We don’t want bread or tahina, we want freedom for our prisoners. Butheina Sha’aban, the Syrian people aren’t hungry… The people want the fall of the regime!” These were chants from initial protests in Dera’a from the parents of incarcerated child prisoners in March 2011 after Butheina Sha’aban, President Bashar al-Assad’s adviser, told him to increase food subsidies instead.
In March 2011, the citizens of Dera’a in the south of Syria launched their first protest. Three years later, it is easy to forget what the original causes of the protests and the subsequent conflict were. Both sides have often exploited a single justification for the protracted fight: religion. But this common religious narrative is not just abused; it is also inconsistent with history. While the origins of the conflict are multi-faceted, the media’s claim that this conflict is an extension of the age-old “Sunni-Shi’ite” divide is essentially fabricated. Alternative explanations for the conflict in Syria have been ignored in an effort to obscure the geopolitical interests of regional and global stakeholders, an effort that continues to prove detrimental to all attempts to end the violence today.
The Sunni-Shi’a explanation for Middle Eastern conflict presents an all-too-easy schema through which interests of regional powers can be understood. Reporters and diplomats alike explain the Assad regime’s actions in terms of the interests of its powerful Shi’a allies Iran and Hezbollah. But, in reality, this alliance has little to do with religion: Syria’s religious role in Shi’a Islam is extremely limited. The main Shi’ite presence is confined to Damascus, the home of two holy Shi’ite shrines. The first, the Sayyida Zainab Mosque, where Prophet Mohammad’s granddaughter is buried, is located in a southern suburb of Damascus. The second shrine, Sayyida Ruqaya, is located in the northwest corner of Old Damascus and is an important site of pilgrimage during the holy Day of Ashura. In the past two decades, Damascus has become a popular site of pilgrimage for working-class Iranian, Pakistani, and Lebanese Shi’ite tourists, many of whom visit the two shrines as well as the Ummayyid Mosque, one of the oldest mosques in the world and holy to all Muslims. Other than the two shrines, there are a few Shi’ite religious schools located in old Damascus. However, none of this is enough to motivate a Shi’a religious alliance that would fuel a civil war.
The international community’s interest in the role of Shi’a Islam in Syria stems from an excessive focus on the religious implications of President Bashar Al-Assad’s Alawite heritage. Much verbiage has recently been spewed about Assad’s Alawite background, but a glimpse into history demonstrates that the Alawites are more than just a religious group. The Alawite faith is an offshoot of Twelver Shi’ite Islam. This position has left Alawites isolated from more mainstream Shi’a and Sunni alike throughout history because of their heterodox beliefs that incorporate pre-Islamic practices, as well as naturalist beliefs that the majority of Muslims reject. With time, they found themselves located mostly in and along the northeastern coast of the Mediterranean which spans north to south from Adana (in modern-day Turkey) along the mountains of Antakya to Tripoli (in modern-day Lebanon). Like some other religious minorities throughout the world, they settled in mountainous regions in order to remain out of sight and thus out of mind for the majority of the population.
During the late Ottoman Empire, France began strengthening its ties with Syria by doing business with favored minorities like the Maronite Christian community in Mount Lebanon. But even as these non-Muslim religious minorities experienced an economic renaissance at the hands of the imperial powers, Alawite Muslims remained in abject poverty. With the end of World War I, the Ottoman Empire collapsed and the entirety of the Eastern Mediterranean fell into the control of the French and the British. During this time, the French adopted a divide-and-conquer approach to occupying Syria. They devised a framework for partitioning Syria into six future independent states defined by religious affiliation, including a separate state for the Alawites along the Syrian coast. The main task of the French was to get the Alawites out of their mountain villages and into the port cities of Latakia and Tartus so that they could facilitate French control of Syrian trade and thus Syria as a whole. As this move proceeded, the Alawite population finally found social mobility in the form of service in the French army.
