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Sectarian Strategies, National Settings and the War Economy in Syria and Iraq

Noria Research

This article intends only, in line with its short length, to offer areas of reflection and avenues for further exploration.

In order to understand the current conflictual situation in Syria and Iraq it is important to take three aspects into consideration: trans-national sectarianism, pragmatic alliances and state resilience.

In a context of weakening State power, Syrian and Iraqi regimes have actively used sectarianism, in conjunction with an unprecedented level of violence, as the response. This has in turn led to popular discontent and as a consequence sectarian, transnational conflict throughout the region. The internationalization process follows two trends: on the one hand, a process with States as the main actors; on the other hand, a process pertaining to the infra-state level, revolving around ethnic (between the Kurds), but most of all sectarian solidarities (namely between Sunnis and Shiites).

Nevertheless, these new dynamics co-exist within traditional dynamics of tension and civil war. Whether local economic partnerships or pragmatic alliances, such as between ISIL and the Syrian regime, they show that sectarianism and the conflict’s regionalization remain direct consequences of the regimes’ strategies.

Despite ISIL’s ability to remain a dominant player in the region and the threat posed by them, the States are likely to remain powerful players and the main organising system for the people in the region – the “Shia axis” being not much more than a collection of States. The future of the conflict therefore depends largely on the people.

Political stakeholders redefining identity

The civil war in Syria and the increasing violence in Iraq are the expression of revolutionary situations which should be seen as part of a continuation of the “Arab Spring.”

The quick and brutal political reconfigurations have been accompanied by a process of religious sectarianism; the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, now renamed the Islamic State (IS)) and the accompanying assault on Baghdad are some of the most recent manifestations.

This alignment of stakeholders along a Shi’ite-Sunni opposition line is the consequence of three interrelated elements. Firstly, the instrumentalisation of religious identities by the regimes of Nouri al-Maliki and Bashar al-Asad in order for them to remain in power. Secondly, religious recruitment organized by “identity entrepreneurs”; and lastly, with the weakening of the State, vulnerable societies in an increasingly violent environment, who are left with limited alternative routes.

However important the rise of this religious dimension might be, it is also accompanied by a set of interdependent factors, the analysis of which is essential to an understanding of this crisis: social transformations, political demands, exacerbations of identity differences and opportunism, in particular economic opportunism.

The current crisis might indeed suggest the rise of a transnational Sunni Arab axis that straddles Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, but the people of these three countries have very different historical trajectories. Even if the Syrian revolution was carried by a Sunni majority that had long been marginalised by a regime identified as Alawi, it was the result of multi-faith protest against authoritarian rule.In Iraq, the insurgency is the result of a Sunni minority marginalized by a new Shi’ite political elite following the 2003 U.S. invasion. The Sunni insurgencies in Iraq and Syria are therefore examples of two very different national configurations. In addition, the sponsorship of certain Gulf countries, Saudi Arabia and Qatar in particular, whilst presented as part of a religious solidarity are in fact above all the strategies of regional powers that seek to overthrow the Syrian and Iraqi allies against their Iranian competitor.

Similarly, the “Shia axis” is above all a political alliance between Iran, the Iraqi regime, some Iraqi Shi’ite groups, the Syrian regime and Hizbullah. Theologically, TwelverShi’ism and the Alawite religion have little in common, and the Shi’ite character of the alliance is primarily an external perception. Shi’ism gains a transnational dimension where it is instrumentalised by regimes in order to create popular militias and support, for example by calling for the defense of Shi’ite shrines in Samarra in Iraq and SayyidaZaynab in Syria. Beyond the very real ideological commitment of the militias, their continuation beyond their national boundaries depends above all on the logistical capacities of the military organizations to which they belong, and ultimately the resources provided by the States that sponsor them.

By over simplifying sectarian identities, a particularly malleable notion, religious division, in the context of civil war, is exacerbated. Different theological branches of Shi’ism in the region, from Alawism to Zaydism, with considerably different historical evolutions from the Twelver doctrine, are thus easily confused together within the context of civil war. The mediatisation of violence is a particularly effective weapon of differentiation for stakeholders such as the Islamic State and the Iraqi and Syrian regimes, whose strategy is based on increasing the denominational dimension of each of the opposing sides. The distribution in June 2014 by ISIL of images of hundreds of Shi’ites being executed, retouched to make them even more shocking can be analysed in the wake of the massacre carried out in Alawite villages in the province of Latakia in August 2013. The bombing in 2011 of Sunni neighborhoods by the Syrian regime had a similar objective. The political strategies put in place by the protagonists are what primarily creates identity opposition lines within the populations, and their implementation is possible only if they have access to the necessary resources.

Transversal logic and local alliances

Beyond the religious conflicts that run deeply through the crisis, the Iraqi and Syrian civil wars are each different, depending on temporary alliances and the various social, economic and political interests. The loss of Mosul by the Iraqi regime took place after many years of a gradual loss of control of the city by the Iraqi army. Radicalized social movements, a result of the repression of Baghdad, made the advance negotiations between ISIL, Baathist insurgents and local Islamists, possible. In the Syrian Jezireh, local alliances depend largely on historical factors that existed prior to the crisis. In Rabia, at the Iraqi-Syrian border, the PKK was joined in 2014 by local Arab fighters, to fight ISIL. These local fighters were from long-established tribes in the region. However, when the armed Kurdish group advanced to the border crossing Tall Amis, a hundred kilometres south, the local Arab population, descendants from settlers of the Baathist regime against the Kurds, joined ISIL in its stand off against the PKK. In Kirkuk, the presence of Shi’ite Turkmens militiamen is possible only as a result of the intented strategy of the Iraqi Kurds to weaken the central government, hence forcing those militias to work with them. In Syria and Iraq, the rise of Shi’ite militias depends on the collaborative relationship between armed groups, the regime and local populations.

