Social Pluralism, Religious Cleansing and “Hybrid Warfare” in Contemporary Syria

John Eibner

Pembroke, Oxford, November 22, 2016

“Hybrid Warfare” a Key Factor in Religious Cleansing in Syria

OXFORD, November 23, 2016

“Not since the Mongol invasions of the 13th century has warfare been more grisly for the Syrian people and more ruinous for its economy and infrastructure,” Dr. John Eibner claimed in a lecture at Pembroke College, Oxford, on November 22, 2016. Among Syria’s many horrors, Eibner focused in particular on the “extensive religious cleansing” of religious minorities from rebel-held territory in Syria. This destruction of Syria’s historical religious pluralism, Eibner proposed, is “largely a consequence of ‘hybrid warfare’ conducted by a Washington-led coalition.”

Eibner, the Director of the Middle East Program at Christian Solidarity International, gave his talk as a part of Pembroke’s Changing Character of Warfare Seminar series. In it, Eibner explained that Syria is a “mosaic of different religious communities,” with Sunni Muslims accounting for 75% of the population, and Christians, Druzes, Isma’ilis, Twelver Shi’ites and Alawites making up the remainder. Because Syria’s ruling family hails from the Alawite sect, they “have always had a strong interest in protecting the country’s religious minority communities” from the force of Sharia-based, discriminatory, Sunni supremacism. The protection of the religious minorities has been guaranteed, Eibner noted, by a repressive, “Alawite-dominated network of intelligence and security services”.

The rebel forces in Syria are largely driven by a desire to restore Sunni rule in Syria through a jihad against Christians, Alawites and non-Sunni Muslims. As a result of the rebel campaign, Eibner said, “much of the territory stretching from Syria’s northeastern Mediterranean coast all the way to the outskirts of Baghdad in neighboring Iraq is now a de facto Sunnistan, virtually devoid of non-Sunnis.”

The ideology of Sunni supremacism alone did not suffice to create this “Sunnistan.” Eibner pointed out that the ruling Assad family “was able to contain and crush the Muslim Brotherhood’s Sunni supremacist insurrection in 1982 mainly because it had no significant external support.” In contrast, in 2011, the United States and its allies empowered Syria’s Sunni rebels by launching a “hybrid war” against the Syrian regime.

While in public, American officials claimed that they supported the creation of a democracy in Syria, Eibner contended that the true aim of the campaign was to break Iranian power in the region by weakening Iran’s main ally, Syria. “Assad,” Syria’s president, “could, undoubtedly, have been eliminated long ago, and with relatively little loss of life, if that had been Washington’s true war goal,” Eibner pointed out.

According to Eibner, the U.S.’ policies in Syria – economic sanctions against the country, information warfare, and direct military aid to Syria’s rebels – matches the concept of “hybrid warfare” articulated by senior NATO officials and military scholars. In “hybrid warfare,” Eibner said, “multiple modes of warfare” are used “to produce synergy and greater impact.” Hybrid warfare employs indirect and unattributable means, rather than overt warfare, like the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Eibner claimed that direct aid to Syrian rebel proxies, “has a direct impact on religious cleansing.” Systematic attacks against religious minorities are carried out not only by groups like the Islamic State (IS) and al Qaeda, but by rebel groups backed by the United States and its allies. These groups routinely cooperate with al Qaeda-linked groups in Syria, and American aid has contributed directly to the conquest and religious cleansing by al Qaeda and its allies of Syrian regions like Idlib. “Virtually all” of Syria’s rebel groups, Eibner argued, including groups backed by the U.S. and its allies, “are driven by a strong sense of Sunni supremacism.”

Eibner concluded with the reminder that “President-elect Trump has made sounds suggesting that he might not continue to prosecute his predecessor’s war in Syria.” If this is the case, Eibner said, “Syria’s remarkable social pluralism will have a chance of survival.”