Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Sectarianism and War in Iraq and Syria
Sectarianism and War in Iraq and Syria

Sectarianism and War in Iraq and Syria


Map of the Middle East

Map of the Middle East

In mid-December 2016, outgoing U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon referred to Aleppo as a “synonym for hell“ and said that Adama Dieng, the U.N.’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.[1] The period following the U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq in 2010-2011[2] and the Syrian rebellion against the Assad regime that began in 2011[3] transformed the politics of these two countries into a zero-sum Sunni-Shiʿi 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.”[4] 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 Shiʿi militia Asaʾib 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 Shiʿi collective memory as a call to action. Therefore, historicized grievances, “whether well-founded or questionable,” have provided the easiest way of mobilizing and ultimately weaponizing sectarian identities.[5]

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 ethnosectarian divisions.[6] 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.[7] This process of politicizing sect in Iraq and Syria was similar to the politicization of ethnicity during the Balkan wars of the 1990s in the former Yugoslavia.[8] For example, a Croat described the process of “being pinned to the wall of nationhood:”

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. So right now, in the new state of Croatia, no one is allowed not to be a Croat.[9]

Substitute Sunni or Shiʿi 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.[10] 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.[11]

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 Shiʿi foreign fighters from Iraq. Under the pretext of protecting the Sayyida Zaynab shrine in Damascus, Shiʿi militias, armed and directed by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Forces (IRGC), rushed into Syria from Iraq and Lebanon to buttress the Assad regime. Iranian advisers also embarked on restructuring the pro-Assad militias into the Syrian National Defense Force. During the same period that Hizballah and Iran were organizing Shiʿi foreign fighters to defend Assad’s regime, Mohammad al-Jolani was organizing Jabhat al-Nusra, which, until April 10, 2013, was the Islamic State’s operation in Syria.[12] This parallel flow of Sunni and Shiʿi jihadists into Syria from abroad transformed the Syrian rebellion from a national uprising into a regional war,[13] which was increasingly defined by the sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shiʿis and their respective allies.

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 U.S. 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.[14]

Malik’s articles were notable as much for their timing as for their content: they were written as the humanitarian crisis unfolded in Aleppo, which generated  a renewed debate in Washington about a U.S. intervention in Syria in support of the anti-Assad rebels,[15] potentially jeopardizing four years of strategic gains by Iran, Assad, and Russia. Iran, for example, was reportedly closing in on one such gain by creating a long-sought secure land corridor from Tehran to Latakia on the Mediterranean coast.  Ironically, the Sunni narrative, which Malik was attempting to debunk as a myth, argues that the Obama administration—through its inaction or lack of support for Iraq’s and Syria’s Sunnis—has given its tacit support to the Shiʿis in the region.[16] Despite Malik’s concerns, U.S. intervention in support of Syria’s Sunnis against Assad seemed unlikely in the final months of the Obama administration.

This argument was not new. It was a more subtle and nuanced presentation of Bashar al-Assad’s argument from January 2012 when the Syrian president labeled the opposition regime terrorists and claimed “chaos now is a partner in terrorism and in shedding Syrian blood. We cannot separate the first from the second.” Since 2011-2012, the Assad regime and its supporters have crafted a narrative to convince the world that the choice was binary: Assad and stability or terrorism and chaos. In Cyrus Malik’s words, “Most of the country [Syria] has fallen into chaos or into the hands of the jihadists who cooperated with U.S.-backed groups.”

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.”[17] 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. Since 2011, Assad, elements of the Syrian opposition, and the Islamic State have used brutal sectarian war to eliminate space for the other in Iraq and Syria, creating an environment of zero-sum politics that forced citizens to choose a side or exit as refugees.[18] Second, and most germane for the U.S. foreign policy community, Malik was trying to forestall the possibility that Sunni grievances would find a sympathetic audience in the U.S. and lead to a more interventionist U.S. policy in the waning days of Obama’s second-term in office.[19]

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 Shiʿi-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 Baʿthism 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.[20] Furthermore, Malik conveniently ignored how the Assad regime dehumanized the Sunni opposition as terrorists in the early days of the Syrian rebellion in order to legitimize its response to the popular uprising.[21]

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. What’s more, Salafi-Jihadis have targeted not just Shiʿis and religious minorities in Iraq and Syria, but largely fellow Sunnis. Yet, Malik—by framing the descent into sectarian war and the triumph of zero-sum ethnosectarian solidarity as inevitable—would like the international community to ignore that the Assad regime and its backers, in addition to how the Sunni Salafi-Jihadi opposition used sectarian violence to burn the middle ground, have left most Iraqis and Syrians pinned to the wall of sectarianism.[22]

The Sunni-Shiʿi 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.