The increased role of Alawites in the army gave them an unprecedented role in Syrian society when Syria became independent from France in 1946. No 13
longer isolated in the mountains, Alawite communities appeared for the first time in the industrial city of Homs and in the capital city of Damascus. The 1950s marked the least stable period in post-independence Syria. A series of coups culminated in the 1963 seizure of power by the Ba’ath Party. The leader of the air force, the strongest branch of the Syrian armed forces, seized control of the state in 1970 after three more coups. That leader was Hafez al-Assad, the first Ba’athist president of Syria, and the father of Bashar.
The Assad clan comes from the village of Qardaha in the mountains of the eastern Mediterranean. Like many nearby villages, it faced crippling poverty and underdevelopment for centuries. With the Assad family’s rise to power, Qardaha and select other Alawite villages in Syria, notably al-Sheikh Badr and Duraykish, benefited from the government development subsidies provided by the Assad regime. This development of certain Alawite villages, as well as the rise of the Alawite presence in Latakia, Homs, and Damascus, is often pointed to by those who favor the sectarian narrative as proof that the Assad regime is an Alawite regime. However, this assertion misses the big picture. Hafez al-Assad put personal friends into positions of power throughout the government and army, but Alawites who were not connected to the regime remained stuck in the poverty they had experienced for centuries. It was not Alawites as a whole, but rather Assad’s specific allies who rose to levels of striking wealth in Syria.
It is worth noting that Alawites do not only live in Syria, but also in Lebanon and Turkey (where they go by the Turkified name “Alevi”). The Alevi community in Turkey has always had a limited relationship with the Syrian community and, given their lack of contact and interaction with the Syrian Alawites, differing views of the Assad regime. Likewise, the community of 120 thousand Alawites in Lebanon is split: While some in the Alawite areas of Tripoli are taking up arms to defend the regime due to their longstanding ties with it, others, such as those in the southern Lebanese village of Ghajjar, are simply ambivalent. Therefore, there is no justification for the prevailing narrative in which it is the Assad regime’s Alawite identity that has fueled a religious conflict. Many Alawites within Syria remain unaided by the regime, and many Alawites outside Syria see no reason to lend Assad their support.
Instead, it is crucial to examine the impact of the Assad regime on the Syrian economy. The late 1970s and entirety of the 1980s saw extreme economic turmoil for Syria. Syrian agriculture suffered when the 1973 October War against Israel failed to recapture the country’s lost access to the Sea of Galilee. Moreover, Syrian industry suffered when an Islamist-led popular uprising in the industrial cities of Hama and Aleppo led to massacre and destruction. Through much of the 1980s, Syria was in a state of military lockdown and its economy was crippled as a result. Most Syrians subsisted only on government handouts and subsidies. The 1990s showed some growth, but the collapse of Assad’s strongest ally, the Soviet Union, made it clear that significant changes were necessary.
At the time of Hafez al-Assad’s death in 2000, Syria was far removed from the globalized, liberal market. As many Syrians are quick to point out, during Hafez’s rule, there were few fax machines and no mobile phones. Civilians were unable to access internet connections, satellite dishes, or foreign brands within the country. But when Bashar came into power in 2000, promises of political and economic liberalization came too. The political reforms and freedoms never materialized, but economic liberalization did. New industries were created, multi¬national firms penetrated the Syrian market, and the number of banks in Syria tripled from two to six. This period of transition, from a centralized, state-run economy towards a free market based on globalized trade, introduced an unprecedented amount of capital into Syria. As a result, a drastically expanded business-class bourgeoisie has emerged in Damascus and Aleppo, populated by Syrians of many Muslim denominations. Religion does not unite the members of this bourgeois class—the only thing they have in common is political connections.
To begin to understand the cronyism that characterizes the Assad regime, one need look no farther than Rami Makhlouf. Makhlouf is Assad’s maternal cousin, carrying the title of the “Richest Man in Syria” with around $5 billion US net worth in assets. He oversees both the licensing of the two telecom companies in Syria (MTN and Syriatel) and all foreign banks operating in Syria. For the vast majority of Syrians, Makhlouf represents the corruption and cronyism of the Assad regime.
