Sectarianism and war in Iraq, Syria

> Uzi Rabi & Brandon Friedman


In mid-December 2016, outgoing UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon referred to Aleppo as a "synonym for hell" and said that Adama Dieng, the UN's Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, warned of the risk of genocide there. Others will judge whether what has happened in Aleppo constitutes genocide or not; however, the Assad regime and its backers have tried to "impose maximal damage on a civilian social category in order to force a change of behavior," in the belief that committing atrocities against the rebellious civilian population will pressure the armed opposition to relent. This coercive strategy is known as "mass categorical violence" and its logic is similar to genocide; the principal difference is that in genocide the perpetrators believe that the target population is both uncontainable and threatening, and therefore must be destroyed. The period following the US military withdrawal from Iraq in 2010-2011and the Syrian rebellion against the Assad regime that began in 2011transformed the politics of these two countries into a zero-sum Sunni-Shi?i war. The violence in Aleppo, and elsewhere in Iraq and Syria, has been legitimized by sectarian narratives that dehumanized the sectarian "other," marginalized alternative identities, and transformed the nature of sectarian relations into a zero-sum equation.

The sectarianism in today's Iraq and Syria has been the product of collective action fueled, in part, by "the question of who is a true Muslim and, equally important, who should dominate the Muslim world." The exaggerated sense of Sunni Arab marginalization, which gave rise to the Islamic State, draws on Sunni political exclusion as well as how the Sunnis collectively perceive Islamic history and their place in it. In turn, when Qais al-Khazali, the leader of the Iraqi Shi?i militia Asa?ib Ahl al-Haq, promised that the military operation to retake Mosul from the Islamic State in October 2016 would be revenge for Imam Hussein's death at Karbala (at the hands of forces led by the Sunni Umayyad Caliph Yazid) in 680 C.E., he was invoking the idiom and power of Shi?i collective memory as a call to action.

Sectarian war in Iraq and Syria was not a return to repressed sub-national identities based on a "seething cauldron" view of the region as permanently divided along deeply encoded ethno-sectarian divisions. Instead, the political crises of 2010-2011 led the Islamic State, the government in Baghdad, and the Assad regime to sectarianize public life, stripping away non-sectarian alternative identities and forcing Iraqis and Syrians to choose a side in order to survive.
That is what the war is doing to us . . . I am nobody because I am not a person any more. I am one of 4.5 million Croats . . . I am not in a position to choose any longer. Nor, I think, is anyone else . . . something people cherished as part of their cultural identity . . . has become their political identity and turned into something like an ill-fitting shirt. You may feel the sleeves too short, the collar too tight. You might not like the color, and the cloth might itch. But there is no escape; there is nothing else to wear. One doesn't have to succumb voluntarily to this ideology of the nation - one is sucked into it. Substitute Sunni or Shi?i for "Croat," and sect for "nation," and this statement could easily apply to Iraq and Syria. There, rather than the ill-fitting shirt of nationalism, sectarianism serves more like a straightjacket.

The Obama administration politically disengaged from Iraq in 2010-2011, and Nuri al-Maliki reneged on a promise to integrate the Sunni sahawat ("awakening") militias into the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), which was just one example of a series of Maliki's decisions that left the Sunnis in Iraq feeling marginalized.  In the first year of the Syrian rebellion in 2011, the Assad regime, for its part, relied on shabiha brutality in an unsuccessful attempt to cow the predominantly Sunni opposition into submission.

As violence became an integral part of the Syrian rebellion and Bashar al-Assad appeared to be losing control in 2012, the regime received critical military support from Lebanese Hizballah and Iranian-supported Shi?i foreign fighters from Iraq. Under the pretext of protecting the Sayyida Zaynab shrine in Damascus, Shi?i militias, armed and directed by Iran's Revolutionary Guard Forces (IRGC), rushed into Syria from Iraq and Lebanon to buttress the Assad regime.

Cyrus Malik and "Washington's Sunni Myth"
In August 2016, a pseudonymous Cyrus Malik argued that Washington elites were being persuaded to imagine a Sunni identity in Iraq and Syria that does not exist-what Malik labeled as "Washington's Sunni myth"-and further claimed that some American analysts have "accepted the [Sunni] sectarian victimization narrative." Malik argued that there were two central claims to the sectarian victimization narrative: first, only a Sunni Arab force could defeat the Islamic State; and, second, the Islamic State could not be defeated as long as Assad was president in Syria. Malik maligned the argument that the Sunnis in Syria are deserving of US support because they "feel like they lost everything since 2003 and remain oppressed." According to Malik, Washington, including President Barack Obama, "is listening to the wrong Sunnis," and in doing so "reinforcing and legitimizing a dangerous sectarian narrative." Instead of searching for moderate Sunnis to support in Syria, Washington, in Malik's estimation, should promote citizenship and a secular state in Syria.

Sectarianism has undergone a qualitative shift in Iraq and Syria since 2010-2011. While characterizing sectarianism in Iraq prior to 2011, Fanar Haddad argued that "no matter the level of mistrust, disdain, or even violence, at any given time, there has been no desire for the total elimination of the other."  Yet, since 2011, as Peter Harling points out, the belligerents have borrowed "from every conceivable genre of human cruelty. Organs were eaten, heads chopped off, children gassed, and whole neighborhoods starved to death." Aleppo is but the most recent example.

Malik's core assumption is that politics are a zero-sum exercise: you either accept or reject the notion that Sunnis have been victimized in Iraq and Syria. And if you reject it as a myth, as Malik encourages you to do, then you must support the alternative narrative that holds that secular citizenship is embodied and safeguarded by the Shi?i-backed Assad regime in Syria. However, Malik's argument in support of the Assad regime as the guardian of citizenship and secularism is also a myth. It ignores the twentieth-century history of Ba?thism in Iraq and Syria, which failed to create secular citizenship and led to regimes that ultimately relied on fear, and, to some extent, totalitarian control, more than any notion of consensual secular citizenship to preserve order.

 The "myth" of Sunni disenfranchisement or marginalization has, according to Malik, "led to the region's descent into hell." He dismisses the notion that the Assad regime's "harsh methods" were to blame, instead depicting sectarian hatred as inevitable when the state collapsed and extremist militias emerged. To be sure, Malik is correct to point out that Sunni disenfranchisement does not provide a complete explanation for Sunni radicalization.

The Sunni-Shi?i war is not the product of "ancient hatreds" unbound by the collapse of state institutions in Iraq and Syria. And sectarian violence cannot simply be blamed on foreign intervention either. Rather, sectarian conflict has emerged from the struggle of local actors-whether the Assad regime, the Baghdad government, the Islamic State, or Jabhat Fateh al-Sham-to impose an uncompromising, exclusivist political identity on their countries. This history remains to be told in full, but historical grievances deeply rooted in collective memory have been mobilized and then weaponized in service of these competing exclusivist goals, which has resulted in the kind of ruthless coercive violence that brought Aleppo to the brink of genocide at the end of 2016.

Uzi Rabi is the Director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, and  Brandon Friedman is a Senior Fellow in the Foreign Policy Research Institute's Program on the Middle East

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