PRINCETON – As Syria’s 18-month-old rebellion has grown increasingly violent – exemplified by the recent massacre of rural villagers by the Syrian military and militias loyal to President Bashar al-Assad – long-standing sectarian divisions have become more pronounced. But, contrary to Western leaders’ perceptions, Syria is not embroiled in a war between clearly defined communities. While such cleavages do play a crucial role in Syrian society, other key factors should not be overlooked.
The West’s response to the violence in Syria has so far been shaped by the notion that Assad’s regime is overwhelmingly Alawite. Outsiders largely view the Alawites – a Shia Muslim sect that makes up just 12% of Syria’s population of 22 million – as a wealthy, elite segment of society. So the regime’s behavior, on this view, must be dictated by the desire to preserve the Alawites’ status and authority – and by fear of mass reprisals if Assad is toppled.
But some Alawites are prominent opposition figures. For example, the journalist Samar Yazbek has broken from the regime, documenting the revolution in her memoir A Woman in the Crossfire. Similarly, the writer and anti-corruption activist Maen Akel has published reports exposing the regime’s abuses. And the dissident Hassan Abbas has spoken publicly about the regime’s impending collapse (and, to be sure, the special abuse that he has faced for being Alawite). Indeed, early in the rebellion, Alawite and Sunni sheiks marched together in the streets of Latakia – the capital of the former Alawite state – to show their support for peaceful protest.
Moreover, some political and military leaders – including former Prime Minister Riad Hijab, long-serving former Minister of Defense Mustafa Tlass, and his son Manaf, a military officer – are Sunni. A substantial majority of provincial security chiefs are also Sunni. And Daoud Rajha, the defense minister who was assassinated in July, was an Orthodox Christian.
Such examples complicate the notion of a Syria defined by rigid sectarian divisions, and experiences from modern Syrian history further blur sectarian lines. In 1976, Sunni Islamists, primarily members of the Muslim Brotherhood, began to rebel against Syria’s government, controlled by then-president Hafez al-Assad and his Alawite-led Ba’ath Party. The uprisings culminated in 1982, when rebels took control of the conservative Sunni city of Hama. The military responded with an all-out assault on Islamist groups in the city, killing an estimated 10,000-20,000 people.
The Hama massacre is often cited as an example of Syrian sectarianism. But the insurgency was Islamist, not Sunni; it opposed the ruling party’s secular nature and tendencies toward centralized power, not its Alawite character.
In fact, much of the Syrian elite was implicated in suppressing Islamist forces in Hama, including Sunnis like the recent defector Nawaf al-Fares, the former Syrian ambassador to Iraq, who reportedly commanded government forces during the massacre. Many elite Sunnis – rural, urban, or, as in al-Fares’s case, tribal Bedouin – served the Syrian government, even as it brutally repressed the largely Sunni population. And they have continued to do so under the current regime.
Nevertheless, most Syrian Sunnis remain conservative. As a result, even though they largely oppose the Assads and the Ba’ath Party, they are generally not attracted to the radical Salafism that extremist groups from the Gulf and elsewhere are promoting. But the Assad regime’s efforts to consolidate the support of Christian and secular elites by blaming foreign radical groups for fueling the opposition cannot obscure the fact that conservative Sunnis are in full revolt.
This opposition is rooted in rejection of the central leadership and the corruption that it has bred; it is not based on anti-Alawite bigotry. Syria’s predominantly Sunni rural population endures pervasive poverty, while the wealthy, urban elite – itself largely Sunni – prospers. Given that family and class dictate Syrian power dynamics as much as sect does, the regime’s principal beneficiaries have been select family members – such as Assad’s cousin, businessman Rami Makhlouf – and well-connected Sunni families in Damascus and Aleppo.
Meanwhile, Alawite rule has not benefited all Alawites. Like many Sunnis, rural Alawites remain poor. Indebted Alawites even protested the Ba’ath Party’s leadership in 1969, only to be crushed by the military. Yet Alawites and other minorities, particularly Christians, do remain largely supportive of the regime, given their all-too-real fear of sectarian reprisals.
Nonetheless, rather than indulging in simplistic fantasies – such as the potential “Balkanization” of Syria, and the possible reemergence of an Alawite breakaway republic – policymakers must recognize the true basis of Syria’s power structure. Understanding all of the factors at work, particularly class tensions, is crucial to evaluating – and addressing – the conflict. The longer world leaders reduce Syria’s problems solely to sectarian conflict, the more unpredictable and dangerous the situation there could become.