Debunking the Sunni v Shi’a myth in Syria

Insisting falsely that the Syrian is sectarian will tear the country apart once Assad is gone and place the Alawite minority in grave danger.

Tuesday 2 July 2013

A recent poll on Arabic's website asked who was responsible for turning the Syrian revolution into a sectarian conflict: the Sunnis or the Shi'a? Around 95% of those who voted blamed the deterioration on the Shi'a.

Although this result is shocking in its own right, what I find more confounding is the question itself. One would expect of a reputable Arab news channel not to play the sectarian game and reduce the conflict in Syria to a simplistic v Shi'a equation.

In unspoken recognition of this, Al Jazeera quietly changed the options to “the regime and its allies” or “the jihadists”, though this did not go unnoticed on social media.

And it is not just Al Jazeera that has been guilty of this intellectual folly and dangerous reductionism. Many segments of the Arab and the international have been occupied with the supposedly growing clash between Sunni and Shi'a .

“The Syrian civil war is setting off a contagious sectarian conflict beyond the country's borders,” the New York Times informs us. In an article for the Sunday Independent, veteran British war correspondent Robert Fisk warned that the region was now in the grips of a “titanic Islamic struggle” between Sunnis and Shi'a which “now dwarfs the Arab revolutions.”

I am well aware of the Sunni-Shi'a schism which dates back to the very dawn of Islam. I also recognise that a growing number of those involved in the Syrian conflict, especially foreign volunteers (both Sunni and the smaller number of Shi'a jihadists), increasingly see the conflict in such glaring sectarian terms.

However, the reality of the situation is that the civil war in Syria, though it has escalated tremendously, remains essentially a clash between an authoritarian, ruthless leadership and its associated elite (as well as those who feared instability) and the masses tired of bowing their heads.

The fact that Bashar al-Assad is an Alawite does not make Syria an “Alawite regime“, as some contend. There are those who point to how the 's top brass is dominated by career Alawite officers.

But this is partly a legacy of the divide and rule of the mandate with its view that the Alawites were the only “warlike race” in Syria, as well as the fact that the military is often one of the few means for the to get ahead. In addition, fearing how some Sunnis viewed his ascent to power, , the current president's father, surrounded himself with some of the loyalist of these Alawite officers.

In addition, most of the regime and the Syrian civilian elite which profits from it are Sunnis. Meanwhile, the bulk of the Alawite population still festers in poverty and marginalization – and many of these are struggling against the regime.

Over and above this, influential segments of the Alawite intelligentsia are on the side of the opposition, such as the courageous journalist and writer Samar Yazbek, who was jailed, discredited and persecuted for her opposition. “My heart is broken and I'll never be at peace again, but I will not stop fighting Assad's regime, no matter what the post-Assad future holds,” she wrote defiantly.

More fundamentally, the state's official ideology is pan-Arabist, secular Ba'athism, which though authoritarian is, in principle, blind to ethnicity and religion. Appropriately enough, the original Ba'ath party was established by a Christian (Michel Aflaq), a Sunni (Salah al-Din al-Bitar) and an Alawite (Zaki al-Arsuzi).

This makes secular Syria's alliance with theocratic Iran in recent years all the more puzzling. There are those who attribute it to some form of Shi'a solidarity or even a sinister Shi'a plot to subvert the Sunni order. But the Syria-Iran axis can be explained simply – and better – using classical geopolitics.

When the Syrian and Iranian regimes first became strategic allies during the Iran-Iraq war, it was more out of a shared opposition towards Iraq than any admiration for each other. More recently, the two countries' increasing isolation, as well as western hostility towards them, brought them ever closer, as did their common animosity towards the United States and Israel.

However, under less desperate circumstances the two regimes would have likely been enemies. Their ideologies and political visions are mutual anathema, and as for any supposed Shi'a solidarity, Iranians, like Sunnis, traditionally perceive Alawites as heretics.

In fact, it wasn't until Hafez al-Assad became president that any real effort was made to integrate Alawites into the wider Shi'a community. Seeking recognition for his sect, the former Syrian president, who seized power in a 1970 coup, managed to persuade Musa Sadr, an Iranian-Lebanese cleric, to issue a fatwa recognising Alawites as Shi'a.

What about Hizbullah, some might ask? Doesn't its close ties with Syria and the fact that it is fighting on the side of the regime betray this sectarianism?

No, not really. If anything, it reveals careful and cynical political calculations. Hizbullah does not want to lose one of its major backers, while the Assad regime needs all the firepower it can muster to survive.

Those who suspect the Assad regime of harbouring overpowering sympathies for the Shi'a of Lebanon need only rewind to 1976. In this early stage of the Lebanese civil war, Syria intervened not on the side of the Shi'a but on the side of the Maronites to push back the advancing PLO-Lebanese National Movement forces, and sat by and did nothing when Israel invaded the Shi'a-dominated south of Lebanon. Hafez al-Assad even allegedly helped install the Maronite Elias Sarkis as president.

Despite all this evidence to the contrary, some insist on the Sunni-Shi'a dimension. But this folly has potentially very serious consequences. If the sectarian idea gains further traction, then it will likely tear the country apart once the Assad regime is defeated, derailing future efforts to rebuild.

