Religion and Conflict in Syria

Religion and the Syrian Civil 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 played a minor but 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 Assad’s government. However, some religious communities tend to be more supportive of the regime than others, fueling 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 belong to the Sunni branch of Islam, with several Muslim minority groups associated with Shiite Islam. Christians from different denominations represent a smaller percentage of the population.

The emergence among anti-government rebels of hard-line Sunni Islamist militias fighting for an Islamic state has alienated the minorities. Outside interference from Shiite Iran, Islamic State militants who seek to include Syria as part of their widespread caliphate, and Sunni Saudi Arabia makes matters worse, feeding into the wider Sunni-Shiite tension in the Middle East.​

Alawites 

President Assad belongs to the Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shiite Islam that is specific to Syria (with small population pockets in Lebanon). The Assad family has been in power since 1970 (Bashar al-Assad's father, Hafez al-Assad, served as president from 1971 until his death in 2000), 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 Assad regime, fearful of discrimination if the Sunni majority came to power. Most of the top rank in Assad's army and intelligence services are Alawites, making the Alawite community as a whole closely identified with the government camp in the civil war. However, a group of religious Alawite leaders claimed independence from Assad recently, begging the question of whether the Alawite community is itself splintering in its support of Assad.​

Sunni Muslim Arabs

A majority of Syrians are Sunni Arabs, but they are politically divided. True, most of the fighters in rebel opposition groups under the Free Syrian Army umbrella come from the Sunni provincial heartlands, and many Sunni Islamists don’t consider Alawites to be real Muslims. The armed confrontation between largely Sunni rebels and the Alawite-led government troops at one point led some observers to see Syria’s civil war as a 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 various opposition groups), 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 Islamist groups within the rebel movements 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.​

Christians

The Arab Christian minority in Syria at one time enjoyed relative security 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 minorities, pointing to the prosecution of Iraqi Christians by Islamist extremists after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

This 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 to be collaborators with the regime. Christian leaders, meanwhile, are now faced with the moral obligation to speak out against Assad's extreme violence and atrocities against all Syrian citizens regardless of their faith.​

The Druze & Ismailis

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, but that isn't the case. These minorities are caught between extremist groups like the Islamic State, Assad's military and opposition forces in what one Middle East analyst, Karim Bitar, from the think tank IRIS calls the "tragic dilemma" of religious minorities.

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 city of 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. Twelver Shiites fear a radical Islamist takeover of Syria and largely support the Assad regime.

With Syria’s ongoing 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 religious society.