The Religious Component of the Syrian Conflict: More than Perception

A large group of protesters in Idlib, Syria. Image: Syria Freedom

According to a recent Washington Post article about Egypt’s decision to cut off diplomatic relations with Syria, President Morsi’s actions and call for Hezbollah to leave Syria “point to the increasing perception of the Syrian conflict as sectarian.” The role of religion in the conflict is being underplayed by journalists and analysts.

The sectarian divide in Syria is neither a perception nor a secondary point of analysis. It is a reality that is central to the roots of the conflict as well as to why it is being fought and how it will be resolved.

This conflict did not begin as a strictly religious conflict. It began much as the uprisings in other Arab countries throughout the Arab Spring: average citizens of all walks of life going to the street to claim the freedoms that had long been denied them by a dictator with a tight grip on power.

But it is unquestionably religious now, as we see from the definition of religious conflict put forward by noted scholar of religion Monica Duffy Toft. She defines civil war as large-scale violence with two sets of organized combatants within the borders of a state, with an average of at least 1,000 deaths per year. She then defines religious civil war as civil war in which combatants identify with different faith traditions or are of the same faith but contest the role of their religion vis-à-vis society and the state. Syria falls squarely in the latter definition.

Because both President Bashar al-Assad and his father before him gave special priority, power, and benefit to Syria’s small Alawite minority while excluding the Sunni majority from resources and power, the nature of the country’s problems—and thus now the war—is infused with religion. It is true that oppositionists went to the street out of political, not theological, differences, but the fact that the political imbalance was drawn along religious lines put these religious identities at the heart of the fight.

Likewise, the current prosecution of the war—particularly among many proxies and funders—is also breaking along religious lines. Shiite-led Iran is funding Assad’s brutal campaign, and Hezbollah is fighting against the Sunni oppositionists. Egyptian President Morsi’s severing of diplomatic ties and opposition to Hezbollah’s role was done at the behest of a strong group of Sunni clerics. Likewise, Sunni-led Saudi Arabia and Qatar are funding various Sunni opposition groups. The head of al-Qaeda’s Iraqi presence, a group adamantly fighting against the Shiite-led government in Baghdad, is strongly supporting various elements of the Syrian Sunni opposition. While there are non-religious funders and backers, notably Russia and to a lesser extent the United States, one cannot overlook the strong religious interests of the others.

The fact that religion is central to the roots and prosecution of the war is not a novel social science observation. It indicates that the conflict will likely be longer than expected and the resolution more difficult, based on the scholarship about religious and non-religious civil wars provided by Duffy Toft:

  • Religious civil wars last an average of 105 months. Non-religious civil wars last an average of 81 months.
  • Religious civil wars are twice as likely to recur: 26 percent of the time compared to the 12 percent reoccurrence rate of non-religious wars.
  • Religious civil wars are twice as deadly to noncombatants as civil wars in which religion is peripheral. The former averages 31,000 deaths per year, while the latter averages 14,000.

Those working to resolve this conflict will have to consider not only the difficult past and how to rebuild a post-war society, but also the wider implications of the involvement of internal and external groups as well as states that have a religious interest in the future of Syria. The stakes are significantly higher now. This is no longer solely a political power battle; for many, this has now taken on a higher religious meaning. As the international community continues to weigh the costs of various intervention options, it must consider not only today’s concerns, but rather the impact of a protracted, multi-stakeholder, religious-infused conflict that could have far greater and long-reaching costs: human, financial, and systemic.

While Syria is a central geopolitical challenge, the lessons learned extend far beyond this conflict.

If statistics show us that religious-infused conflicts are deadlier, longer, and reoccur more often, then the international community must pay special attention to areas where religious conflict is likely. Conflicts take on a religious component when injustices are perpetrated along religious lines—as is the case in Syria—and/or where religious persecution pushes religious believers to use violence to oppose such persecution. Religious persecution is therefore central to the international community’s efforts to predict and ultimately prevent conflict. The active promotion of religious freedom will be pivotal to averting deadly religious conflict.

In the long run, promoting religious freedom today could save the international community significant costs, and more importantly, a lot of lives.

Nicole Bibbins Sedaca is currently an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s Master of Science in Foreign Affairs (MSFS) program. She also serves as Chairperson of the Board of Directors of the Institute for Global Engagement. Previously, she served for ten years in the U.S. Department of State.