More ominously, once the guns fall silent, the hapless Alawite minority could pay a heavy price for this mythical clash if the Sunni majority decide to blame them collectively for Assad's abuses, conveniently forgetting the fact that most of the regime is Sunni.

Beyond Syria's borders, if the conflict continues to be viewed through the Sunni-Shi'a prism, there is the danger that it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy and ignite the flames of sectarianism across the region.

The current conflict in Syria (and the tensions in the wider Middle East) are not about some ancient feud regarding the status of Ali, but were and remain essentially a battle between the disenfranchised population and the entrenched and corrupt establishment.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post on 30 June 2013.


  • Khaled Diab

    Khaled Diab is an award-winning journalist, blogger and writer who has been based in Tunis, Jerusalem, Brussels, Geneva and Cairo. Khaled also gives talks and is regularly interviewed by the print and audiovisual media. Khaled Diab is the author of two books: Islam for the Politically Incorrect (2017) and Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land (2014). In 2014, the Anna Lindh Foundation awarded Khaled its Mediterranean Journalist Award in the press category. This website, The Chronikler, won the 2012 Best of the Blogs (BOBs) for the best English-language blog. Khaled was longlisted for the Orwell journalism prize in 2020. In addition, Khaled works as communications director for an environmental NGO based in Brussels. He has also worked as a communications consultant to intergovernmental organisations, such as the EU and the UN, as well as civil society. Khaled lives with his beautiful and brilliant wife, Katleen, who works in humanitarian aid. The foursome is completed by Iskander, their smart, creative and artistic son, and Sky, their mischievous and footballing cat. Egyptian by birth, Khaled's life has been divided between the Middle East and Europe. He grew up in Egypt and the , and has lived in Belgium, on and off, since 2001. He holds dual Egyptian-Belgian nationality.

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5 thoughts on “Debunking the Sunni v Shi’a myth in Syria

  • I certainly hope that the peoples of the region can figure out how to live together in some semblance of mutual respect and shared responsibility, but we certainly have a long way to go. “Democracy” can all too easily degrade into “tyranny of the masses”….

  • If only things were so simple. The only periods when the ‘multi-ethnic’ parts of the region have known stable government has been when they have been under strong rulers, either from within or from without. Lebanon, with it’s historically weak central government is probably the best reference for what we can hope for in the near term in Syria.

  • Reading this article gives me hope! I was always disappointed how the media flaming up the issue of ‘sectarian war’ including Al Jazeera. In fact, I did expect western media to give such a direction to Syrian war, but didn’t expect Al Jazeera to follow their path! Actually Al Jazeer is also biased when covering similar issues in Afghanistan.
    Anyway, I think your article provides a lot of insights that bring us close to reality. Merci Khaled!

  • I think your article is quite naive and refuses to deal with reality. You basically criticize al-Jazeera for posing the question that you do no like. Although there is a reason this reputable news network posed this question. The fact that the mass exodus of the Syrian people are from Sunni villages rather than Alawite and Shiite. The fact that Assad’s army consists of primarily of Shiia militias from Iraq , Iran and Lebanon.

    I read your article Coup de quoi ? And it seems to me that you engage more in propaganda than real journalism. You cannot be criticized for that. But when you try to re-interpret facts, that is a problem. You are entitled to your opinions but you are not entitled to your own facts.

  • Amira Mohsen Galal

    I think your article is spot on.
    It’s worth remembering that both the government & the opposition have exploited sectarian divisions to their own ends. The government warned of sectarian schisms appearing right at the beginning of the uprising and that may have been self actualising. Also their support from Hezbollah & Iran may be down to Shiite affiliation but I think it fits more into the Russia/ Iran alliance than anything else. If you recall, Syria was always aligned to the anti US bloc, as was Egypt under Gamal Abdel Nasser.
    It is indisputable that the MB and Salafis also exploited this- as you noted in the article, through al-Jazeera.
    Unfortunately, I think Syria has been the battleground for the Gulf influence in the region and these tensions between the Gulf and Iran have played themselves out most obviously in Syria and Lebanon (because these have the largest Shiite communities in the Arab world) also to a lesser extent in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia as well as becoming obvious in Egypt recently.
    As to the ‘Alawite regime’ I think it would be erroneous to suppose that the army is dominated by Alawites since statistically there are more Sunnis in the army (by conscription and by choice). On a higher level its worth noting that the army and defense ministry were dominated by the Tlass family, until recently, who are Sunni from the Sunni town of Rastan.
    I think it was always in the interests of the Alawite community in Syria to integrate with the Sunni majority- which is just what Hafez al Assad did, forcing the community to adapt to Sunni customs and appearances. It’s also worth noting that he built well over a 1000 Sunni mosques during the 70s and 80s
    Nonetheless, I have noticed extreme sectarian schisms in the way people now talk in Syria (and depressingly also in Egypt) which I personally attribute to propaganda spread by al-Jazeera and Islamist channels across the region.
    Before the Arab Spring, I never noticed these tensions in Syria- I couldn’t venture to say whether they existed (but were well hidden) before or not but I certainly understand that any minority in the Middle East would cling on the the secular regimes of the past (however corrupt they maybe) rather than the Islamist opposition and governments that have emerged (whether espoused by the majority Sunni populations or not)
    I remember having a conversation with a Shiite Lebanese who said that 1400 years and Sunnis are still massacring Shiites and in a way I do see his point.
    It’s an existential question at this time.


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