Making of Sects: A Critical Examination of the Militarization and Sectarianization Processes in Syria, 2011-2013

By Basileus Zeno
Submitted to Session P6210 (Ethnic Minorities and Sectarian Tensions, 2020 Annual Meeting
Pol Science
Arab States;
LCD Projector with Audio Patch or Speakers;
This paper traces the discursive re-articulation of the Syrian opposition’s militarized and sectarian narratives, as part of the meaning-making processes in the context of the Syrian-uprising-cum-civil war, and its effects on the trajectories of the uprising during the transformative period 2011-2013. I argue that sectarianization and militarization processes were mutually-reinforcing dynamics and that the militarized narrative, which gained popularity among dominant groups in the Syrian opposition following the NATO's intervention in Libya, exacerbated the sectarianization process leading to the instrumentalization of banal sectarian identification and the intensified salience of militant sectarian identification (Brubaker and Cooper 2000; Dixon 2017; Haddad 2017; Hashimi & Poster 2017; Hinnebusch 2016; Makdisi 2017; Pinto 2017; Wedeen 2019).

With the transformation of the Syrian uprising into a proxy war, the use of sect-centric symbols and rhetoric has become increasingly prevalent among armed groups, both pro-regime and pro-opposition, and activists. This state of affairs contrasts sharply with the kinds of symbols and rhetoric used by protesters who took to the streets in Syria on March 2011, in the midst of the “Arab Spring.” How has the social movement in Syria come to be so dramatically and quickly transformed from, first, peaceful protests centered around popular demands for political reforms, to the broadly national movement calling for “Revolution for all Syrians,” and then to the ongoing civil war with an increasing visibility of sectarian and militarized discourses? How did regional policies shape the dominant narratives about the Syrian uprising? What are the dynamics that facilitated the confluence of bottom-up and top-down sectarian narrative and violence?

Methodologically, this article uses an interpretivist approach; it is based on discourse and content analysis of 146, slogans, videos and images disseminated and promoted by both mainstream media (Al-Jazeera) and social media between 2011-2013. The analysis is also informed by ethnographic observations, fieldnotes, and weekly meetings with activists in Damascus during the uprising until August 2012. The data was further supported by 22 in-depth, semi-structured interviews conducted in August 2014 with Syrian activists who participated in the uprising but are currently residing in Washington D.C.

I conclude with a discussion of how the conjuncture of four dynamics (grassroots organizations; sectarian entrepreneurs; regional actors; and Arab satellite outlets, and social media) contributed to the militarization and sectarianization of the public sphere and laid the necessary conditions for constructing militant sectarian identification that combined a particularistic identification within the state with the supra/or trans-state level.