Lines in the Sand: Assad Plays the Sectarian Card

On March 6, 2011, a group of fifteen schoolboys in the southern Syrian town of Daraa were arrested by local security forces. Aged ten to fifteen, the boys were caught spray-painting the slogan “As Shaab Yoreed Eskaat el nizam!”—“The people want to topple the regime!” They had taken the words from satellite television coverage of the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.

The boys’ parents were members of Daraa’s most prominent families: Sunni tribesmen from the Haroun plains, which run from the Golan Heights along the Jordanian border. Their captor was Atef Najib, the head of local security, a first cousin of President Bashar al-Assad and a member of his minority Alawite sect. When the families approached him with a local Sunni sheikh, seeking the release of the boys, Najeeb responded with crude insults, according to an account by an Al Jazeera reporter. He told them to forget their children, go home to their wives, have sex, and make more.

On March 18th, with their boys still in custody, the furious families and local clerics marched on the offices of Faisal Kalthoum, the local governor—another Assad intimate from Damascus. Security forces opened fire, killing at least four persons. When the boys were freed several days later, they were disfigured with marks of torture, including extracted fingernails. Another demonstration erupted; the governor’s office was burned. Syria’s uprising had begun.

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What began as a trifling provincial conflict has since exploded into a civil war upon which the future of the Middle East may pivot. Most of Syria has been enveloped by fighting. By March 2012, more than seventy-five hundred people had been reported killed. The first confrontations came between crowds of unarmed protestors, often chanting “peaceful, peaceful,” and security forces that invariably responded with gunfire. Now there are full-scale military assaults by regime tanks, artillery, and infantry against urban neighborhoods defended by ad hoc militias equipped with rifles and rocket-propelled grenades.

One by one, Syria’s neighbors, allies, and enemies have been drawn in. Iran, Russia, and Venezuela are supplying arms, fuel, and cash to the Assad regime. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar are arming, funding, or sheltering the opposition Free Syrian Army. Militants from Iraq and Lebanon are trafficking weapons across the border. Al-Qaeda is said to have dispatched cadres to carry out suicide bombings.

The reasons all this has happened can be discerned in the story of that first episode in Daraa, which embodies the initial appeal of the Arab Spring—a yearning for political freedom and economic modernization that, spread by satellite television and the Internet, has captivated a rising generation across the Middle East. As an equal and opposite reaction, there is the vicious and brutal response of the regime to reasonable demands for justice, which has inflamed rather than squelched public anger.

But there has also been, from the very beginning, a streak of raw sectarianism in the Syrian version of the Spring: of a disgruntled Sunni majority turning on the corrupt ruling clique based in the Alawis—an offshoot of Shiite Islam that represents just twelve percent of Syria’s population. It is sectarianism that has motivated much of the foreign intervention, from Shiite Iran to the Sunni Persian Gulf kingdoms and Turkey’s Sunni Islamist government.

Syria, which has always defined itself as the “beating heart” of the Middle East, has become the focal point of at least four regional conflicts: between the old autocratic order and the liberal movements for modernization and democracy; between Iran and its allies and the United States, Israel, and the “moderate” Arab states; between the Western powers and Russia and China; and between the Sunni and Shiite sects. In the end, the sectarian battle—with its potential for unending, pitiless carnage—may drive all the rest.


Sectarian conflict has been part of the Middle East since the wars over the succession to the prophet Muhammad in the seventh century. For most of the twentieth century, the rivalries among various currents of Islam, Christians, Kurds, and others were stifled by an overlay of colonialism, and later by the secular, nationalist regimes that came to power in Egypt, Iraq, and Syria in the 1950s.

The war in Lebanon from 1975 to 1989 was a horrific exception to this stability, pitting Christians against Shiites and Sunnis and prompting armed interventions by Syria, Israel, the United States, France, and Iran. Meanwhile, the inconclusive war between Sunni Iraq and Shiite Iran from 1980 to 1988 left Sunni-ruled states in the Persian Gulf—some with their own large Shiite populations—with an enduring animus against what they regard as Iran’s Shiite imperialist aspirations.

