On Nir Rosen’s Definitions of ‘Sectarian’ and ‘Secular’

by Thomas Pierret

AFP photo. burying victims of the Houla massacre
AFP photo. burying victims of the Houla massacre

Foreign Policy just published an article by David Kenner about a report on the Syrian conflict written for the US government by Nir Rosen, an ex-journalist currently working as a special adviser for conflict-resolution NGO Humanitarian Dialogue.

For several months, Rosen has been promoting an approach to the resolution of the Syrian conflict that shifts away from political transition in favour of local truces, a stance that is not dissimilar to UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura’s suggestion to “freeze” the conflict.

For many reasons, I do not think that this approach is in any way promising, but my concern here is different: it is rather the distinctly pro-Asad flavour of Rosen’s assessment of the conflict, which makes his piece look like an attempt at whitewashing the regime’s crimes, or to put it like Kenneth Roth from Human Rights Watch did it on Twitter, at sugarcoating deliberate mass-murder.

Rosen likes to remind his interlocutors that he has spent most of the last three years in Syria, speaking to people from all sides. This might be part of the problem: he seems to have spent so much time with regime officials that he is now speaking exactly like them.

Rosen’s report includes an old Stalinist trope about the Asads’ achievements in terms of health, education and infrastructure, an argument even the most obtuse defenders of the regime have started handling with care after the regime started to deliberately destroy much of its own infrastructures to make life impossible in rebel-held areas. In the same vein, Rosen claims that the Syrian regime was not the worst in the region before 2011. This is seriously debatable: by 2010, an aggregate index combining state repression and human development would certainly have placed Syria at the bottom of the regional ranking.

Then comes the breaking news: the Syrian regime is not sectarian, it is even staunchly secular! According to Rosen, the regime’s brutality towards the Sunni opposition “was done more out of a fear of Sunni sectarianism than as a result of the regime’s own sectarianism (sic)”. If Rosen is trying to tell us that the ruling clique in Damascus is not composed of sectarian ideologues, thanks, we knew that: Mafiosi are interested in power and money, not ideology. But that does not mean that their strategy cannot be deeply sectarian at the same time. The Syrian regime manipulated sectarian divides from day one. Does Rosen remember the first days of April 2011, when the Minister of Interior was branding the peaceful sit-in in Homs as a “Salafi Emirate”? Wasn’t that a not-so-subtle way to raise sectarian fears among minorities? Or was the Minister speaking so “out of fear of Sunni sectarianism”? Does Rosen remember that a couple of days later, Alawite auxiliaries were sent to kill protesters on Homs’ Clock Square? Did that also happen “out of fear of Sunni sectarianism”? Later that month, other Alawite militiamen were sent into the coastal village of al-Bayda, and filmed themselves tramping over the bodies of Sunni prisoners. An admirably non-sectarian move, once again! I had thought that faced with the same situation, a genuinely secular government would have sent uniformed security forces from other provinces rather than civilian auxiliaries from the rival local sect, but thanks to his three-year fieldwork expertise, Rosen redefined the whole concept of non-sectarianism: it means acting in a deeply sectarian manner while remaining staunchly secular in one’s heart.

My favourite display of regime “secularism” is this June 2013 speech by Asad’s head of security in Aleppo Muhammad Khaddur, who was trying to recruit Shia militiamen in the villages of Zahra and Nubbul by promising them he would “raise the flag of (Imam) Hussein over Munnagh airport”. That was staggeringly non-sectarian, wasn’t it? And of course, why would one think that a regime that is busy full-time recruiting sectarian militias from as far as Afghanistan is anything else than “non-sectarian in nature”?

I suppose that many of Rosen’s skeptical readers will wonder about sectarian massacres such as al-Hula in 2012, and al-Bayda/Banyas the following year, in which hundreds of Sunni civilians were killed by Alawite shabbiha. Were they also carried out “out of fear of Sunni sectarianism”?

Rosen’s report also includes the baffling claim that most rebels did not take up arms to defend themselves, but “out of religious zeal and political extremism”. So, from 2011 on, tens of thousands of ordinary Syrians picked up arms in a context of bloody repression of demonstrations, mass round up and torture, followed by shelling and air bombing of civilians. By 2012, Rosen was writing, on the basis of his own observations, that by cordoning off their neighbourhoods, the rebels had allowed people to demonstrate without being shot at by security forces, which strikingly looks like a defensive move to me. But after two more years of meticulous research (was it in SANA’s archives?), Rosen eventually managed to isolate the one main independent variable behind the militarisation of the uprising: it was “religious zeal and political extremism”. It is that simple: why care about the context when you can make sweeping essentialist assumptions about Sunni extremism?

Thomas Pierret is a Lecturer in Contemporary Islam at the University of Edinburgh. He is the author of Religion and State in Syria (Cambridge University Press, 2013).

9 thoughts on “On Nir Rosen’s Definitions of ‘Sectarian’ and ‘Secular’”

  1. And the new Syrian constitution, custom made for Bashar ibn Anessa, expressly forbids any Christian from holding the office of the presidency. Another fine example of Nir Rosen’s idea of “secularism”

  2. This is a fair very objective response to an extremely week and very dangerous article by a man whose words apparently reaches and may affect the decisions made by policy maker..whose decisions means life and at the moments death and catastrophe to Syria..

  3. I read this with interest. And your credentials are seemingly advanced for the subject. But what is your prescribed list of options or recommended solution—at this juncture–for the future state?

    I say “future state” in two senses: a future as opposed to past; and a future “State(s)” with a Capital “S”.

    Syria as you know was one of the bast>rd children of post-WW1 Ottoman Empire with boundaries set by decree.

    If Assad is so bad–and he is—then given the Iraq example how does one replace his Alawite-Shiite minority with a set of Sunni nut bars within the present-day arbitrary Syria borders? Power abhors a vacuum.

    If thinking outside the box we convene an international conference with even Russia and Iran (Assad’s backers) and craft some least-worst solution(s) could we generate some form of natural partitioning of Syria (concurrent with congruent partitioning for Iraq) that is more stable (in the chemical sense) and more durable (in the materials science sense)?

    The non-Arab peoples (like Kurds and Armenians) in “Syria” (and “Iraq”) matter too. What is to become of them?

    And of course there are Christian Arabs from ancient historic Churches. What is to become of them?—those of have lived there for 2000 years.

    From my limited “corporate media” sources the Christians have sided with Assad because they fear Sunni nut bars more. Would a #Daesh or Nusra Front central government really be better?

    Please share some of your insights on these points in a follow-up piece about “Future ‘State’ of Syria”. Thank you.

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