There’s a palpable sense that the situation in Syria is increasingly being debated in anthropological terms. The telling clue is the word ‘mosaic’. As in ‘a mosaic of different sects and ethnic groups.’ When all other analytical tools fail, a convenient tactic among Middle East experts is to revive the sectarian prototype, apparently the key to understanding political dynamics in this part of the world. But while sectarian dynamics do play a role in the politics of the Middle East, the real picture is far more complex. The conclusions regarding Syria that we are being presented with today arise from the myopic and reductionist sectarian lens. There’s nothing inevitable about the sectarian logic prevailing.
Take this comment by Gary C. Gambill for example, in which he is arguing for a ‘strategic non-intervention’ in Syria. Here’s his characterisation of the situation:
‘The secular Baathist dictatorship Assad inherited from his father is dominated by Alawites, a heterodox Islamic sect comprising just 12 percent of the population, with substantial contingent support from the country’s Christian, Druze and Shiite minorities. Syria’s Sunni Arab majority was marginalized for four decades, much as Iraq’s Shiite majority was subjugated by Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-led minoritarian regime (though not quite in equal measure). Not surprisingly, those who are rebelling today are overwhelmingly Sunni, and those who are shooting them are mostly Alawite. With a five-to-one demographic advantage and nearly universal support from the surrounding Arab world, the rebels are clearly going to prevail when the dust settles.’
Sectarian determinism, to coin a phrase. The logic is so seductively complete, it’s hard to resist. What starts as a characterisation of the current situation is developed into a self-fulfilling logic. Nothing is allowed to interject into this neat sectarian schema, such as competing Sunni groups, the emergence of alternate Alawite leaders, or even reformation of the divides along different lines. Think that’s not likely? As Gambill himself says in relation to Western intervention, it’s worth studying Lebanon’s Civil War for lessons, valuable advice that himself should have heeded. The sectarian divides in Lebanon throughout the war were fluid, and some of the most violent and lengthiest episodes took place within rather than across communitarian lines. (Such as the Aoun-Geagea wars, and the Hezbollah–Amal confrontations.)
In fact, the wholesale political realignment that accompanied the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon is illustrative of the radical political shifts that don’t adhere to the logic of sectarian division. Naturally it is not detached from sectarian or communitarian considerations, but there is nothing deterministic or inevitable about it. At this moment in time, the future of the uprising in Syria has not been sealed, and there are numerous factors that can disrupt Gambill’s neat but flawed sectarian conflict schema.
As it happens, I agree with Gambill’s point in warning against US intervention, but I hold that as a matter of principle not convenience. But the debate about Syria has become entirely mired in narrow practical or tactical considerations rather than a principled approach. This intellectual laziness is exacerbated by a reductionist attitude towards the Syrian people that assumes they are sectarian automata heading towards an inevitable future. As history teaches us well, it is foolish to dismiss human agency and the ability of people to turn around circumstances.