AINA Editorial
Why the Western Diagnosis of the Syrian Conflict Is Wrong
By Mark Tomass
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(AINA) -- The dominant Western narrative that has framed the Syrian conflict as that of a "tyrant killing his people" suffers from a fatal misunderstanding of the sectarian and political structure of Syrian society. That diagnostic failure has led to recurrent false predictions of an imminent collapse of the Syrian government, which in turn has emboldened the armed groups fighting it and thus prolonged the conflict. The Syrian regime's resistance to political reform prior to the "Arab Spring" uprisings and its recent resilience in withstanding the overwhelming economic, political, and lethal means deployed by domestic, regional, and international players to topple it can only be understood correctly by examining the perceptions of the power base of the regime itself.

Apostates and Infidels Rise to Power

The perspective of the power base for the Syrian regime is rooted in the history of the region. For more than a millennium, the tradition of attributing infidelity (takfir) and apostasy (irtidad) to religious communities that did not conform to the dominant Sunna religious orthodoxy led, in the best case, to their marginalization. Those marginalized communities lived, as a result, through circumstances of extreme uncertainty and faced long-term challenges for survival. In the 1960s, the elite of one of the most persecuted and destitute of those communities, the Alawis, rose to power and attempted to reverse that marginalization through socialist economic reforms.

From Socialism to Crony Capitalism

However, as time passed, the socialist experiment failed, and power and wealth concentrated in the hands of families affiliated with the highest ranking military officers, including families belonging to the Sunna majority who supported the new power structure. While small-scale urban businesses and proprietors experienced a trickle-down of some of the concentrated wealth, the multiplying inhabitants of the countryside lived on a subsistence level. Within half a century, because of a culturally based high level of fertility, a declining rate of infant mortality, and prolonged life expectancy, the Syrian population quadrupled. The emerging economy was not able to absorb the population increase in a manner adequate to providing a rising living standard compatible with people's expectations. Several years of successive droughts further disproportionately deteriorated the living standards in the countryside.

Religious Identification

The backdrop to the matrix of class- and region-based social and economic hardships affecting Syria's inhabitants, across religious sects, is the Middle Eastern cultural model that prioritizes religious identity over all other social identities. Because of that prioritization, all those sharing the religious identity of the ruling military and intelligence elite, the Alawis, have been judged by the discontented of the Sunna majority as responsible for their economic misfortunes, and they accordingly demanded freedom from the Alawis' grip on power, a demand that should not be confused with the Western concept of individual or political freedom. Thus, economic discontent was channeled through religious identification, which in turn, transmitted all sorts of grievances along religious lines. Moreover, demands for freedom have been combined with religious slogans, and for several months protests emerged almost exclusively from mosques after every Friday's prayer.

The Government's Reaction

The military and intelligence elite saw the initial emergence of protests from mosques and several violent attacks on government facilities and security offices as attempts to settle the unfinished battles of 1979--82 between the Muslim Brothers and the secular, Alawi-led regime. Fear of the extreme uncertainty that could result from the toppling of the regime prompted its power base composed of heterodox Muslims, Secular Muslims, Christians and leftists to back the regime at any cost.

The West Backs the Rebellion of the Sunna

The regime's clampdown on protests and the subsequent formation of armed rebel groups composed exclusively of Sunni Muslims transformed the unrest into an open sectarian conflict. The West and the Sunna dominated Muslim countries, such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Jordan provided open military and financial support for the Sunni Muslim rebels, who gradually joined the better funded Salafi Jihadi groups. As a result, the Syrian government lost control over its southern, northern, and eastern territories. Except for small Kurdish-dominated regions in the north and northeast, those territories are primarily controlled today by ideologically cohesive, but organizationally fragmented, al-Qaida affiliates.

American Political Alchemists

As al-Qaida took over major Syrian and Iraqi cities and its daggers publicly slit American throats, open U.S. support of Sunni Islamist rebels became difficult to sustain and defend. In response, advisors to the Obama Administration persuaded it to undertake a new ingenious plan to recruit, train, and arm 5000 new Syrian rebels every year and for several years to come. Presumably, those new recruits will be carefully selected and tested for their secular loyalties prior thrusting them in battle to fight both al-Qaida and Syrian government forces. In the light of the past four years of rebels filling the ranks of al-Qaida, it is not clear form which populations pool such secular fighters will be recruited. Apparently, Washington has no shortage of alchemists who are able to turn religious fundamentalists into Jeffersonian freedom fighters.

From False Diagnosis to Catastrophic Outcomes

If we assume that the U.S. support of Sunni Islamist rebels was not the result of a deadly combination of ignorance and arrogance, but a calculated effort intended to eventually carve a state in the Syrian hinterland for the Sunna that would drive a wedge between Shia Iran and Hezbollah, thus weakening both, then the mission seems to have so far been on a road to success. Indeed, a multi-sectarian secular Syria, in its present form, though led by secular Alawi field commanders, stands in the path of the formation of clear Sunna-Shia spheres and safeguards the secular nature of Syria's government.

The Obama administration, in carrying out its plans to recruit and train new cohorts of opposition fighters to battle both the Islamic State and the Syrian government, will continue to fuel a religious conflict. If the West continues with the strategy of breaking the region into sectarian spheres, nothing secular will survive in the Syrian regime, as it will be gradually overtaken by Shia forces.

The presumption that when the inhabitants of the Fertile Crescent are consumed by religious conflict, they will be less likely to pose a danger to Israel is at best naive. It is wrong to assume that remaking the nation-states of the Middle East along sectarian lines would provide Israel with more security. The Syrian conflict will not abate after the country is divided into sectarian spheres. Breaking Syria up will draw both sects, Sunna and Shia, into competition to lead the Muslim world. To prove their worthiness for that leadership, they will outbid each other in challenging the existence of Israel, plunging the region into even more prolonged wars, from which Israel will not emerge as the winner.

As was the case in Lebanon, regional and international powers that see it in their interest to add fuel to fire, will continue to support the rival spheres and eventually draw Israel, and by implication, the United States, directly into those future wars. A conflict over property rights between Syrians and Palestinians versus Israelis will morph into an endless religious Sunna-Shia-Jewish war that will destabilize the entire world.

Also by the author:

Mark Tomass is an adjunct professor at Harvard University. He was born and raised in the Assyrian Quarter of Aleppo Syria. This article is based on his forthcoming book titled The Religious Roots of the Syrian Conflict: The Remaking of the Nation-States of the Fertile Crescent (New York: Palgrave MacMillan). He can be contacted at

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