Religion and Conflict in Syria

September 10, 2013
William A. Graham, Harvard University Distinguished Service Professor
William A. Graham, Harvard University Distinguished Service Professor

Members of the Faculty of Divinity are expressing doubts about the prospect of a U.S. military strike in response to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's reported use of chemical weapons on the country's civilian population.

Ahmed Ragab, William Graham, and Harvey Cox lament the failure of the international community to avert the humanitarian disaster now unfolding in Syria, but say that unilateral intervention is unlikely to improve the situation, now that it is complicated by sectarian violence.

From peaceful protest to civil war

Ragab, the Richard T. Watson Assistant Professor of Science and Religion, spent much of the summer in the Middle East. He says that one of the greatest tragedies of the Syrian conflict is that neither violence nor sectarianism were initially at the heart of the revolution.

"This movement started as entirely peaceful," he says. "For months and months, people took to the streets in peaceful protest. They were attacked by the regime but they continued peacefully protesting for a long time. The escalation of the violence by the regime led to the fact that these people took up arms to defend themselves. It was at this moment—when the violence became more central to the conflict – that we saw armed factions and extremist groups like Al-Qaeda become more influential in the conflict."

William Graham, Murray A. Albertson Professor of Middle Eastern Studies, agrees that protestors in Syria were not initially motivated by the 'ancient sectarian differences' cited by President Obama recently in a speech on the conflict.

"The protest movement itself was heavily political and social in its response to tyranny," Graham says, "but the situation got so desperate that they took to arms. The violence inflamed the sectarian differences, but religion was not fundamentally at the root of this conflict at all. The escalation of sectarian violence is a manifestation or unintended consequence of the uprising against the regime."

Assad fomented religious differences

Although the protesters may not have intended to bring religious division into the revolution, Ragab says that the Syrian president did.

"Assad highlighted the sectarian nature of the conflict," he says. "In doing that, he tried—and was successful in some degree—to motivate the Shiite Alawite minority to join him. By intensifying the sectarian nature of this conflict, it became more and more of a struggle for life for the Alawite minority. The more Sunnis die, the more difficult it was likely to be in the future for an Alawite minority in a new regime. There's more blood spilled, more tension, and more desire for revenge. The sectarian nature of the conflict was to the benefit of Assad more than anyone else."

Struggle against the Syrian regime is nothing new, according to Graham, but extreme sectarian violence is. Graham spent time in the country during the 1970s, when it was ruled by Assad's father, Hafez al-Assad. Then, as now, the government was repressive, even brutal, but opposition was rarely religiously motivated.

"More pious groups, such as some of the Salafis, in the 1970s felt oppressed by the anti-religious bias of Hafez Al-Assad's regime," Graham says. "I heard from an army officer and others employed by the military or government, and their feeling was that if you were observant, prayed five times a day, etc., you were the target of scoffing and derision and more likely to be passed over for promotion. Others in the civil service felt the same way. They complained bitterly about anti-religious values in the government, but the complaints weren't anti-Shiite. Syria was a repressive state, but it wasn't seen as being so because it was Shiite. The ruling group was simply government oppressors."

World response too late

If the international community had intervened when Assad was teetering and the opposition was still peaceful and political, Ragab says, it might have averted much of the violence and humanitarian disaster now unfolding in Syria.

"This is a story of the failure of the international community to intervene at the right time," he says. "If it had gotten involved early on, before the escalation of violence—whether in the form of exerting pressure on Assad, or creating a no-fly zone, or some other type of action against the regime—this conflict might have moved in a completely different direction."

Both Graham and Ragab are skeptical that the type of unilateral military action contemplated by the Obama administration could have much impact on the human suffering in Syria – or even prevent Assad from using chemical weapons again.

"The international community should be heavily involved in any action against Syria or taken to task for being unwilling to stand up to the values it espouses," says Graham. "Now there's chaos in the country. I'm not sure that there's anything that the United States can do to change that situation—particularly if it acts on its own."
Perils of a U.S. strike

Ragab says that a U.S. strike could actually work in favor of the regime.

"A limited strike intended to show that the international community is angry because chemical weapons were used, would be useless," he says. "Furthermore, it could validate the regime's propaganda that it is anti-west and anti imperialist and so on."

Hollis Research Professor of Divinity Harvey Cox says that he's torn about the prospect of military action in Syria. A longtime peace advocate and anti-war activist, Cox says that he's "deeply suspicious" of the use of force. At the same time, he does believe that the United States has a responsibility to help the victims of violent regimes.

"I think we do have some responsibility, as a superpower, to people who are murdered, tortured, and abused by their governments," he says. "How we exercise that responsibility is the question. What happens if next week the Syrian government uses chemical weapons again? We would have to do the same thing, presumably. The fact that a strike has been delayed while it's debated in Congress suggests that it's not something that has to be done right now. That gives the president and the rest of us time to ransack possibilities other than the use of weapons. I don't think we've been very imaginative in thinking about alternatives."

Diplomatic pressure still possible?

The alternative favored by Ragab is diplomacy. He says that Assad's use of chemical weapons is an embarrassment to the nations that support him—particularly Russia and China. Now is the time to bring all stakeholders to the negotiation table—including the regime and the opposition Free Syrian Army—and to use Assad's crime as leverage to forge peace.

"What's needed right now is a strong diplomatic campaign," Ragab says. "Russia appears to be embarrassed at this moment. They issued a statement the other day that they would be willing to go along with military action against Assad, as long as there was clear evidence of the regime using chemical weapons. It's a sign of their critical position on the international stage and a chance for diplomacy—a conference on peace in Syria."

Russia has also supported a proposed plan that Assad's government surrender their chemical weapons to the international community in order to avoid possible military action.

Cox says that, above all, the U.S. cannot be the single enforcer of international norms. He urges the Obama administration to work with the global community to find a lasting, non-violent solution to the crisis.

"I'm a very strong advocate of international law," he says. "I understand that it has to be enforced. But I do not think in this case that we have exhausted the possibilities of doing something against the Syrian government other than military action in punishment or retaliation for the use of chemical weapons. There hasn't been that patient and relentless search for some kind of alternative. Any choice one way or the other will have tragic consequences, but this is not the moment for military intervention."

—by Paul Massari