Shiraz Maher

Assad’s jihad against Syrian rebels, and what it tells us about his regime

Assad's jihad against Syrian rebels, and what it tells us about his regime
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Syrian state TV broadcast a remarkable statement last night calling for an ‘Islamic jihad’ against what it termed ‘Zionist saboteurs.’ In doing so, the Baath regime has reneged on one of its supposed deliverances; the maintenance of communal harmony in a society otherwise deeply fractured along sectarian and confessional lines.

The statement is telling because of both its content and what it reveals about Assad’s current thinking. It begins by quoting verses from the Quran followed by the citation of Hadith (recorded traditions of the Prophet Mohammed which provide a source of law in normative Sunni Islam). The scriptural references are carefully chosen, emphasising the virtues of loyalty and martyrdom. Viewers are then told they are obligated to wage jihad against a ‘Zionist’ backed insurgency which is threatening to unravel the country.

Appeals of this kind are unprecedented from the Syrian Baathists. The significance of it is revealed with consideration to the unique composition of Syrian society. The inner circle of Assad’s administration – both civilian and military – is overwhelmingly comprised of the minority Alawite sect. Their syncretic belief system has resulted in them being declared heretics by the majority of Sunni Muslims (although Alawites claim to be a branch of Shia Islam). In Syria, where Sunnis comprise around 75% of the population, anti-Alawite sentiments have festered below the surface for decades.

This kind of kindred outreach is therefore hugely significant. The uprising has, so far, splintered along broadly sectarian lines with Alawites and Christians remaining largely loyal to the government. Assad had also hoped to carry the support of Syria’s not insignificant constituency of middle class, mercantile, and secular Sunnis. But as the uprising persists and civilians continue to suffer terribly the reactionary redoubts of sectarian identification are crystallising, and support for the regime continues to erode.

All this has meant that Assad’s current attempts to portray the entire opposition movement as a curious mix of ‘Zionist conspirators’ and Islamist insurgents has failed. Last night’s statement reveals his acceptance of an altogether balder reality: the Syrian revolution has essentially degenerated into a Sunni-Shia conflict. Along the way it has also become a proxy for Sunni regimes in the Gulf wanting to check the influence of the ‘Shia crescent’ in the Levant. As a result, much of the Syrian opposition now frames its resistance in religious terms with a number of groups declaring jihad against the regime.

In order to triumph Assad now recognises he must win back the Sunni majority. That means pealing them away from Saudi and Qatari influence by employing the lexicon of conservative Sunni Islam. This will not be easy. Paring decades of suspicion and distrust is difficult at the best of times. In the midst of a brutal civil war it will be harder still. Winning the religious battle for Sunni hearts and minds in Syria will prove to be every bit as difficult for Assad as winning the war itself.