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Jadaliyya Syria Page Co-Editor Basileus Zeno on Sectarianism, Syria, and Iran, on BBC Newshour Extra
On Friday, 23 December 2016, the BBC’s Newshour Extra featured a discussion on the sectarianism as a framework of analysis for the war in Syria. Host Owen Bennet Jones mediated between panelists Basilseous Zeno (PhD Student in Political Science at University of Masschusetts Amherst), Mohammed Alyahya (Non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council), Haydar al-Khoei (Researchers at the Centre for Academic Shi‘a Studies), and Ariane Tabatabai (Visiting Assistant Professor of Security Studies at Georgetown University). The below transcript represents the interventions of Basileous Zeno, who was consistently sought to challenge framing Syria in sectarian terms.
[Jadaliyya Syria Page Co-Editor Basileus Zeno's Responses]
Owen Bennett Jones (OBJ): Just to get us underway, I want to just do the very basic in sort of ask the broad contours of the Middle East, where the Shias are, where the Sunnis are, and what the numbers are and so on, some of the A, B, Cs.
[. . .]
OBJ: Basileus Zeno, I want to bring you in on the Syrian Alawites because we will be talking about Syria in this program, and Bashar al-Assad is not a Shia Muslim, strictly, he is an Alawite. Can you just take us through that distinction and why the Shia is backing an Alawite?
Basileus Zeno (BZ): First of all, I actually have a problem with considering these numbers as if they are representative of the way how people can make their political stance on the first hand. Many scholars tried do an effort, at least to give conservative numbers. So, they estimated the number of Sunni Muslim to be sixty-nine percent, the Alawites twelve percent. But again, there is no way to verify these numbers and they do not tell us anything [host interrupts]
OBJ: Hang on, you are talking about in Syria though?
BZ: Yes, specifically in Syria.
OBJ: Ok, but just to explain this question of the Alawites. So, are they the ruling power in Syria despite the fact that they are quite a small minority in the number terms? The Alawitism, if you like, is seen as closely related to Shi‘ism, so it is natural for Iran to be backing the Alawite side.
BZ: It’s not natural; it’s political. There is a huge difference here, and actually you cannot grasp the dynamics of the Syrian war if you eliminated the role of class!
OBJ: Well sure. We are trying exactly to do this kind of argument and the extent to which it is West versus Russia, the extent to which it is class as another way of splitting it up; or it’s, you know, sort of Jihadist versus infidels. We understand there are lots of ways of looking at this. But one of them is sectarianism. And what we are trying to get to is how important that is. So, let me again go around the panel and ask for your thoughts on that.
[. . .]
OBJ: Basileus Zeno, let me bring you in here because I know you have been looking at the language used in the Syrian conflict, and right from the start a lot of sectarian vocabulary came into it, right?
BZ: These vocabularies, it took time before they were reified. So I’ll call this a processes of sectarianization. And after the offensive on Damascus and Aleppo, at the time [July 2012], you could see a conjuncture between multiple factors. One of them is certain grassroots [movements] on the ground. The second factor is mainstream media, in particular Al Jazeera Arabic and Al Arabiya, but Al Jazeera in particular because they endorsed sectarian eyewitnesses and eliminated other non-sectarian actors who were resisting Asad at the time. The third factor is social media. And the fourth factor was actually arming certain groups, and while the term the Free Syrian Army was invented and many officers at the time defected late 2011, there was an effort actually that financed the fragmentation of the Free Syrian Army into multiple groups.
OBJ: So, so you are basically agreeing with Hayder al-Khoei; that this is manufactured?
BZ: Yes, definitely!
OBJ: But it still exists, right?
BZ: Look, I agree with Mohammad and Hayder [two of the other guests on the show]. We are not trying to, you know, minimize or underestimate the significance of sectarianism. But, in understand it as an essentialized, culturalist, reductionist understanding of people, we are eliminating the agency of the people, on the one hand. And, on the second hand, we are endorsing the perspective and the acts of those who are involved in the conflict from the perspective of fighters as Shi‘i versus Sunni, and those who are financing the whole process, which we, actually, call them “sectarian entrepreneurs.” So they are producing these narratives to sustain their power and their interests.
[. . .]
OBJ: Basileus Zeno, you want to say something?” [In response to co-guest Mohammed Alyahya who claims that, “there is no evidence of Saudi funding groups in Syria, there is no evidence of Saudi supporting militias outside the coordination with the CIA. Other Gulf states, I can’t speak to their; what their activity in the region was.” (35:50-36:07)]
BZ: Yeah, there actually is evidence about the Saudi involvement in Syria—in supporting Jaysh al-Islam for instance, who are receiving funding. You can check. Today, there is a report published on Jadaliyya with all the details about “What the West Owes Syrians,” and there is another book, Shadow Wars. You can take all the data and you can see how Qatar, Saudi Arabia, all in the Gulf, invested in sectarianism as well as in sectarian actors—in particular—at the expense of secular and non-sectarian actors. This is on the one hand. On the second hand, the sectarianization of, even among refugees, started after the war in Afghanistan [i.e., the Soviet–Afghan War]. [There are] many reports about that and many books. One last point, we can’t understand the dynamics and the spillover of sectarianism into Syria without understanding the context of the destruction of Iraq and al-Zarqawi, who was the very first one who targeted the Shi‘a shrines. And, actually, Osama bin Laden blamed him and said no, “our enemy” are the Americans, the occupation, not the Shi‘a. But his priority was different. So we have a context here.
OBJ: I am going to ask you all to look ahead now, which we often do towards the end of this program and try in helping us understand where all these huge tensions in the Middle East are headed over the next year or two?
[. . .]
OBJ: Basileus Zeno, give us your forecast.
BZ: First of all, from the whole discussion, we are still endorsing elitist, or policy-makers’, or journalistic perspectives. We don’t like—We aren’t getting the insights of the Syrian people. We are talking about sectarianism, but the missing voice is the voice of the Syrian people—whether they are supporting the Asad regime, or the state, or they are supporting the opposition. Eighty-five percent of the population are living in poverty now. So do you think they are getting electricity just between three hours to six hours per day [in some areas amid a harsh winter]? Do you think they are gathering just to talk about sectarianism? Sectarianism is extremely important, yes. But there are many other factors that should be addressed; this is on the one hand. On the second hand, political transition is a must [as a] solution, which entails: regional powers, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, and the United States and Russia should agree in facilitating a political solution in Syria rather than the escalation of the militarization of the conflict. So that would be the very first step to do. It’s a difficult one to have all these commitments, especially with the coming of Trump. We don’t know what is the foreign policy [of the United States once he comes into office].
 Christopher Davidson (2016). Shadow Wars: The Secret Struggle for the Middle East. Oxford, England: Oneworld Publications.
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