Syria

Insight on Syria: A Quagmire of Warring Religious Groups? Why the Western View is Misguided

Harvard political scientist Melani Cammett clarifies the role of sectarianism in the Syrian War.

Image of people and children of two Syrian Shiite towns

Second in a series that asks Weatherhead Center faculty to examine the dimensions shaping the Syrian conflict.

Popular discourse, especially in the West, presents the current conflict in Syria as part of an age-old struggle between the Sunni and Shi’a communities within Islam. Despite the sectarian trappings of the conflict, these divisions are not the root cause of the war in Syria. Rather, the hyperpoliticization of sectarian identities is one of the outcomes—and an increasingly salient one as conflict progresses. 

The origins of the Syrian war lie in much more mundane political and economic grievances. Despite steady economic growth and an extensive public welfare infrastructure, the vast majority of the population was excluded from the fruits of development and faced thwarted aspirations for social mobility and political expression. Rising poverty rates, endemic corruption, the poor quality of social services and government repression—factors present to varying degrees elsewhere in the Middle East—constituted a critical background to the Syrian uprising, even if they do not predict precisely why and when individual protestors took to the streets.

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