Syria’s civil war did not start out as a sectarian conflict pitting Sunnis against a Shiite-backed regime. Sectarian language was largely absent from the early nonviolent protests and its leaders deliberately tried to create a multiethnic, multi-confessional front. But as the conflict turned violent, extremists on both sides recast the conflict as a sectarian apocalypse to discourage Syrians from creating the broad, cross-cutting coalition of Syrians necessary to take down the regime.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s sectarian strategy — targeting Sunni civilians, labeling the opposition “al Qaeda,” portraying himself as the protector of Syria’s religious minorities — is well known. Less well known is the sectarian strategy pursued by Sunni extremists, particularly the ultraconservative Salafis living in the Persian Gulf, who are sending “hundreds of millions” of dollars to ensure the worst factions of the revolt are ascendant — mostly under the guise of humanitarian relief.
Pundits in the West are quick to blame the Gulf countries for fueling the sectarian conflict but the governments of Kuwait, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar have shied away from backing the Salafi militias in Syria — the most sectarian factions in the conflict. Instead, they have either focused on humanitarian relief or backed their own non-Salafi proxies like the more moderate Muslim Brotherhood or more secular factions like those linked to Saad Hariri in Lebanon.