Syria Expert: Jihadists Threaten Future of Religious Minorities

Prof. Fabrice Balanche Doubts Quick End to Devastating Sectarian War

ZURICH, March 15, 2015 – “Religious diversity in the Middle East is threatened by jihadist movements,” according to Professor Fabrice Balanche, a Visiting Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Speaking last night in Zurich, Balanche observed regarding Syria that, “There are no more Christians or Shi’ites living in territory controlled by the Islamic State or Jabhat al-Nusra,” and only one small Druze community, which was forced to convert to Sunni Islam. “Religious minorities are now concentrated in government-held areas, where many Sunni refugees have also come seeking security.”

In a presentation delivered as a part of CSI’s current series of talks on The Future of Religious Minorities in the Middle East, Balanche said, “religious pluralism has been maintained by authoritarian states that protect minorities” – states whose rulers were themselves from religious minority groups. He stressed that the region’s religious minorities fear, based on historical precedent, that they would be “excluded or destroyed” if placed at the mercy of sectarian-inspired Sunni Muslim majorities.

While socioeconomic factors contribute to the upsurge of political violence in Syria and Iraq, sectarianism, Balanche explained, trumps all. The various leaderships of Sunni jihadist groups and other insurgents in Syria and Iraq are driven more by the desire to restore lost Sunni supremacy than by socio-economic grievances.

As an eyewitness observer in Syria early in 2011, Balanche reported that the sectarian aspect of the “Arab Spring” uprisings was clearly visible while the anti-government protests were in their infancy. Anti-government protests were occurring mainly in Sunni Muslim neighborhoods, and were accompanied by anti-minority rhetoric.

Balanche does not find it surprising that Syria’s Alawites, Christians and other religious minorities tended to stand with President Assad and the Syrian government rather than with the Sunni-dominated rebels.

The devastating conflict in Syria, Balanche asserted, has become especially difficult to solve because sectarian divisions have been “manipulated by regional powers who want to expand their influence in the area.” He described it as a proxy war between a Sunni axis led by Turkey and Saudi Arabia and a Shi’ite “Iranian axis,” likening it to the Thirty Years’ War in central Europe four hundred years ago.

Addressing the role of powers outside the region, Balanche criticized the United States and France’s “obsession with regime change in Syria,” and their implicit willingness to see the region emptied of religious minorities in order to achieve their political goals.

Religious minorities, Balanche said, are the “first victims” of this conflict. 40% of Syria’s Christians, he reported, already have already left the country, while Alawites are withdrawing to Alawite-majority areas in the west of the country and the Druze do likewise in the south. Overall, Balanche concluded, “I’m very pessimistic about the future of religious diversity in this area.”

Professor Fabrice Balanche is a scholar of political geography at the University of Lyon and a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He spent ten years doing fieldwork in Syria and Lebanon. Christian Solidarity International (CSI) issued a Genocide Warning for the Middle East in the autumn of 2011 after observing the collapse of state institutions and an upsurge of sectarian violence. A video of Prof. Balanche’s talk is available at