Why there is more to Syria conflict than sectarianism

Men in traditional Syrian costume offer prayers in the courtyard of the Umayyad Mosque, in Damascus March 23, 2013 Sunni Muslims comprise about 75% of the Syrian population, with the remainder split between Christians, Alawites, Druze and Ismailis

"There is no nation of Arabs", the explorer and archaeologist Gertrude Bell wrote in 1907, "the Syrian country is inhabited by Arabic speaking races all eager to be at each other's throats."

The current conflict in that country is often branded sectarian too - yet despite the statements of some of the belligerent ideologists many Syrians refuse to accept the characterisation of it as a war based upon religion. So where does the truth lie?

Between the early 16th Century and 1918 the Ottoman Empire ruled much of the Middle East, including Syria. It tolerated non-Muslims, fostering cosmopolitan cities like Aleppo and Damascus, where many different creeds lived and traded in an interdependent manner.

Indeed the Ottoman system, which taxed non-Muslims at higher rates became financially dependent on this multi-cultural system carrying on.

While life between these different groups often carried on happily, the Ottoman system created intricate scheme of rules and restrictions, for example over where you lived or who carried out certain trades, which produced a highly developed sense of identity and group separation - inter-marriage was discouraged, not least by religious leaders.

Watch Mark Urban's film on Syria's long and complex history in full

In this elaborate pecking order members of Muslim sects regarded by the Sunni leaders as heretical, such as the Druze, Ismailis and Alawites, ranked below other 'people of the book', Jews and Christians.

Indeed Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, who travelled around Syria during 1810-12 found members of these Islamic sects operating underground, fearing death and pretending to be Sunnis, since they knew, "there is no instance whatever of pagans being tolerated".

Burckhardt saw that similar, violent, differences existed within the Christian community, notably between followers of Catholicism and Greek Orthodoxy.

He described the phenomenon as a, "system of intolerance, at which the Turkish governors smile, because they are constantly gainers by it".

The final decades of Ottoman rule were marked by growing instability and uncertainty, as some parts of the empire broke free to independence, and Western powers became increasingly involved, claiming to be the protectors of minority rights. In 1860 anti-Christian riots in Damascus left 8,000 dead.

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It is the long inheritance of Syria's history that leaves its traces of the Baathist or Ottoman belief that all peoples can get along in the greater national interest, and a certainty that for centuries people co-operated perfectly well”

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When the British Army conquered Syria in 1918, the jostling for power between different groups became febrile. General Sir Edmund Allenby wrote from Damascus, "all nations and would-be nations and all shades of religions and politics are up against each other".

These tensions were managed to some extent by the French, who ran Syria between the World Wars, with a system of divide and rule. It had one important difference from that of the Ottomans. Sensing that the Sunni majority were in many ways their most violent and difficult constituency, the French kept them in check by advancing minorities in the army and other security forces.

By the time Syria's post-war nationalist civilian governments were overtaken by military rule in 1963, Christians, Druze and Alawites held many of the senior military jobs. By this time the secular, socialistic, pan-Arab ideology of the Baath Party had also become very important in the officer corps and it further empowered the minorities.

While anti-sectarian ideology became a central plank of the Baath Party, factions within it could not escape their sense of identity and tallying of who was lining up with whom. In 1966, for example, the loser of one army power struggle, a Druze, complained the Alawites were taking over, noting, "the sectarian spirit is spread in a shameful way in Syria, particularly in the army, in the appointment of officers and even recruits".

Hafez al-Assad, the father of the current Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, emerged victorious from these power struggles in 1970, and gradually managed to clamp down on his rivals, purging dissidents. Although he became the first Alawite president of Syria and put many members of his sect into key positions, Assad senior sought to portray his regime as non-sectarian: some of those he had defeated were also fellow Alawites, and some his supporters, such as the Tlass clan of his long-serving defence minister were Sunni, or from other non-Alawite minorities.

Ottoman governor Jamal Pasha The Ottoman governor of Syria, Jamal Pasha, rides through Damascus in 1917

Even today, Bashar al-Assad's government generally avoids sectarian language, although the departure of key former supporters such as the Tlass family has left him ever more dependent on the Alawites and some other groups. The Damascus government's attempts to blame "foreign terrorists" and al-Qaeda for the country's difficulties harks back to its long term opposition to militant Sunni ideology.

In 1982 the regime crushed a rising by the Muslim Brotherhood in the city of Hama, leaving an estimated 20,000 dead. Although this was officially portrayed as a battle against a kind of extremism that endangered the country's multiculturalism, it was seen in many quarters as an attempt to thwart the Sunni majority from deciding Syria's future - and indeed this is how many members of that group view the current campaign of repression.

As the violence in Syria has intensified, outsiders have backed the different sides, and set the conflict into the context of a wider Sunni-Shia clash. Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Lebanon's militant Shia Hezbollah movement, in seeking to justify his fighters' entry into the war has lambasted "takfiri" groups - a term for Sunni Jihadists who, like those Ottoman rulers of past centuries, regard Shias or Alawites as heretics fit for execution.

Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an influential Egyptian Sunni cleric, responded by calling two days ago for a Jihad against Hezbollah and Iranian interests in Syria. He says it is the duty of every Sunni to fight.

Demonstrators hold up a poster of President al-Assad President Bashar al-Assad is a member of the Alawite community

Watching videos from the frontline of Qusair yesterday, it is interesting to see how this language of holy war - from outsiders it should be noted - has permeated to the Syrian foot soldiers. Sunni opposition fighters, taking a position manned by what they believe are Lebanese Shia fighters, refer several times to the "Party of Satan", a play on Hezbollah, which means Party of God.

