The Religious Roots of The Syrian Conflict

This book is a Syrian native’s attempt to isolate the motivation for the ongoing violence, and the process by which sectarian civil war may dissolve Syria, along with its bordering nation-states of the Fertile Crescent, into sectarian states. It combines ethnographic accounts with conceptual tools to explain the relevance of sectarian identification to understanding civil conflict in Syria. It begins by defining Syria’s sectarian groups and describing the historical processes that formed them. Next, it shows how domestic and foreign political entrepreneurs unwittingly catalyzed civil war between, and eventually, within, rival sectarian groups, later leading to the disintegration of Syria into regions ruled by rival groups. Lastly, the book argues for non-violent alternatives to military intervention to restore stability to Syria and to the Fertile Crescent region.

The Fertile Crescent’s place in history as the Cradle of Civilization seems ironic, given the recurrence of sectarian violence. Recently, we have witnessed resurgences of sectarian massacres that have periodically plagued the region in the past millennium.

Sectarian massacres have been carried out to force religious conformity, punish apostasy, quell rebellion, or cleanse geographical regions from non-conformists. In those cases, sectarian massacres have been called for by religious authorities either independently, such as the 1305 judgment of Ibn Taymiyya against the Alawis of Syria, or by solicitation of political authority, such as the 16th and the 19th century Ottoman state solicitation of religious judgments against the Alawi and Shia Muslims of Syria and the late 19th and early 20th century massacres and deportations of Armenian, Assyrian, and Greek Christians.

Sectarian massacres were also carried out to preserve material and class privileges. For example, in the 19th century, a series of revolts by Maronite Christian peasants against Christian and Duruz Muslim feudal lords triggered a sectarian civil war. The peasant uprising failed to transform sectarian loyalties into secular ones, similar to those of nation-states. Class-motivated uprisings aimed at securing civil and economic liberties mutated in 1860 into a sectarian civil war in Mount Lebanon between Maronite Christians and Duruz. That violence was followed by a large scale massacre of Christians in Damascus and the plunder the victims’ possessions that echoed a similar massacre on a smaller scale in Aleppo ten years earlier.

The pattern of a conflict of secular nature mutating into violence along religious and sectarian lines was repeated in the mid-1970s when the Christian-led Lebanese army attempted to curtail Palestinian militias who challenged the state’s authority. The Lebanese state’s attempt to disarm the Palestinian militias, the majority of which were Muslim, morphed into a civil war between Lebanese Christians and Muslims.

In Iraq, the U.S.’s toppling of a dictator, identified as a Sunni Muslim, but who repressed opposition from Sunni and Shia Muslims alike, triggered a bloody Sunna-Shia conflict. In Lebanon and Iraq, these brutal trends have preceded even greater upheavals in the form of sectarian cleansing, as well as the institutional destruction of the Lebanese and Iraqi nation-states.

Most recently, in 2011 that which appeared as youth protests against Syria’s secular police state quickly mutated into open sectarian hostilities between Sunnis and Alawis, and evolved into a full-blown sectarian war. Domestic groups and regional powers, in turn, took sides based on their sectarian affiliations. Their intervention emboldened both sides of the conflict, causing destruction on a scale unprecedented in Syria’s history, and spread to the Fertile Crescent at-large by the creation of the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria.

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