[1]  For a detailed explanation of the difference between mass categorical violence and genocide, see: Scott Strauss, Making and Unmaking of Nations: War, Leadership, and Genocide in Modern Africa (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2015), pp. 24-27.

[2] Fanar Haddad, “Sectarian Relations in Arab Iraq: Contextualising the Civil War of 2006-2007,” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 40:2 (2013), 115-138.

[3] Fouad Ajami, The Syrian Rebellion (Stanford, California: Hoover Institution Press, 2012).

[4] Ofra Bengio and Meir Litvak, Sunna and Shi‘a in History: Division and Ecumenism in the Muslim Middle East (Gordonsville, VA: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), pp. 1-16. The notion of collective action refers to Craig Calhoun, “The Problem of Identity in Collective Action,”in Joan Huber, ed., Macro-Micro Linkages in Sociology (Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage, 1991), as cited in Rogers Brubaker, Nationalism Reframed: Nationhood and the national question in the New Europe (Cambridge University Press, 1996), fn. 16, p. 20.

[5] Jeremy Black, Clio’s Battles: Historiography in Practice (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2015), pp. 216-219.

[6] Rogers Brubaker, “Myths and misconceptions in the study of nationalism,” in The State of the Nation (Cambridge University Press, 1998), John A. Hall, ed., pp. 272-306.

[7] Rogers Brubaker, Nationalism Reframed: Nationhood and the national question in the New Europe (Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 20.

[8] For a thorough explanation of the politicization of ethnocultural identity, see: Azar Gat with Alexander Yakobson, Nations: The Long History and Deep History of Political Ethnicity and Nationalism (Cambridge University Press, 2013).

[9] Slavenka Drakulic, The Balkan Express Fragments from the Other Side of War (New York: W.W. Norton, 1993), pp. 50-52 as quoted in Rogers Brubaker, Nationalism Reframed: Nationhood and the national question in the New Europe (Cambridge University Press, 1996), fn. 17, p. 20.

[10]  On the U.S. disengagement from Iraq, post-2009, see: Christopher R. Hill, “How the Obama Administration Ignored Iraq,” Politico, October 2, 2014; Weiss and Hassan, pp. 87-98; and, Kenneth Pollack, “Fight or Flight: America’s Choice in the Middle East,” Foreign Affairs 95:2 (March/April 2016), 62-75. See also, Nicholas J. Kramer, “Waking Up to the Truth About the Sunni Awakening,”, November 23, 2016.

[11]Syria’s Phase of Radicalisation,” International Crisis Group, Middle East Briefing No. 33, April 10, 2012; Katherine Marsh, Matthew Taylor, and Haroon Sidiqque, “Syria’s crackdown on protesters becomes dramatically more brutal,” The Guardian, April 25, 2011; Sara Ghasemilee, “Syria’s Shabiha: Killing in Bashar al-Assad’s name,” al-Arabiya, June 5, 2012.

[12] In April 2013, the organization broke away from al-Qaʿida, and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi changed the name of the organization from al-Qaʿida in Iraq to al-Dawla al-Islamiyya fi al-Iraq wa-l-Sham [Islamic State in Iraq and Sham (ISIS)]. See Cole Bunzel, “Introducing “The Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria,”, April 10, 2013. The Islamic State’s break with al-Qaʿida also marked its break with Jabhat al-Nusra. Nusra, and its leader, al-Jolani, remained loyal to Ayman al-Zawahiri and affiliated with al-Qaʿida until August 2016, when it broke with al-Qaʿida and renamed itself Jabhat al-Fatah al-Sham. See: Charles Lister, “Profiling Jabhat al-Nusra” Analysis Paper No. 24, Brookings Institution July 2016; and, Hassan Hassan, “Syrian war enters a new phase as factions realign,” The National (Abu Dhabi), August 7, 2016.

