Religion and Conflict in Syria

Is the Conflict in Syria a Religious War?

A cloud from an explosion rises near the Syrian village of Al' Rafide at the border with Israel May 7, 2013
Uriel Sinai/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Religion plays an important role in the conflict in Syria. A United Nations report in late 2012 said that the conflict was becoming “overtly sectarian” in some parts of the country, with Syria’s various religious communities finding themselves on the opposite sides of the fight between the government of President Bashar al-Assad and Syria’s fractured opposition.

    Growing Religious Divide

    At its core, the civil war in Syria is not a religious conflict. The dividing line is one’s loyalty to the Assad’s government. However, some religious communities tend to be more supportive of the regime than the others, fuelling mutual suspicion and religious intolerance in many parts of the country.

    Syria is an Arab country with a Kurdish and Armenian minority. In term of religious identity, most of the Arab majority belongs to the Sunni branch of Islam, with several Muslim minority groups associated with the Shiite Islam. The Christians from different denominations represent at least 10% of the population.

    The emergence among the anti-government rebels of hardline Sunni Islamist militias fighting for an Islamic state has alienated the minorities. The outside interference from the Shiite Iran and the Sunni Saudi Arabia makes matter worse, feeding into the wider Sunni-Shiite tension in the Middle East.

    Alawites (around 12% of the population)

    President Bashar al-Assad belongs to the Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shiite Islam specific to Syria (with small population pockets in Lebanon). The Assad family has been in power since 1970 and although it presided over a secular regime, many Syrians think Alawites have enjoyed privileged access to top government jobs and business opportunities.

    After the outbreak of the anti-government uprising in 2011, the vast majority of Alawites rallied behind the regime, fearful of discrimination if the Sunni majority came to power. Most of the top rank in the army and the intelligence services are Alawites, making the community as a whole closely identified with the government camp in the civil war.

    Sunni Muslim Arabs (up to 70%)

    A majority of Syrians are Sunni Arabs, but they are politically divided. True, most of the fighters in the opposition Free Syrian Army come from the Sunni provincial heartlands, and many Sunni Islamists don’t consider Alawites as real Muslims. The armed confrontation between largely Sunni rebels and the Alawite-led government troops has led some observers to see Syria’s civil war as the conflict between Sunnis and Alawites.

    But it’s not that simple. Most of the regular government soldiers fighting the rebels are Sunni recruits (though thousands have defected to the opposition), and Sunnis hold leading positions in the government, the bureaucracy, the ruling Baath Party, and the business community.

    Some businessmen and middle class Sunnis support the regime because they want to protect their material interests.

    Many others are simply scared by the Islamist groups within the rebel movement, and don’t trust the opposition. In any case, the bedrock of support from sections of the Sunni community has been key to Assad’s survival.

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    Christians (around 10%)

    The Arab Christian minority in Syria has enjoyed a relatively secure position under Assad, integrated by the regime’s secular nationalist ideology. Many Christians fear that this politically repressive but religiously tolerant dictatorship will be replaced by a Sunni Islamist regime that will discriminate against the minorities, pointing to the prosecution of Iraqi Christians by Islamist extremists after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

    This has led the Christian establishment – the merchants, top bureaucrats and religious leaders – to support the government, or at least distance themselves from what they saw as a Sunni uprising in 2011.

    And although there are many Christians in the ranks of the political opposition, such as the Syrian National Coalition, and among the pro-democracy youth activists, some rebel groups now consider all Christians as collaborators with the regime.

    The Druze & Ismailis (2-3%)

    The Druze and the Ismailis are two distinct Muslim minorities believed to have developed out of the Shiite branch of Islam. Much as other minorities, they fear that the regime’s potential downfall will give way to chaos and religious persecution. The reluctance of their leaders to join the opposition has often been interpreted as tacit support for Assad.

    Twelver Shiites

    While most Shiites in Iraq, Iran and Lebanon belong to the mainstream Twelver branch, this principal form of Shiite Islam is only a tiny minority in Syria, concentrated in parts of the capital Damascus. However, their numbers swelled after 2003 with the arrival of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees during the Sunni-Shiite civil war in that country.

    With Syria’s descent into conflict, some Shiites moved back to Iraq. Others organized militias to defend their neighborhoods from Sunni rebels, adding yet another layer to the fragmentation of Syria’s society.

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