Erin York is a postdoctoral fellow at Princeton University. In fall 2021, she will join Vanderbilt University as assistant professor of political science. She conducts research on autocratic politics and ethnic identity in the Middle East and North Africa. From 2009 to 2010, she was a Fulbright Fellow in Damascus, Syria.
The conflict in Syria has been tremendously destructive, leading to massive population displacement of Syrian citizens within the country and abroad. At this point, Syria is the largest global source of refugees and has one of the highest emigration rates as a percentage of total population (UN World Migration Report 2020), and the UNHCR counts around 5.5 million registered refugees scattered across the Middle East and globally. What do we know about how these displaced persons perceive the conflict, and how are their views shaped by sectarian identity and efforts by participants—particularly the Assad regime—to define the conflict in communal terms?
The Rise of the Sectarian Narrative
At its origin, the Syrian uprising was a contest over political rights and freedoms, inspired by the anti-authoritarian demonstrations taking place in other regional states. Yet communal and sectarian identity has featured in the conflict narrative almost since its beginning, both in international and scholarly coverage. This framing of the fighting is driven by a number of factors—the character of the minority-led Assad government and a preoccupation with sectarian division region-wide, the highly visible entry into the conflict of religious extremists, and, especially important for the domestic audience, the messaging offered by the Syrian government itself throughout the fighting.
Communal and sectarian identity has featured in the conflict narrative almost since its beginning, both in international and scholarly coverage.
The regime, in a bid to prevent the Free Syrian Army and other actors from siphoning public support, sought from the beginning to highlight the outsized presence of Sunni Arabs among the opposition fighters and to recast the conflict as an attempt by the Sunni majority to gain power. In a speech delivered in March 2011, Bashar al-Assad referred to his opponents as “conspirators” and accused them of sectarian incitement. The opposition countered this messaging with its own emphasis on creating a democratic, pluralistic society, but it is unclear how successful this more inclusive framing was in reaching its intended audience.
Conflict Perceptions among Displaced Syrians
How do Syrians—especially those displaced in the chaos—view the role of sectarian identity in the conflict? And to what extent are their views shaped by factional affiliations? Some insight can be derived from the results of a survey of Syrians living in Lebanon, which I conducted in partnership with Daniel Corstange in mid-2015. The 2,000-respondent survey included both registered and unregistered refugees, identified using area sampling based on UNHCR data at the time. There are many challenges associated with sampling a transient population, but overall, respondent demographics are roughly consistent with the sparse existing metrics of the pre-conflict Syrian population. Respondents hailed from all Syrian governorates and represent a range of education and income levels.
How do Syrians—especially those displaced in the chaos—view the role of sectarian identity in the conflict?
In terms of attitudes toward the conflict, respondents were split between government and opposition support, with 39% aligned with the regime. But this was closely correlated with ethnoreligious identity: Kurds and members of religious minority groups were vastly more likely to express support for the regime (92%) than Sunni Arabs (35%). In other words, communal differences are important in predicting political views among this population. This is further evidence of what became increasingly clear as the conflict dragged on: Despite the efforts of the Free Syrian Army and other groups to avoid a sectarian divide and unite the populace behind general appeals early on, they were largely unsuccessful in broadening the opposition coalition and persuading minority communities to defect to their side.
Respondents were also asked about their perceptions of the reasons for the conflict, and here, again, there was a considerable divide across communal groups. Sunni Arabs were much more likely to see it as a conflict over political rights—78% listed democratic freedoms as a somewhat or very important reason for the fighting, compared to 44% of other respondents.
Yet they displayed considerably less commitment to the idea of religious motivation for the conflict, rating sectarian differences as “not very” or “not at all” important. This held true for both majority and minority respondents (68% and 60%, respectively), as well as government and opposition supporters (both 67%).
What of the regime's use of messaging that characterized its opponents as motivated by sectarian objectives? To test whether this type of communication was effective in revising individual views of the conflict, we incorporated a framing experiment into the survey, offering up a narrative for what the conflict was about (sectarian differences, political rights, or a variety of other explanations) and then asking respondents to share their thoughts on the reasons behind the fighting.
These findings suggest that the regime’s messaging can exert a meaningful effect on citizen perceptions, perhaps rallying existing government supporters and disincentivizing defection.
We found that sectarian framing was effective in shifting individual characterization of the conflict—but only for respondents that also indicated support for the Assad regime. Opposition supporters were unmoved in their attitudes. The effect also weakened with competing frames—that is, when the sectarian message was offered alongside an alternative reason for the conflict. These findings suggest that the regime’s messaging can exert a meaningful effect on citizen perceptions, perhaps rallying existing government supporters and disincentivizing defection. But this shift is easily overwhelmed in a setting with so many competing narratives at work. Yet the fact that minority communities were so unlikely to indicate support for the opposition suggests that the primary goal—to dissuade defection among these groups—was largely achieved.
Divisive Messaging and Its Repercussions
The Assad regime's decision to accuse its opponents of sectarian incitement—and the relative success of such strategic framing in shaping its followers' views and dissuading minority defection—will likely have important and lasting implications for post-conflict society. Syria has long hosted a communally diverse population, and before the war began, sectarian and ethnic groups coexisted alongside one another in seeming tranquility. The stoking of ethnoreligious differences risks generating lasting distrust and enmity among these groups and shifting Syrian society toward the uneasy sectarian relations exemplified by its neighbors to east and west. The pre-conflict Assad regime was no beacon of “tolerant secularism,” as it was characterized in a widely derided Vogue article published around the start of the conflict.
The stoking of ethnoreligious differences risks generating lasting distrust and enmity among these groups.
This will also impact Syria's evolving ethnoreligious demographics. The survey data described above was collected on a population of displaced Syrians, and there is little clarity at this point on what rights and assurances will be put in place for such individuals should they seek to return home. The vast majority (92%) of survey respondents indicated they would “definitely” want to return to Syria post-conflict. But whether they and other Syrian emigrants act on that desire will necessarily be conditioned on the shape of post-conflict politics and society, which remain uncertain to date.