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9 comments to The Religious Component of the Syrian Conflict: More than Perception by Nicole Bibbins Sedaca

  • Mohamed khan

    Very interesting article and comments. The solution to the problem will be electing one leader for the Muslims In Syria.
    The leader to be not from Syria and should be the head of Muslims in all Middle East.
    Thru him God willing the Muslims will unite and the blood sheds in Middle East will come to an end.

  • [...] According to experts, the answer is no… at the beginning. The question at stake was the continuity of the regime. But some minorities were more supportive of it than others and this factor influenced political alignments. The religious factor coupled with those political positions has been used to fuel intolerance in some parts of this (formerly secular) country. The emergence among the rebel groups of Islamist and Salafist militias (both Syrian born and foreign fighters), and even Al Qaeda linked groups, that fight for an Islamic state, have further polarized positions. The roles of Saudi Arabia and Iran in the regional setting, exploiting the Sunni-Shia factor, only added complexity. Nowadays, the religious element must not be discarded. [...]

  • [...] La emergencia entre los rebeldes de milicias salafistas (tanto sirias como extranjeras) e incluso de grupos ligados a Al Qaeda, han polarizado las posturas hasta el extremo. Los papeles de Arabia Saudí e Irán son relevantes ya que explotan el factor divisivo suní-chií, lo que sólo añade complejidad adicional. Actualmente es imprescindible tener en cuenta los factores religiosos. [...]

  • Thomas McAllister

    No one in the media or politics wants to talk about the elephant in the room, because his name is religion.
    As the late and great Christopher Hitchens stated so well in his delightful book…. “RELIGION POISONS EVERYTHING”.

  • J Sanders

    Good article and analysis of the Syrian conflict. The question that was not answered is, how should the rest of the world respond to the wide spread indiscriminate killing of their own citizens, by their own government?

  • [...] Syria: Religious Civil Wars Last Longer – Nicole Bibbins Sedaca Syria is experiencing a religious civil war in which combatants identify with different faith traditions. In Religion and International Relations Theory, Monica Duffy Toft notes that religious civil wars last an average of 105 months. Non-religious civil wars last an average of 81 months. Religious civil wars are twice as likely to recur: 26% of the time compared to 12% for non-religious wars. Religious civil wars are twice as deadly to noncombatants as civil wars in which religion is peripheral. The writer, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University, is Chairperson of the Board of Directors of the Institute for Global Engagement. (Georgetown Journal of International Affairs) [...]

  • Marcus Wenger

    The situation is perhaps slightly more complex than the intuition that the dictators “gave special priority, power, and benefit to Syria’s small Alawite minority while excluding the Sunni majority from resources and power” ? In large parts of the country, the Alawite are a majority, and according to Robert Fisk (1) : “most Syrian generals were Sunni (…) within the Alawite community, not everyone found favour (…) Poverty still undermines the Alawite hinterland north of Damascus” http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/robert-fisk-alawite-history-reveals-the-complexities-of-syria-that-west-does-not-understand-8518455.html

  • Ann M. Hansen

    I live in northern Israel, just a few kilometers and a world away from the slaughter raging in Syria. Over the past few months my husband has been hospitalized several times just a couple of rooms away from injured Syrians brought to Israel for medical care. Looking into their eyes reminds me of the eyes of an Iraqi professor I met at a conference in Cairo a few years ago; he was giving a lecture about the effects of years of war on Iraqi children. The eyes of these young Syrians also reminded me of the eyes of Holocaust survivors whom I have met.

    Your article was succinct, insightful and to the point. This war began as an issue of human rights; it has become a battleground for religious supremacy. This conflict may not be “rational” in the terms of western societal values, but for those involved it is eminently logical in terms of their own religious beliefs. Religion has increased international involvement and intensifiedt he stakes. Until the West understands that, their interference (or lack thereof) will only make the situation worse.

  • Louis John Reith

    It has long been said that one of the problems confronting Islam as a religion today is that it never experienced something similar to the Protestant Reformation of 16th century Europe. If that is true, then
    perhaps the European historical precedent for what is happening in the Middle East today might be the
    Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) in Europe. That protracted conflict was also notorious for a combination of religious with political factors, so that it is almost impossible today for historians to assert with confidence which aspects of that conflict were “religious” and which were “political.” Could it be that the Sunni-Shiite conflict represents for Islam the emergence of its “Reformation moment”? I am certainly no expert on Islam, but as the Humanities/Rare Book Cataloger in the Lauinger Library before my recent retirement, I cataloged many of the more recent “problem books” concerning both political and religious Islam, and thus I became aware, over time, of some of these parallels. The accuracy of those parallels is, of course,for historians of the Middle East who are closer to the subject than I to decide.