The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 had the unintended consequence of reopening the Shiite-Sunni conflict across the region. While Shiite and Sunni militias battled for power in postwar Baghdad, Iran and the Persian Gulf states lined up on opposite sides. (Curiously, the Assad regime, eager to bloody the United States, mostly abetted Sunni insurgents and al-Qaeda, allowing foreign fighters from Saudi Arabia and the Maghreb to transit its territory to western Iraq.) At enormous cost, the United States eventually managed to subdue the sectarian militants on both sides and, after the 2010 Iraqi election, broker a government led by the Shiite majority but including Sunni and Kurdish leaders.

One of the first effects of the Syrian uprising has been to blow up this fragile quasi-democratic order. Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, a Shiite with close ties to Iran, seemed to be inching away from sectarian politics: He personally led an offensive against a Shiite militia in southern Iraq and seemed intent on preventing the establishment of Iranian suzerainty in Baghdad. In conversations with American interlocutors, he frequently predicted that Iraq’s sectarian divisions would slowly recede with the advances of democracy and economic recovery.

Syria, however, has spooked Maliki, say those who know him. By nature a suspicious and conspiratorial politician, Maliki sees the possible downfall of Assad as a likely triumph for the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood—and therefore also for the hard-line Sunni Islamists of Iraq’s majority Sunni provinces, which border on Syria. A Sunni Syria endangers what Maliki views as the central outcome of the Iraq War, which is the political preeminence of Shiites in Baghdad.

The Iraqi leader is also under growing pressure from Iran’s clerical regime, for which the Syrian conflict is an existential threat. Assad is not just Tehran’s closest ally in the Middle East, but its bridge to the Shiite Hezbollah movement in Lebanon and its platform for pressuring Israel. Hezbollah’s arsenal of missiles, supplied by Iran through Syria, are one of Iran’s principal deterrents against an Israeli strike on its nuclear program.

According to US and Arab sources, Iran has sent advisers from the Quds Force of its Revolutionary Guard to Syria to advise Assad, supplied him and his family with bodyguards, and flown in planeloads of weapons through Iraqi airspace. Maliki has tried to resist the creation of this air corridor, with uncertain results. But he is meanwhile taking his own protective measures: The Syrian crisis, as much as the US troop withdrawal at the end of last year, explains his sudden political offensive in December against Sunni political leaders in Baghdad, including an attempt to arrest Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi.

Maliki’s rash campaign produced its own backlash. Hashimi took refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan, whose leaders also support the anti-Assad forces. Both Iraqi Sunnis and Kurds are now considering whether they should split their regions off into mini-states independent from Baghdad—a move that looks much more feasible if Syria tilts toward Sunni rule.

That brings us to Turkey, which also might provide a tacit security umbrella for Iraqi Sunnis and Kurds. Turkey, with its Islamist prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was one of the most ambitious players in the Middle East before the Arab Spring. It remains so—but its policies have been turned upside down. Before last year, Erdogan devoted considerable effort to courting Assad, expanding economic ties and attempting to broker Israel’s return of the Golan Heights. When the protests first began, the Turkish leader attempted to persuade Assad to adopt reforms. When the strongman broke his promises to do so, the mercurial Erdogan was infuriated.

Now Turkey has adopted a policy in keeping with the emerging sectarian showdown. It is tacitly backing the Free Syrian Army, which is headquartered in refugee camps on its territory, as well as the Syrian National Council, the opposition political front. In political talks, it leans toward Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood. Meanwhile, Ankara is allied with the Iraqi Sunnis and Kurds against Maliki. The regime’s ideologues dream of restoring Turkey’s influence to the former Ottoman provinces of Syria and western Iraq, at the expense of Iran.

The most militant backers of the Syrian opposition, however, are the Gulf Arabs—particularly Saudi Arabia and Qatar. It was Qatar that pushed the Arab League to adopt sanctions against Syria, and a plan for forcing Assad’s departure from power. Both countries have come out in favor of Arab military intervention on the side of the opposition. According to diplomatic sources, both have delivered cash to the Free Syrian Army for use in purchasing and smuggling weapons. In March, they were pressing Turkey and the United States to develop a plan for creating and protecting an opposition safe zone inside Syria.

