‘Assad or we burn the country’: Misreading sectarianism and the regime in Syria

Emile Hokayem writes: Prior to the uprising that ignited in Syria in 2011, whenever I discussed politics with my urbanite Syrian interlocutors, they would often tell me: “You, the Lebanese, you are violent, corrupt, sectarian, with no sense of a nation or a state.” (I also noted that Iraqis would endure similar lecturing). Frankly, they were largely right, but their real point lay somewhere else.

The smug implication, of course, was that Syria under the Assad regime was different: Contrary to the fractured polities of Lebanon and Iraq, it had achieved a superior sense of national belonging and purpose, a genuine supra-confessional identity. Sectarianism was not an issue, I was told. Syria was no democracy, to be sure, but Bashar Al-Assad had married a Sunni woman who wore stylish Western clothes, women could walk around unveiled, and alcohol was available (that’s a lifestyle liberalism of the kind that appeals to Western audiences but actually obscures more than it reveals). Many Sunnis populated the high spheres of business, politics, and the military, and minorities could worship at will as long as they remained loyal to the Assads. No wonder that this image of Syria, marketed ad nauseam, partially hid the country’s unraveling during the previous 15 years. While admitting it was not perfect, many of those who bemoan the Syria of yesterday cannot seem to find the link between this romanticized narrative and the current catastrophe.

In fact, in Syria, like in Lebanon and Iraq, all the ingredients for cataclysmic upheaval were already there. The explosion, crystallization, and weaponization of sectarian passions owe much to circumstances, local agency, political structure, and leadership choices.

War of the Rocks published two revisionist articles by an author writing under a pseudonym that brought back to mind all these conversations and many more since the uprising-cum-civil war engulfed Syria and civil war recurred in Iraq. Here, I respond to the author’s account of Syria. I am not qualified to discuss Iraq, so I will refrain from addressing this angle.

The author makes some important points. These include that fact that Sunni disfranchisement in Syria and Iraq is often exaggerated, that it alone does not explain and fuel the rise of Sunni extremism, that Salafism (and takfirism) pose a threat to diverse societies but also to Sunnis themselves, that viewing the Syrian conflict primarily through the Sunni-Shia prism is simplistic, and that Sunni identity is fluid. Fine and fair, though contrary to what the author boldly asserts, none of these findings are particularly new or even controversial.

The argumentation goes downhill from there. The piece sets out to prove that Washington has fallen victim to a wrong and purposely manipulative Gulf-fueled sectarian narrative about the Middle East. It argues that because of these sectarian narratives, Western states broke with and then supported the fight against Assad. [Continue reading…]

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