The specter of civil war now looms over Syria as much as it did at the time of the Benghazi mutiny in Libya last February. The difference for this ally of Iran–20 million strong and bordering Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon, Israel and Jordan–is the role that organized violence between neighborhoods of different religious sects could play as government power continues to collapse.
The Arab League has already declared that Syria has failed to comply with its demands that government military forces break off their violent engagement in Homs, a city of 1,267,000 in west-central Syria, north of the capital Damascus and south of the traditionally anti-Assad city of Hama, which was destroyed by the government in response to a Muslim Brotherhood uprising in February 1982. Failure to desist from large-scale repression there and elsewhere–which has led to about 3,500 civilian deaths since last spring–could prompt the Arab League to impose major economic and diplomatic sanctions on the Assad Regime.
The New York Times reported on all this in a recent article but noted that hatred between the government and Sunni residents of Homs may already have led to symmetric violence between the city’s sects that follows its own dynamic. We may be witnessing the outbreak of a process in Syria like that which emerged in Iraq in February 2006, when al-Qaeda terrorist attacks on Iraqi Shi’a which had continued unrelentingly for at least 2 years finally came to a head with massive retaliatory violence against Sunni Arabs. Thousands of Sunni Arab Iraqis were killed by Shi’a militia over the next year-and-a-half in this campaign of retaliation.
That spate of sectarian violence, which had the grotesque but at times confusing episodes as typical of a civil war as anything, wound down in 2007 under the shadow of the US troop “Surge,” which was a strategic success (though civil war violence in Iraq remained relatively heightened until 2009). No Surge will come in Syria. If retaliatory sectarian violence spreads through the neighborhoods of its large cities, it could metastasize in the context of the collapse of the government and the factionalism of the military that would normally prevent it as a matter of course.
There are a lot of religious sects in Syria. The State Department’s 2010 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom estimates that 74% of Syrians are Sunni Muslims, 13% are Alawites, Ibadhis or Shi’a Muslims, 10% are Christians and about 3% are Druze, a small and opaque offshoot of Islam for which adherence is hereditary. All of these numbers,
the Report notes, are estimates because the Assad Regime has been reticent to measure changes in religious adherence among the sects for fear of the communitarian violence that appears to be breaking out today. The vast majority of Syria’s Muslims are of the majority Sunni tradition, and most Syrian Christians are Eastern Orthodox, but Shi’a Muslims are a small but very-visible minority of Muslims with a political and cultural power base in Iran and now Iraq; Alawites, Ibadhis, Uniate Christians and Druze are very or even extremely rare, Syria in some cases harboring the largest number of these small religious sects. Churches of the several Christian sects in Syria are among the earliest Christian churches founded, and some religious minorities in the country actually sought refuge there from violence or persecution elsewhere in the Middle East. Even modern-day Syria has taken in refugees in this way, with Palestinian refugees arriving decades ago and Christian refugees from Iraq arriving in recent years. Vulnerable as they were in their war-wracked countries of origin, the Syrian government has found in its refugee communities a grateful ally and a strategically-useful buffer against democracy, as both their prosperity and their very security could conceivably be taken away from them by a government representing the interest of the vast-majority Sunni.
So while we’re witnessing the ill-defined early moments of sectarian violence that could possibly explode into a series of geographical sectarian purges on the scale of Iraq–or worse, Bosnia–this moment and that possibility is not evidence of the inability of certain religious sects to live together, or of Samuel Huntington’s simplistic explanation that “Islam has…bloody innards.” While the violence is waged between religious sects, neither the timing of it nor the motivation for it is fundamentally religious at all. This is about the perceived and actual beneficiaries of power, and about those who consider themselves disenfranchised in Syria’s authoritarian, nepotistic, and thus patronage-based political order. Not all of the opposition in Syria is Sunni Muslim, and not all Alawites (the obscure, vaguely-Islamic sect of the Assad family), Ibadhis, Christians and Druze are beneficiaries of or even well-disposed to the Assad Regime. But in such an authoritarian state where personal contact confers so much access, the majority-Sunni Muslim religious community inevitably conditions the protest movement as a whole. Its persecuted members seek protection among their own families and social networks, and eventually as applicable, within their own religious and social institutions. Those networks among the minority communities will contain more Regime beneficiaries and disciplinarians. Within one’s family, a circle of friends organized around groups of families, or in one’s mosque or church, it is relatively easy to find-out what’s going on (though as we all know, never easy-enough); between these different sects and the attendant civil services built around them (a vestige of the Ottoman Empire’s parallel religious institutions), mistrust may have set in by a number of ways as the Assad Regime’s brutal crackdown on initially-moderate street protests unfolded without pause or restraint. We don’t know exactly how these episodes of intercommunal violence got started in Syria’s various larger cities; indeed, 1 of my old professors has argued intriguingly that it is in the nature of episodes of political violence that we don’t really know culpability or even the sequence of escalation.
But the genesis of sectarian violence can become irrelevant once positive feedback is established and a violent process of “sorting” overtakes Syria’s neighborhoods and cities. This positive feedback mechanism may not be established, and the recent rash of sectarian riots in Homs may be only that. We cannot reliably predict a larger scale of internal violence from a smaller one. I will not claim that I’m “calling” the rash of violence that will cause Syria to devolve into a sectarian civil war or a tempest of religious cleansing. I’m calling no such thing. Nor do I think President Obama’s warning, though perhaps overly-deterministic, is wrongheaded, or that this story has been hyped by the media. What happened in Homs is as clear of a warning as we should need that some components of Syria’s social capital–its historically-dormant sectarian fault lines, large apparatus of oppression, patronage system, and personal feuds–are combustible in the current atmosphere.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, now isolated by the Arab League, can stop this now. He can abdicate his informal throne. If he does not, the bloody fracturing of the realm will be his legacy.