US officials argue that the motives of the Sunni kings and emirs are not entirely sectarian. “Now why is this happening,” asked Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey D. Feltman in testimony before the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee on March 1st. “I think, in part, this is happening because of the Arab Spring.”

“If you look at opinion poll after opinion poll, Bashar al-Assad is at the bottom of the list of popularity among Arab leaders. He has no credibility in the Arab world. And I think Arab leaders want to show their own populations that they get it, that they understand that they need to be in tune with their popular opinion.”

Maybe so. Yet the reality is that at the same moment it was arming the opposition against Assad, Saudi Arabia was putting down demonstrations by its own restless Shiite population by force. On consecutive days in February, security forces opened fire on protestors in the eastern town of Qatif; at least two persons were reported killed. Saudi and United Arab Emirate troops meanwhile continue to back the embattled Sunni regime in Bahrain, where what began last year as a pro-democracy movement has turned into yet another Sunni-Shiite standoff.


American policymakers tend to argue against the importance of sectarian motivations in Syria in part because sectarianism is poison to US interests and goals across the region. In particular, sectarian conflict undermines the prospect for democracy—in Syria, Iraq, Bahrain, Lebanon, and elsewhere. “When you put sectarianism alongside democracy and human rights, sectarianism wins,” one veteran diplomat ruefully conceded in a recent conversation.

Of course, some of the products of Syria’s sectarianism have been positive, from Washington’s point of view. Chief among them has been the transformation of the Palestinian Hamas movement, which like the Erdogan government in Turkey has flipped its allegiances since the uprising began and now opposes the government. Based for more than a decade in Damascus, the last member of the Hamas politburo left Syria in December; not long afterward, the Sunni Islamist movement formally denounced Assad. The implications are far-reaching. Deprived of its link to Iran and Iranian weapons, Hamas may now gravitate toward Egypt, where its parent organization, the Muslim Brotherhood, now is the largest party in parliament. Over time, that could lead to a decision by Hamas to adopt the Egyptian organization’s commitment to non-violence. Already the group appears to be cleaving over the issue of joining a “unity” Palestinian government with the secular Fatah movement, which has embraced both non-violence and recognition of Israel.

The Syrian conflict has served to tighten US relations with allies with whom it has been at odds in recent years—especially Turkey and Saudi Arabia. It has given cause for collaboration between the Obama administration and the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu, which have been jointly exploring how to protect against the use or dispersal of Assad’s stocks of chemical and biological weapons. The harm that the turmoil in Syria is causing to Iran was one of the arguments President Obama deployed in attempting to dissuade Netanyahu from an Israeli military strike against Iran when the two leaders met in early March.

The central thrust of US policy has nevertheless been to head off a full-scale sectarian war in Syria. The quicker Assad falls, administration officials believe, the more likely it is that he could be replaced with a liberal and democratic order. Conversely, the longer the domestic bloodshed goes on, the more likely it is that sectarian fighting will take over the country, and possibly spread to Lebanon or Iraq.

“The opposition leadership recognizes those dangers,” Assistant Secretary of State Feltman said in his Senate testimony. “It’s one of the reasons why I said our policy is to try to accelerate the arrival of that tipping point” at which Assad falls. “The longer this goes on, the higher the risks of long-term sectarian conflict, the higher the risk of extremism. So we want to see this happen earlier.”

The Syrian opposition, too, has tried hard to avoid sectarianism. In early demonstrations, marchers chanted slogans in favor of a “Syria for all”; the Syrian National Council has issued statements offering assurances to the Alawi community, as well as to Christians (ten percent of the population) and Kurds (nine percent). Echoing the opposition position, the US ambassador to Damascus, Robert S. Ford, testified to the Senate in March that “this is not about Alawis versus a Sunni Arab majority. This is about a family that happens to be Alawi that has dominated the country and stripped it for forty years. Alawis are suffering too.”