[13] Weiss and Hassan, pp. 131-151, 181-182.

[14] Cyrus Malik, “Washington’s Sunni Myth and the Civil Wars in Iraq and Syria,”, August 16, 2016; and Cyrus Malik, “Washington’s Sunni Myth and the Middle East Undone,”, August 23, 2016. In response, see: Emile Hokayem, “Assad or We Burn The Country: Misreading Sectarianism and the Regime in Syria,”, August 24, 2016; and, Amil Khan, “Myth-Making and Sectarian Secularists in the Middle East,”, September 1, 2016.

[15] Thanassis Cambanis, “The Case for a More Robust U.S. Intervention in Syria,” The Century Foundation, June 19, 2016; Dennis B. Ross and Andrew J. Tabler, “The Case for (Finally) Bombing Assad,” The New York Times, August 3, 2016; Charles Lister, “A Plan for Winding Down the Syrian Civil War: Surge, Freeze, and Enforce,”, September 30, 2016; Marc Lynch, “What’s Really at Stake in the Syria Debate,”, October 10, 2016; Steven Cook, “The Perplexing Problems of Solving Syria,”, October 17, 2016; Thanassis Cambanis, “Are We All Interventionists,”, October 14, 2016.

[16] See, for example: Nawaf Obaid, “Saudi Arabia’s Master Plan Against ISIS, Assad, and Iran in Syria,” The National Interest, February 16, 2016; and Nawaf Obaid, “The Salman Doctrine: The Saudi Reply to Obama’s Weakness,” The National Interest, March 30, 2016.

[17] Fanar Haddad, “Sectarian Relations and Sunni Identity in Post-Civil War Iraq,” in Sectarian Politics in the Persian Gulf (London: Hurst & Co. Ltd, 2014), Lawrence G. Potter, ed., pp. 67-115, here 71; See, also: Fanar Haddad, “Sectarian Relations in Arab Iraq: Contextualising the Civil War of 2006-2007,” BRIJMES 40:2 (2013), 115-138; Fanar Haddad, “A Sectarian Awakening: Reinventing Sunni Identity in Iraq After 2003,” Current Trends in Islamist Ideology Vol. 17, The Hudson Institute,  pp. 70- 101.

[18] Shadi Hamid, “The End of Pluralism,” The Atlantic, July 23, 2014; David Ignatius, “‘Surrender and you can eat again’: Aleppo on the brink,” Washington Post, October 4, 2016.  

[19] See footnotes 14 and 15, above.

[20] Aaron Faust, The Baʿthification of Iraq: Saddam Hussein’s Totalitarianism (University of Texas Press, 2015); Radwan Ziadeh, Power and Policy in Syria (London: IB Tauris, 2011); Sami Moubayed, “Letter from Damascus: Will Syria Descend into Civil War?” Current History 110:740 (December 2011), 339-344; Eyal Zisser, Commanding Syria (London: IB Tauris, 2007). For the failure of secularism in Iraq and Syria, see: Bruce Maddy-Weitzman and Asher Susser, “State Cohesion in the Middle East: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives,” in Inglorious Revlutions: State Cohesion in the Middle East after the Arab Spring (Tel Aviv: The Moshe Dayan Center, 2014), Brandon Friedman and Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, eds., pp. 13-36; see, also: Asher Susser, Secularism, Islamism, and Sectarianism: The Inevitable Linkage,” Bustan: The Middle East Book Review 7:2 (Winter 2016), 130-142.

[21]  For evidence that the Asad regime played a role in stirring-up sectarian strife at the outset of the Syrian rebellion, see: “Unchartered Waters: Thinking Through Syria’s Dynamics,” International Crisis Group, Middle East Briefing No. 31, November  24, 2011, p. 2; Roy Gutman, “Assad Henchmen: Here’s how we built ISIS,” The Daily Beast, December 1, 2016; see, also: footnote 23, above.

[22] For Asad’s logic of violence in Syria, see: Emile Hokayem, “Assad or We Burn The Country: Misreading Sectarianism and the Regime in Syria,”, August 24, 2016 ; For the Islamic State, see: Hassan Hassan, “Isis has reached new depths of depravity. But there is a logic behind it,” The Guardian, February 8, 2015.