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Sectarianism and the Syrian revolution

January 24, 2014 at 9:32 am

Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian revolution on the side of the regime demonstrates the conflicts shift from sectarian theory to sectarian reality. It reflects a shift across the Middle East which has witnessed sectarianism in the guise of political parties for many years.

Who is responsible for this? What scenarios can be envisaged for diverse communities in the region to coexist peacefully?

Although most discussions now share the fear of growing sectarianism, especially in Syria after the battle for Al-Qusayr, few are seeking out the reasons for its appearance, or trying to allocate responsibility. This is a mistake as it prevents us from determining the cause of the crisis and thus limits our ability to solve it. It also avoids the moral necessity to identify the perpetrators, resulting in putting villain and victim on the same moral plane.

The Syrian regime tried to promote the revolution as a sectarian conflict from the very beginning, with stories that the rebels wanted to eliminate Syria’s non-Sunni minorities. In this way, the Assad regime has been able to divert attention away from the real aims of the revolution, which were and remain freedom and dignity for all of Syria’s people. Revolutionary slogans still emphasise the unity of all Syrians, regardless of their ethnic or religious affiliation.

Moreover, Assad’s main allies have, directly and indirectly, fuelled sectarianism and tried to turn the conflict into a Sunni-Shia issue. Iran must bear the main responsibility for this through its claims that the revolution is an international conspiracy against the “axis of resistance”, of which Syria is a key part. The government in Tehran has ignored the legitimate demands of the people of Syria while offering support to the revolutionaries in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Bahrain, claiming all the while that they are the beginning of a new Islamic awakening inspired by the Iranian Revolution.

It is impossible for the Arabs, the majority of whom are Sunnis, to balance Iran’s unqualified support for the revolution in Bahrain with its unlimited support of the Syrian regime, without focusing on the sectarian aspect. Most Bahraini citizens are, of course, Shia and were rising up against a Sunni-led government.

Bashar Al-Assad is known to be secular in outlook and despite his Alawite Shia-sect heritage support from Iran has always been based more on political and mutually-beneficial other interests than religious affiliation. It is hard to explain Iran’s stance, therefore, especially given its position towards the revolutionaries in Bahrain and Yemen, unless it is down to sectarian loyalty over all other interests.

Iraq’s position is also hard to explain in a non-sectarian way. Prime Minister Al-Maliki came to power thanks largely to the US-led invasion and yet he believes that there is an American-international conspiracy against the Assad regime in Syria. How else can his support be explained coming so soon after his government accused Syria of “supporting terrorists” who were bombing Iraq? One can only assume that Al-Maliki is fearful of allowing a Sunni government taking over in Syria which might be hostile to his own and that Iran, to which he is in thrall, has pressured him into taking a firm stand on the side of the Assad regime. In his statements, Al-Maliki has tried to convince the world that the revolution in Syria will lead to a sectarian war even though US intervention was necessary to overthrow nominal Sunni Saddam Hussein and install a Shia government.

The embodiment of the revolution as a sectarian conflict fuelled by Syria and Iran has been the direct involvement of Hezbollah fighters from neighbouring Lebanon. For many people this is the straw that has broken the camel’s back, exposing the efforts to turn the conflict away from a struggle by the people of Syria for their freedom into something that is never was and should not be; a sectarian war.

Some believe that Hezbollah has no choice but to side with its main ally Syria in response to pressure from its main backer Iran. This is true, but Hezbollah could have limited itself to political and media support for the Assad regime on strategic and political grounds, but it didn’t. From the beginning it claimed to be “protecting” Shia shrines from the revolutionaries. That would be like giving the green light to Sunni militias entering Iran because Tehran doesn’t allow Sunnis to have their own mosques in the country. Such justification for Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria is drowned by sectarian considerations.

Although it is now impossible to downplay the sectarian nature of the Syrian conflict, the truth remains that it is essentially political in nature. Sectarianism is a tactic being used to advance political interests. Nevertheless, the revolution came about through political and social demands which were met by the regime’s violent response. The development of the sectarian aspect has seen support for the regime growing among Arab Shia who, like Al-Maliki himself, see no contradiction in supporting Assad as he faces a “US conspiracy” while backing the government in Iraq put in place by a US-led war.

Despite the presence of an almost completely vertical divide between the Sunnis and Shia over Syria, even amongst Sunnis affiliated with the nationalist and left-wing parties there tends to be support for the Assad regime as it represents the resistance project against Israel in the region. This confirms the true political nature of the conflict and the opportunism of those who wish to use it to fuel sectarianism.

History illustrates that ethnic, sectarian and doctrinal conflicts are among the worst mankind has witnessed. They leave behind them resentment and divisions that mend very slowly, if at all. Indeed, such conflicts are rarely won comprehensively by either side.

The diversity of communities across the Arab world has contributed to its enrichment and development. If this diversity is allowed to fuel internecine conflict between the Arabs, everyone will lose, regardless of their affiliation.

The situation requires serious action by the intellectual and political elites to protect the region from endless conflict, of which I suggest the following:

The public affirmation of the political and revolutionary nature of the conflict in Syria giving voice to the demands of freedom and dignity for all Syrians.

International acknowledgement that the revolution preserved its peaceful nature for many months before being dragged into armed conflict by the regime’s military crackdown.

The confirmation of the political foundations of the alliances between the Assad regime, Iran, and Hezbollah, and that sectarianism is merely a cover used indirectly by these parties to gain support from the Shia.

The acceptance of Arab diversity across the region and acknowledgement that differences can be strengths in communities, and have been for many years. Put bluntly, Sunni and Shia need to agree to disagree on doctrinal issues and move on, working together for the benefit of everyone in the region in the face of ongoing external aggression.

The author is the chief editor of Al Hiwar TV. This article is a translation from the Arabic which first appeared on al Jazeera net, 28 June, 2013

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.