After the initial protests began in Syria in January 2011, Assad quickly realized the opposition movement against his rule was too powerful to subdue. The origins and the evolvements of prior events in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt—the Arab Spring—that resulted in the fall of three decades-old regimes were too similar to ignore. Furthermore, the uprising in Syria was a wake-up call. As a new and much stronger wave, the opposition emerged as a supra-sectarian movement where the masses were chanting "Syrians are one!" defying the sectarian alignments from which the Assad regime (and prior to that, the French mandate rule) benefited for decades. The Assad family are Alawites who are adherents of a syncretistic belief with close affinity to Shiite Islam. Prior to the civil war, the Alawites comprised only 15% of Syria’s population, making the Assad regime a minority-Shiite rule in a majority-Sunni country.
As a new and much stronger wave, the opposition emerged as a supra-sectarian movement where the masses were chanting 'Syrians are one!'
While suppressing the first waves of the opposition with state violence, Assad by late 2011 also began to instrumentalize sectarian vulnerabilities and anxieties to shape the narrative of the conflict into one where the involved factions began to be defined by their sectarian identities. His strategy was to attract foreign support (specifically from Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon) to secure his authority not as another government in the Middle East with declining legitimacy and power, but rather as a Shiite regime entrenched in the region against neighboring hostile Sunni regimes, such as Turkey, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia.
This shift in rhetoric was stark as Assad positioned himself during the first decade of his rule as a seemingly secular ruler having equal distance to a number of regimes in the region and putting less emphasis on sectarian alignments in the Syrian state and society compared to his father, Hafez al-Assad. It was, therefore, not surprising that Bashar al-Assad’s inaugural slogan, “change through continuity,” was both reassuring for the Alawites and novel enough for the Sunnis, who received the slogan as an invitation to push for progress.
In order to implement his new strategy, Assad began to position himself as a pious Shiite through events, appearances, and organizations. His public persona and rhetoric aimed to dissociate the Alawites from the opposition and to transform the nature of the resistance from a united front against his anti-democratic rule to a sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shiites. Ultimately, Assad knew that there was still a great deal of political power to gain from exploiting the deep-seated Alawite insecurity against the Sunni majority.
Assad knew that there was still a great deal of political power to gain from exploiting the deep-seated Alawite insecurity against the Sunni majority.
His straightforward and hardly revolutionary strategy proved to be a successful one. The main Shite political and military organizations in the region, Hezbollah and Iran, decided to back Assad immediately. Soon after, the governments of Turkey and Saudi Arabia, both with strong Sunni ideologies, began to insert themselves into the conflict. As the unrest turned into an all-out civil war fought between the majority Sunnis, on one side, and Shiites with the support of minority Alawites on the other, much-needed financial and military support for both sides of the conflict began to pour from international actors in the name of organizations such as ISIS and the Free Syrian Army.
Sectarian Conflict in Historical Perspective
How did Bashar al-Assad manage to implement his strategy so successfully and so quickly? The answer lies in the long and often-neglected history of his approach to religion and sects in the region. In fact, the current geographical configuration of the Middle East— Sunnis and Shiites facing off in Iraq and Syria, with two major Sunni powers (Turkey and Saudi Arabia) and a major Shiite power (Iran)—dates back to the sixteenth century. It was then when the two mighty powers, the Turkish Ottoman Empire (1299–1923) and the Persian Safavid Empire (1499–1722), transformed an emerging geopolitical conflict into a series of seemingly sectarian wars in which they stood up as the “representors” and “guardians” of Sunnism and Shiism, respectively, in the region that now consists of Turkey, Iran, Syria, and Iraq.
How did Bashar al-Assad manage to implement his strategy so successfully and so quickly? The answer lies in the long and often-neglected history of his approach to religion and sects in the region.
The Safavids of Iran, following a 200 year-long process of Shiitization, consolidated their power in the early sixteenth century as a strong political alternative. One of the major strategies of this newly established state was to infiltrate into the neighboring Ottoman regions of Anatolia and Mesopotamia with a series of religiopolitical and fiscal efforts. The main goal was to cultivate sympathy among the Ottoman subjects via sending money and valuables to Safavid leaders, refusing to fight for the Ottoman army, and eventually migrating to Iran.
The Ottoman state, after realizing that the Safavid activities within its borders went beyond being isolated incidents that involved “insignificant” people and their “insignificant” stories, became increasingly apprehensive. By the mid-sixteenth century, hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of the empire’s subjects were responding to the Safavid efforts that the vast majority of the core Ottoman lands became sympathizers of the Safavid court (called Qizilbash). However, the regions from which the largest number of people responded to the Safavid efforts were those experiencing socioeconomic problems or political disturbances due to the Ottoman policies of sedentarization, centralization, heavy taxation, and exploitation.
The Ottoman center, as a response to the direness of the situation, began to demonize the sympathizers of the Safavids as “Shiite heretics,” whose persecution was a “God-given duty” for the Ottoman rulers, who now increasingly identified themselves as the “guardians of Sunni Islam against Shiism.” This was done mainly via religious rulings, court chronicles, and imperial orders. While pursuing other strategies to handle the situation, such as negotiation and accommodation, on the day-to-day basis, the imperial vocabulary became fixated in a sectarian framework. The Safavid court reciprocated by depicting itself as the “true guardian of Islam” under the Shiite rubric. Ultimately, the religious and political identities of two emerging empires became closely intertwined, a geopolitical rivalry turned into a conflict characterized by sectarian vocabulary, and a series of costly wars were fought throughout the sixteenth and first half of the seventeenth century.
It was during the Ottoman-Safavid conflict that the Sunni and Shiite denominations of Islam, as known and practiced today, fully materialized with close ties to political establishments in the region.
While the Ottoman-Safavid conflict may seem too specific or too distant within the context of the current situation in Syria over the last ten years, it was during the Ottoman-Safavid conflict that the Sunni and Shiite denominations of Islam, as known and practiced today, fully materialized with close ties to political establishments in the region. The long-term connections between the early modern renderings of the instrumentalization of religion and today’s Middle East can, for instance, be seen in how the term “Safavid” has been used as a derogatory “shorthand” for the Shiite states and individuals by both the former members of Iraq’s (Sunni) Baath party and by fundamentalist movements, including Al-Qaeda and ISIS.
Reconsidering Religion and Nationalism
Lewis B. Namier, a British historian, once stated, “religion is a sixteenth-century word for nationalism.” While the term “nationalism” in its modern context did not exist in the sixteenth century, religion served as a tool to mold, shape, and manipulate the rhetoric by political authorities in the early modern era, functioning similarly to nationalism in the modern period. This strategy, however, did not remain in the pre-nation state period as the current Syrian example is but one of many where religion has served as a vehicle to alter geopolitical and cultural conceptions of identity, state of belonging, and obedience among a wide variety of individuals, communities, and states.
Religion served as a tool to mold, shape, and manipulate the rhetoric by political authorities in the early modern era, functioning similarly to nationalism in the modern period.
This is of course not to argue the separability of religion from politics and its idealization through time. Religion has always been imbued in politics, not only in the Middle East but elsewhere around the world initiating premeditated and ideologically charged labels with tangible, and often times destructive, consequences in the Middle East, both past and present.
This then leaves us asking: Do we need a more nuanced understanding of “religion” and “politics” to help us better understand the interplay between the two?
This is, however, a topic for another discussion.