Despite frequent assertions to the contrary, the civil war raging in Syria is not a sectarian conflict. In fact, there is little evidence to support such an assumption. Anti-government protests and skirmishes have broken out across the country, in predominantly Sunni, Shi‘i, Alawi, Druze and Christian areas, respectively. One of the single most consistently restive areas of Damascus has been Mezzeh—one of the richest neighborhoods in the capital and located in the shadow of the Presidential Palace—which has a significant Alawi population.
There are sectarian overtones, to be sure. The majority of rebels are Sunnis, and President Assad and much of the ruling class are Alawis (an off-shoot of Shi‘ism). Similarly, the Free Syrian Army receives support from the Sunni governments of Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states and Turkey, while the Assad regime is backed by Shi‘i Iran, Hizbullah and Iraq.
(The impulse to view the Syrian civil war as based on sectarian tensions seems indicative of the way the American media—to say nothing of the government—views everything in the Middle East through the lens of religion. Thus, the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia is due to the fact Iran is Shi‘i and Saudi Arabia is Sunni, not that they are two large countries with designs for regional dominance. Nevermind that Saudi Arabia doesn’t much get along with Sunni Egypt or Turkey, either.)
But the conflict itself has unfolded in a mostly political fashion. It started in March 2011 in a way similar to the Arab Spring elsewhere: with peaceful protests against government corruption and single-party rule. The regime’s violent response served to escalate matters and embolden the protesters. Soon isolated skirmishes began breaking out between the military and anti-government fighters.
That the rebellion was set against the Assad regime—and not pro-Sunni—was evident from the beginning. And the nature of Assad’s rule does not lend itself to sectarian support. The Syrian Baath Party (founded by a Christian) that has governed the country for over 50 years is officially secular, its ideology based on Arab nationalism. Assad and his father Hafez have consolidated their power through cronyism and patronage networks that went beyond their minority Alawi sect. Close ties with the predominantly Sunni business elite in particular have been essential to their family’s rule. Even if Alawis were allotted a disproportionate share of power and influence, this was due primarily to the Assads’ reliance on familial ties—the regime has been likened to the Mafia—rather than Alawi (much less Shi‘i) chauvinism. The government, for instance, has generously patronized religious figures and institutions, regardless of denomination, and continues to draw support from the religious establishment of the entire country, including the Grand Mufti of Syria, who is a Sunni.
However, it is in the regime’s interest to present the conflict to the outside world as sectarian. First, it allows them to paint the opposition as little more than Sunni fundamentalists and jihadi terrorists. Assad has done this consistently since the uprising began, in the hopes that his continued rule and violent crackdown can be seen as a necessary bulwark against terrorism rather than a corrupt regime clinging to power. While these elements are undoubtedly involved on the rebel side, the extent to which they make up rebel forces is unknown and probably small. This hasn’t stopped Assad from trying to play up this aspect of the conflict, though; in a leaked email, Iranian advisors told him to stop blaming anti-government attacks on al-Qaeda without evidence.
Second—and most importantly—it allows for a political solution for the conflict. If the international community sees this as a civil war between the majority, but underrepresented Sunnis and the ruling Shi‘is, then Assad can be seen not as a power-hungry tyrant, but as the leader of a minority religious community. (Indeed, some observers have gone so far as to suggest the creation of a separate Alawi-Shi‘i state as a way to halt the violence.)
Such a solution could only come about through significant international action that engages with Assad, something that would bestow undue legitimacy upon his rule. (This was one of the primary objections to the UN peace plan, which has now failed.) Any proposed ceasefire that allows Assad to retain power and/or play a role in a post-war reorganization of the government is a non-starter for the rebels. The elimination of the regime is the rebellion’s single raison d’être. (In fact, a spokesman for the Syrian National Council said yesterday they would accept a transitional government headed by someone within the current regime, as long as it’s not Assad.)
The events of the last week have shown that the conflict has gone too far for mediation. The killing of several top officials—almost certainly carried out with help from individual Alawis within the government—has proven that rebel troops have infiltrated the apparatus of the regime, and rocket attacks by helicopter gunships on multiple Damascene neighborhoods have proven that the government cares little for its citizens, whatever their religious affiliation. (The BBC also reports that earlier today fighter planes bombed parts of Aleppo, a.k.a. the country’s largest city.) This civil war is about the viability of the Assad regime, nothing more. And only the crushing of the rebellion or the removal of Assad and his cronies from power will bring it to a close.