The problem, as both administration officials and Syrian opposition leaders acknowledge, is that as the fighting goes on—and gets bloodier—democratic liberals in the opposition tend to get pushed aside by Sunni Islamists who are more willing to die for their cause. Before his untimely death from an asthma attack, New York Times correspondent Anthony Shadid reported that Sunni-against-Alawi fighting was in fact overtaking the city of Homs.

“Paramilitaries on both sides have burned houses and shops,” he reported in a November dispatch. “Alawite residents have been forced to flee to their native villages. Kidnappings, many of them random, have accelerated. . . . Alawites wear Christian crosses to avoid being abducted or killed when passing through the most restive Sunni neighborhoods.”

Shortly after Shadid’s death in February, Assad’s elite Army units launched an all-out assault on one of those Homs neighborhoods, Bab al-Amr. For weeks, indiscriminate artillery fire rained down on apartment buildings, destroying or damaging hundreds of them, and killing an uncounted number of civilians. Finally, tanks moved in and routed the ragtag forces of the Free Syrian Army. In the aftermath, the “inevitable collapse” of Assad repeatedly and publicly predicted by Obama appeared far from certain.


Assad, for his part, has cultivated a sectarian showdown all along. From the beginning, he has described the opposition as “jihadists” linked to al-Qaeda. In May of last year, his cousin and close collaborator, Rami Makhlouf, warned Anthony Shadid that the clan would go down fighting. “We will not go out, leave on our boat, go gambling,” Shadid quoted him as saying. “We will sit here. We call it a fight to the end.”

This might seem suicidal, given the regime’s growing isolation in Syrian society. In fact it is a desperate but shrewd effort to divide and rule. The regime’s message to the Alawi community is simple: “If we die, you will die with us.” To minority Christians, Kurds, and Druse, the message is: “You will be crushed by the Islamist Sunni majority if it comes to power.” Just that sort of logic kept Lebanon fighting for fourteen years, as minority Christian Maronites, with no boat to leave on, refused to concede their leading political position, while Lebanese Sunnis, Shias, Druse, and Palestinians fought them and occasionally each other.

The Obama administration’s hope has been that a combination of sanctions, international pressure, and its own public jawboning would persuade Christians, Muslim merchants in Aleppo and Damascus, and, eventually, Alawi colonels and generals that their best interest lay in abandoning the Assad clan. By late March, however, there was scant sign of that happening. The reality the United States and allies like Turkey appeared to face was this: Unless confronted with more military force, or the loss of its supplies from Russia and Iran, the Assad regime was unlikely to cease its bloody offensives against opposition-held ground.

Yet the Obama administration and its NATO allies have been  reluctant to intervene directly in Syria—and they have had no luck persuading Russia to cease support for its traditional client. Russia, too, stands to lose from a prolonged sectarian conflict in Syria, since the likely winner, the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood, would be sure to punish Moscow. Russia’s hope is that Assad can win the domestic war quickly with its support, or at least force the opposition into an accommodation that leaves his regime in power, along with Russia’s arms sales and access to its Mediterranean naval base at Tarsus.

Although they agreed in March on a UN-endorsed peace mission by former Secretary General Kofi Annan, the strategies of Washington and Moscow risked cancelling each other out. That left the field to those who stand to gain by a longer sectarian fight: Iran, the Gulf states, Iraq’s Sunnis and Kurds, and, to a lesser degree, Israel.

Any regime under siege is vulnerable to fragmentation and collapse, of course, and given the rapid unraveling of the domestic economy, it would hardly be a surprise if Assad were suddenly dispatched by an internal coup. Yet as the Syrian revolt passed its first anniversary, its end appeared as likely to be far away as close. With the help of his neighbors, Assad had succeeded in releasing the ancient virus of religious hatred among his people. History shows that once loosed, that toxin is almost never quickly dispersed.

Jackson Diehl is the deputy editorial page editor of the Washington Post.


Photo Credit: Jane Houle

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