Even at this dire hour, Syrian opposition people tell me about the Christians or Alawites in their movement, emphatically rejecting the label of Sunni Jihadists. Or government supporters will note the presence of non-Alawites in the higher reaches of the regime. Each meanwhile tries to tar their opponent with the sectarian label.

It is the long inheritance of Syria's history that leaves its traces of the Baathist or Ottoman belief that all peoples can get along in the greater national interest, and a certainty that for centuries people co-operated perfectly well.

But it is also this heritage that has left their society largely unintegrated, intensely aware of sectarian identity, and open - at least in part - to the messages of those who preach holy war.

Mark Urban Article written by Mark Urban Mark Urban Diplomatic and defence editor, BBC Newsnight

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  • Comment number 34.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    #12 Swing Lowe

    "In the west we have got rid of the hypocrisy of religious faith" ?

    --with his reaction ?

    -- http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-22776804

    --and of course there is still Northern Ireland.

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    Western countries should ´button down the hatches´ and protect against internal terrorist acts -- often from their own citizens.

    --the weapons delivery to all sides must be left to Middle East countries who are NOT neutral observers -- they have the money and still purchase weapons from the USA, UK, and France whose weapon industries will still get business.

    -- We MUST stay out of this !

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    An excellent article !

    -- The dictators and murderous dictators of the region held the keys to Pandora´s box. The two Iraq wars, Saddam´s removal and the Arab Spring has given the inter- Moslem religious hatreds --free reign.

    --The idiocy of the UK attempting to force the EU to declare Hisbollah a terrorist organization -- is a sign that the UK does not yet understand the problem.

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    It´s becoming clearer every day -- this is a religious war with international dimensions, Shia-Sunni being the main fractions. Intervention is at the best -- worthless.

    -- all non-Moslems must keep out of it !

    -- If not, the Collateral Damage will include the USA, UK and France (and innocent others)

    -The days of the Crusades and Colonialism are finished, but the hatred of them still exist.

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    An interesting article and history lesson. But the real message is surely quite simple--that Islam is causing REAL damage all over the world, whether it be in Syria ( where Suni fights Shia) or in Woolwich ( where a defendant shown on TV last week with blood all over his hands and wielding a gun and knife) today told a Judge : " you can't treat me like this, I'm British". They make me sick !! GO!

  • Comment number 28.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    Interesting article Mark.

    It would have been more interesting if you had explained how the Petrodollar has shaped and divided the ME and Asia.

    Those who Google "petrodollar warfare" and read a few of the many blogs begin to understand how important oil producers are to the US economy and why WW3 may not be far away.

    Not conspiracy - just the facts.

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    The quotes must be made up: the article suggests that murderous sectarian tendencies have existed since time immemorial, or at least since the muslims divided into different groups. This cannot possibly be true since we all know it is the fault of the Americans and Europeans. What did the Ottoman Turks have to say about the Arabs. Surely they must have kept records.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    Peter Schmidt @ 10

    The US control the UN so Carla del Ponte's statement that the UN had proof rebels used chemical weapons was simply buried.

    The report that 12 rebel fighters arrested in Turkey for possessing chemical weapons was also buried.

    The BBC is continuing to lose credibility.

    And don't forget how NGOs, funded by the US, orchestrated the Egyptian & Syrian 'Arab Springs'

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    DavidinUSA @ 19
    If the numbers are real, Syria is suffering an annual death rate - relative to population - 50% greater than Britain in WW2. You truly think that "England, Sweden and France" are heading in a similar direction from "civil unrest", thanks to the "multi-cultural dream"? You did do arithmetic at school?

    neill999 @ 21
    It's ok to be an Assad troll, but do make it a tad less obvious.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    This is what happens to a country where different cultures and beliefs are mashed together. Most of the conflicts past and present stem from warring tribes having to share land, the former Yougoslavia being a prime example. That being the case, why are our political leaders forcing 'multi-culturalism' upon the people of Europe? I fully expect this comment to get marked down.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    Syria deserves its own history without excess interference, just as Europe had its black periods of bloodletting. Someone will come out on top and tame the rest or the country will be divided. Let the Syrians alone.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    Isn't it time for the west to hold their hands up and accept they got it wrong arming the so called rebels? These rebels have very little support. Only 10% of the population of Syria back the rebels and 70% back the government.
    Come on Hague. Invest the money in the UK instead.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    Given the history of conflict in the region both past and present, I doubt they ever 'co-operated perfectly well' in past centuries. Such peace is usually imposed by whomever is in charge at the expense of the marginalized. Just because they don't openly complain doesn't mean there is perfect contentment.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    Recent evidence from the streets of England, Sweden and France suggests that some European countries may be heading for serious civil unrest as a result of the unravelling of the multi-cultural "dream" into a civil war-like situation. So let's not examine Syria as if it is an exhibit in a laboratory - these problems are much closer to home.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    'Men never do evil so completely or cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction'

    Blaise Pascal

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    A very fine and interesting article.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    If only people would:

    1. keep their religious beliefs and intolerancies to themselves
    2. treat others as fellow human beings

    then even the problems in Syria could be amicably resolved.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Paul @ 13:

    The vast bulk of the mines laid in Angola were supplied by Russia, either directly or via the Cuban Army, and the Taliban didn't appear on the Afghan scene until well after the Russians had left. It is these sort of elementary factual errors that give conspiracy theories a bad name.


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