenging the perceived enemies of Islam with great zeal.

As the US withdraws, old tensions resurface

Shifts in US foreign policy and rhetoric instigated by the Obama administration have blunted antagonistic attitudes towards America in the Muslim world. It seems that the notion of an unambiguous and indisputable opposing power that suppresses the Muslim world has become less prominent and that the former external hostility is being redirected internally.

Free Syrian Army fighters talk to would-be defectors from Syrian forces through a window. EPA/Maysun

Thus, the situation in Syria is a prime example of how the once latent Sunni-Shiite opposition emerged to become the dominant narrative and most influential factor in the Middle East’s military and political struggles, a factor deeply rooted in the politico-religious dynamics that evolved after the Iranian Revolution.

Clearly, the current sectarian conflict has moved to the forefront of political Islam. It has infiltrated all aspects of the Syrian crisis and is the driving force behind most of the non-Syrian players. As explained above, one must of necessity first take into consideration the ideological and political background to the division in conjunction with the changing face of Sunni-Shiite antagonism before attempting to re-evaluate the situation and analyse the directions it is taking.

This sectarian conflict has deep historical roots, strong theological and ideological dimensions and claims a central place in regional rivalry, all of which contribute to the threat of it turning into the most fundamental dilemma in the region – one that may even outrival the long-running Arab-Israeli conflict.

Sectarianism not only has the capacity to heighten political-military tensions in the region for decades to come, but could also manifest as a particularly brutal chapter in the region’s history.

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13 Comments sorted by

  1. Greg North

    Retired Engineer

    All I can say is " What a bloody mess "
    And the less outside interference there is the sooner something may be resolved, hopefully anyway, God willing and with the help of Allah.
    Maybe they also need the help of having an equivalent to The Pope!

    It does seem to be that where the Sunni's are in control they have had less violence, Iraq being different of course following the US invasion but if you look at the history of Iraq, Saddam, thought not a practising Sunni had closer ties to Sunnis and the other Sunni dominated countries do seem to have had greater stability if a firmer more dictatorial style government though Syria stands out as being different in it having had reasonable stability prior to the last two years and it is predominately Shites in control though with a dictatorial style Presidency much as Saddam was.

    As I say, what a mess, not to be involved with.

  2. Michael Ekin Smyth


    Naser: Thank you. A convincing analysis which highlights the deep historical roots of current developments. Considering the danger of the current Syrian fighting spreading into a regional war, do you think there is anyway that outside actors can help? If everyone stands back, it increasingly looks like the whole region will implode. What, if anything, can be done?

    1. Naser Ghobadzadeh

      Sessional Lecturer in Political Science at University of Sydney

      In reply to Michael Ekin Smyth

      What can be done? It is a difficult question with ramifications involved, but one thing is certain: continuity of the current deadlock will serve nobody. A constructive policy might be to consider arming the Free Syrian Army.

    2. Bob Down

      logged in via email

      In reply to Naser Ghobadzadeh

      A Destructive policy would be arming the FSA. Do you not understand the dynamics of this situation, where you have destabilising forces on the side of the "rebels", the majority of whom are foreign fighters sponsored by Saudi Arabia and other fundamentalist and sectarian ideologies?
      With all due respect sir have you been living in a vacuum regarding events such as the Israeli support on the ground to rebels, the flow of arms from Libya, the funding from the US for the means to wage war of aggression…

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    3. Naser Ghobadzadeh

      Sessional Lecturer in Political Science at University of Sydney

      In reply to Bob Down

      As I noted, there are many ramifications involved. A serious risk is to empower fundamentalists. I do not promote arming all military groups in Syrian. The Free Syrian Army as the military force of the Syrian National Coalition may gain upper hand in the ground if there are well-planned supports. As you have correctly pointed out Saudi Arabia and other fundamentalists are supporting rebels but their supports are unfortunately channeled to fundamentalists. While at first FSA was the most powerful force in Syrian revolution, now fundamentalists are getting upper hand and I do not see a constructive future in the continuity of this trend. And as a matter of fact, this is what the Syrian National Coalition wants.

    4. Michael Ekin Smyth


      In reply to Naser Ghobadzadeh

      Given Russian and Chinese obstructionism in the international arena and the failure of all regional diplomatic initiatives, it does seem that the arming of the FSA is inevitable. The appalling daily slaughter justifies it but unfortunately the outcome is likely to be even greater violence.
      Sectarian concerns and traditional enmities stop regional powers from even negotiating with each other.
      Ramifications: this war has already spilled over into every Syrian neighbor except Jordan. There are any…

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    5. Bob Down

      logged in via email

      In reply to Michael Ekin Smyth

      Russias efforts are aimed at actually getting the factions and interest in the background to actually respect the rule of law, that is why they veto various proposals because they go against the rights of Syria to be in control of its own destiny. If the Russians and others allowed the western institutions free reign then they would be condoning the breaking of international laws. Russia has itself table proposals that recognise Syrian sovereignty but they get veto'd or voted down by the US/UK/and others with a stake in prolonging the conflict and who will benefit most from the removal of the head of state. Americans have no business being in Jordan and should leave, we can see how their efforts to date in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya have turned out.

    6. Bob Down

      logged in via email

      In reply to Naser Ghobadzadeh

      Then the safest option is to not arm any "rebels", that way we can know that assistance is not going to be getting into the hands of those we do not want having it. Why the powers that be see fit to involve themselves is beyond me. Syria is a sovereign nation and as such should able to conduct the business of state unimpeded by outside forces. They also should have the right to call on allies they have relationships with. The simple fact is the western powers and Israel have a hand in all of this and publicly condemn violence and weapons of dubious origin being used by rebels, but privately they facilitate these very things. They are finding out that the creations they themselves constructed are now out of the play pen and they can't put them back in. The fate of Syria will decide how the next 50 years of conflict will progress, eternal wars for the illusion of perpetual peace. The governments of the day interfering in Syria have a lot to answer for.

    7. Joseph Bernard


      In reply to Naser Ghobadzadeh

      @ Naser,

      surely handing out more arms and funding the FSA is just adding petrol to the fire!

      just more primitive thinking that is justifying more deaths

  3. Joseph Bernard


    This is what a world without Love becomes.

    Discover the wisdom of "Love thy enemy" and reaching out with an open hand rather than closed fist and the world will proposer.

  4. Bob Down

    logged in via email

    Western interests have no intention of ever addressing the basic and underlying tenets of this conflict. They gain everything by keeping the fires of this sort of conflict burning. As always in war follow the money, who benefits? How has a simple set of demonstrations against aspects of the rulers imposition on the population descended into chaos? Easy, an opportunity arose for external influence at the grass roots level, starting with gunshots into crowds protesting. These same crowds had been given…

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  5. Jacob Newman


    The same old rhetoric coming out of the 'establishment'. This is not a sectarian war. This is a colonial war which is using sectarianism. An old trick but a good one as long as you have 'established' institutional writers with some supposed credibility towing the same argument. I could not distinguish anything different said in this article with what every western leader has said. Bob Carr for example seems to think that this is a sectarian war.

    Let's dispel this myth. Firstly there is a middle…

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    1. Bob Down

      logged in via email

      In reply to Jacob Newman

      Well said sir, I agree wholeheartedly.