Ari Heistein

Sectarianism in Syria: How Assad Played Us

In an effort to solidify his base of support in the face of the Arab Spring, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad turned to sectarian politics. This policy created a dynamic in which U.S. actions in the region increasingly supported his regime. Though there are well-founded allegations that Assad both directly  and indirectly helped promote radical Sunni groups like IS and Jabhat al-Nusra, it has become increasingly clear that the coalition forces are willing to overlook the root causes of the radical Sunni phenomenon and only target its manifestation. By stimulating the growth of IS and Jabhat al-Nusra, Assad has supported an extremist enemy that hijacked the legitimate political protests against him. He designed a scenario in which he has diverted attention away from his atrocities and coalition forces coordinate with the Syrian Armed Forces against a Sunni enemy that poses a threat to the survival of the Alawi Syrian regime.

While the Assad regime had employed discriminatory and divisive practices for many years as a means to maintain control of a country with a diverse ethnic landscape, its response to the Arab Spring was to escalate those practices beyond institutional policies and into pointed acts to promote sectarianism. M. Zuhdi Jasser, Vice-Chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, traces Assad’s use of sectarian politics in the suppression of political dissent, in his article “Sectarian Conflict in Syria”:

The Assad regime has turned an initially peaceful political protest into an overtly sectarian conflict. By introducing the element of armed conflict, the regime’s actions brought in foreign fighters who fuel the sectarian fires of the conflict….The Assad regime and its most loyal supporters, predominately [sic] Alawites associated with Assad’s Ba’athist Party, portray opposition forces, predominately [sic] Sunni Muslims, as a threat not just to their power but to the very existence of Alawites in Syria. To ensure continued support for the regime, the government capitalizes on Alawite fears of Sunni rule. The regime spreads rumors of Sunni atrocities against Alawites and depicts the conflict as a fight to prevent Alawite extermination. In late December 2012, Time Magazine reported allegations that the Assad government provided up to $500 per month to individuals posing as members of the opposition and painting graffiti on buildings or chanting slogans with overtly sectarian rhetoric…In response to growing fears, civilian Alawites formed pro-Assad and government-supported domestic militia such as Jaysh al-Sha’bi (The People’s Army) and Shabiha (pro-Assad armed gangs).

The State Department also released a report that documents similar practices:

While the protest movement began in response to widespread regime abuses, the regime contextualized the protests within a sectarian framework, maintaining that protesters were associated with “extreme Islamist factions”… The regime sponsored and facilitated pro-government demonstrations in the Christian areas of Damascus. Opposition members often highlighted these demonstrations as evidence of the regime’s attempts to stoke sectarianism in Syria to justify the regime’s crackdown. In addition, several Christian and Alawite anti-regime activists were targeted by security forces because they undermined the regime’s narrative claiming it was fighting “Sunni extremists.”

So what did Assad get out of the sectarian crisis he created?

Iran and IS.

Assad has received tremendous amounts of military and economic aid from his Shia allies, Iran and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. According to one analyst cited in a Telegraph article,”Well-placed sources tell me ‘the Syrian army by now is a joke, they are in charge of the minor things. Without the Iranian[s] they would have collapsed by now’.” Additionally, Hezbollah has designated somewhere between 3,000-5,000 troops to defend Assad. In the economic realm, Iran has granted Syria somewhere between$4.5 and$15 billion in foreign assistance.

Furthermore, by coloring the conflict as a sectarian fight, Assad has managed to divert attention away from himself, despite having murdered over 100,000 Syrian civilians. Or rather, he has managed to make himself appear as the lesser of two evils as the primary aim of U.S. and coalition airstrikes is not removing Assad, but eliminating IS. In fact, there is indirect coordination with Assad and the Iranians (through Iraq, among other countries, which serves as an interlocutor) for the airstrikes on Syrian territory! Despite the fact that Assad’s brutality is largely responsible for stirring up the sectarian tension and Sunni extremism that created IS, the U.S. military is unclear as to whether it even has the legal authorization or the green light from the White House to strike Assad’s forces or to support rebel groups in battle with them.

President Obama has insisted numerous times that Assad needs to step down, yet the actions of the U.S. military and Department of State seem to indicate a silent retreat from that position. Mohammed Alaa Ghanem, Senior political adviser and government relations director at the Syrian American Council in Washington, writes in an article entitled “Why Assad Still Must Go” that Assad’s government is in fact the most brutal regime in the Arab Middle East and therefore cannot be allowed to remain in power.

While I agree with Ghanem’s conclusion that Assad must go, his argument as to why, which is entirely humanitarian in nature and doesn’t even mention U.S. security interests, may not be entirely convincing to U.S. policymakers.

When looking at the roots of this conflict, it is clear that Assad bears a great deal of responsibility for the success of IS and Jabhat al-Nusra. On the one hand, there are allegations that he released Jabhat al-Nusra/IS members from prison in 2011, collaborated with those organizations, and conducted business dealings with them. On the other hand, there can be no doubt that Assad’s brutality and sectarian rhetoric served to radicalize the Sunni population and attract foreign fighters to IS.

While the threat of IS is real and needs to be tackled before it is allowed to expand, the U.S. policy of leaving Assad in place while fighting IS is like treating a symptom rather than the illness that caused it. The Syrian regime worked to promote radical Sunni organizations both by supporting them covertly and by openly and indiscriminately attacking the general Sunni population.  While America’s current superficial security interests align with that of the Assad regime in the fight against IS, if we are to look at the deeper source of the problem of Sunni radicalism in Syria it is very obvious that we should also be working to remove Assad rather than doing his bidding.

About the Author
Ari Heistein was chief of staff and a research fellow at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies (INSS). He works in defense technology and has published extensive research on Yemen.
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