Liberalization did not just grow the wealthy business class—it increased the size of the poorest class as well. As state-run sectors shrunk, government revenues fell and the state subsidies supporting the majority of Syrians were cut. This liberalization had a profound effect on the lives of rural Syrians, particularly in the southern Hauran region and the countryside surrounding Damascus and Aleppo.
Even with internet, mobile devices, and investment from Gulf banks, the Syrian economy stagnated in the 2000s. The eastern Mediterranean suffered from an unprecedented drought in 2008 that left the agricultural industries in the Hauran and Jazira regions in ruins. When the Syrian state did not address these challenges, Syrians left their towns and villages for the urban metropolises of Damascus and Aleppo, already overcrowded with refugees from Iraq. Syria came to rely more and more on imported goods, and the price of fuel, water, food, and rent rose significantly. The biggest boon to the economy was the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq. Cheap labor and plentiful capital from one million Iraqi refugees kept the Syrian economy afloat. Meanwhile, Iraq transformed into a woebegone political vacuum with de facto partitions along religious and ethnic lines.
Almost all appraisals of the conflict in Syria fail to address or even recall the non-sectarian elements that led to the situation in Syria today. While the country is proceeding steadily towards de facto religious and ethnic partitions, just as Iraq did a decade prior, religion did not start this conflict. It is simply being used as a cover for other elements at work. Yes, the Assad regime presents itself as a defender of religious minorities in Syria, and, yes, political Islam was an early goal of the ideologically tumultuous opposition forces. However, this is mainly rhetoric, and the realities of the situation have little to do with religion. As the conflict draws on as a stalemate, the religious narrative is being exploited to hide the kleptocracy of both the regime and the opposition as the collective suffering of the Syrian people only increases. If the religious narrative is the only one being told, then radicalization becomes inevitable.
A brief look at Syria’s neighbors can help clarify what’s at stake when this religious story goes too far. The “Sunni-Shi’a” and “Islamist-Secular” narratives appear as founding myths for Arab nations that were truly born from modern state conflict. Iraq, home to a diverse makeup of Muslim denominations, Christians, Kurds and Armenians, saw the de facto partition and radicalization of its society come to life out of the power vacuum caused by the removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Lebanon faced a similar fate at the close of its fifteen years of civil war: The state disintegrated into armed factions based on constructed ethno-religious narratives, with each faction backed by international geopolitical stakeholders. The Syrian case is running a similar course.
The entire Middle East has spent centuries chained to religious narratives that belie geopolitical forces at work between regional powers. This conflict is no exception. There are clear incentives for stakeholders to advance the religious narrative in pursuit of their political and economic goals inside Syria. Saudi Arabia and Qatar, for example, have funded hardline fringe jihadist armed groups while snubbing secular or moderate Islamist opposition. They defended this decision by arguing that the Assad regime contributes to an extremist Shi’a alliance that threatens all Muslims. Similar arguments were used to exclude Iran from the Geneva II conference, which is currently dragging on with no results. In the run-up to the talks in Geneva, the Gulf Cooperation Council member states vowed Iran could not take part due to its alliance with Assad and, particularly, its support for Hezbollah. However, excluding the Assad regime’s sole ally from the conversation has only led to the failure of the talks. The regime finds itself under diplomatic attack without an ally to defend it.
If history is any guide, the continued use of a religious narrative as explanation for the conflcit will only lead Syria further into inter-ethnic and religious rupture. If Syria is to have any hope of avoiding complete destruction, foreign stakeholders must forswear the religious façade and tackle the political and economic challenges at hand. The Syrian conflict did not begin as an altercation between fundamentally incompatible religious groups, but the more that story gets told, the more powerful it becomes. The religious narrative must be contextualized and not distorted in order to find a way to end this brutal civil war.
Born in Chicago, Bradley Williams, GS `15, is majoring in MESAAS and Linguistics. He arrived at Columbia this January after beginning his university education at the University of Damascus and the American University in Beirut. He previously worked for the Iraqi Student Project in Damascus and is hoping to start a scholarship fund for Syrian students who have been unable to finish their university education due to the conflict. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org