The Syrian regime plays a key role in the economy of transnational war that is taking place in the Middle East. To resist the opposition, Bashar al-Asad delegated control of the Kurdish areas to the PKK from July 2012 and allowed ISIL to prosper whilst avoiding bombarding its positions.

The Syrian regime additionally bought crude oil for its refineries from the PKK and ISIL and sold the refined product back to ISIL, whilst refusing the same to the Syrian rebels. Damascus maintains an ambiguous relationship with the PKK and ISIL, who do not pose a direct threat; both groups can use Syria as a behind the lines base for their operations in Iraq and Turkey. It is only with ISIS’ offensive in Iraq and against Baghdad that the Syrian regime began their bombing, in order to appear to the outside world and the West as a key player in the fight against an entity whose strength it had significantly bolstered.

On the side of the Kurds, they are exploiting a historic opportunity with the weakening of the States to negotiate economic and political benefits from Baghdad, Damascus, and Ankara. Indeed, any political or military reconquest of Iraqi Sunni areas would require the support of KRG. The KRG is today in a strong position in its discussions on the positions open in government, the status of territories conquered since June 10 (the town of Kirkuk, and the northern provinces of Nineveh and Diyala) and the right to export directly to Turkey its oil. Similarly in Syria, the PKK is now in possession of territories in Afrin, Qobane and in the Jezireh to recruit and train men, in coordination with its Iraqi sanctuaries in the Qandil and Zab mountains.

The Resilience of a National Logic

If the weakening of states has made the borders porous, the challenge to these borders, regularly announced, will likely remain unsuccessful.

Whilst the regimes and national balance is up-ended, the states themselves are not. National borders remain part of the framework of the demands of the majority of armed groups who define themselves primarily as nationalists and whose operations depend on local dynamics of mobilization. National insurgent movements in Syria since 2011 – now the Army of the Mujahideen (Jayshal-Mujahideen), the Syrian Revolutionary Front (Jabhatal-Thuâral-Sûrîyîn) and the Syrian Islamic Front (al-Jabha al-Islâmîyya al-sûrrîyya) – and in Iraq since 2004 – the Naqshbandi brotherhood (Jama’at al-Naqshbandîyya), the Companions of Islam (Ansar al-Islam), the Army of the Mujahideen (Jaysh al-Mujahideen) – are all fighting for national goals. In their current alliance with ISIL, they continue to follow their own agenda against the Syrian and Iraqi regimes, in direct opposition to those, transnational and religious, of the Islamic State. These movements are composed of nationals, with a nationalistic vision that aims to conquer Baghdad or Damascus.

Similarly, the involvement of Hizbullah alongside the Syrian regime and the influx of more than one million Syrian Sunnis into Lebanon has profoundly destabilised the country. If political relations are increasingly strained between the protagonists, with clashes multiplying – in Tripoli in particular – the fact that the country has not entered into the civil war confirms the salience of a largely national framework.

Paradoxically, the transnational configuration of the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts has underlined the differences between the two countries. The crisis is regionalized in terms of the number of countries involved, the importance of cross-border military and economic movements, but these resources all primarily support groups with national objectives. With the exception of the PKK and IS, all protagonists perceive the conquest of territory, or at least a redistribution of power, as the only solution. They do not imagine the creation of a new state with redrawn borders as a long-term solution but as a considerable territorial loss. This is even more the case since the areas that have a mixed population are still significant, especially in the cities, and do not allow for a redefined, clear division of the territory.

Even the Islamic State, despite its desire to create a genuine caliphate, has been forced to take into account the differences of each national situation, and to follow different strategies regarding the two countries. In Iraq, the movement aims to take Baghdad and overthrow the regime, while in Syria it does not attack the regime but maintains its grip on a territory which resources it uses. As such, in Syria IS controls the population directly and confronts the insurrection with whom it is competing for control of the territory. In Iraq, it joins forces with the insurgency whom it leaves to control the territory, in order to focus its efforts on the front against the Iraqi regime.


Religious division as a mode of government as used by Maliki and Asad, and as a strategy of sectarian identities for the Islamic State, reduces the potential for a compromise between national Sunni movements and the regimes in power.

In addition, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Qatar feed this line of division in their own struggle for regional leadership. Finally, the West has now politically disengaged, investing primarily on humanitarian issues and terrorism. This is the first crisis in the Middle East where Western countries do not play a decisive role in the course of events. Traumatized by the war in Iraq, caught in a difficult withdrawal from Afghanistan, the United States now commits only limited resources and leaves the local protagonists and regimes free to follow their own strategy. And in this way, nothing prevents the rise of religious players who in the expression of their local, predatory logic, guarantee the continuation of civil war.