Understanding the Syrian Civil War

Dr. Bella Tendler Delves into Roots of Conflict at Inaugural “In Plain Words” Honors Program Event

Want to understand the complicated roots of the civil war in Syria? According to Dr. Bella Tendler, visiting assistant professor of history at Yeshiva College, you’ll need to go back to the origin of the Sunni and Shi’ite split in Islam more than 1,000 years ago.

Dr. Bella Tendler, visiting assistant professor of history at Yeshiva College, explains the roots of the Syrian uprising.

On October 30, Tendler helped YU students do just that with a talk titled, “Mystery Religions, Missionaries, and Lost Manuscripts: Understanding the Alawites and the Current Political Crisis in Syria.” The talk was the first in a new series of events launched by the Jay and Jeanie Schottenstein Honors Program, “In Plain Words,” which draws on faculty expertise to break down complex and timely topics to provide students with an understanding of the issues and background involved.

Tendler’s discussion began with the evolution of Islam as a religion and an overview of the differences that separate Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims, with a particular focus on the development of the Alawite or Nusayri Shi’ite sect—a sect often persecuted for its belief in the divinity of the prophet Mohammad’s son-in-law, Ali, and his descendants—the ruling sect in Syria today.

“Under Muslim rule, the Nusayri were a persecuted minority that kept to themselves,” Tendler said. But that began to change after World War I, when the Allies dismantled the Ottoman Empire and the French were given a mandate over Syria. “Their colonial policy was to seek to empower minorities who would be loyal to them rather than giving the masses power,” Tendler explained. “They gave the Nusayri various leadership positions and encouraged them to join the military and rise through the ranks. That’s how the Nusayri first left their home.”

(Photos: David Khabinsky)

Tendler noted that even after Syria became an independent country, that trend continued as more and more Nusayri sought social mobility under the banner of secular Arab Nationalism, the Ba’ath Party. When Hafez al-Assad gained the presidency of Syria after a series of military coups in the 1960s, he placed many of his relatives in positions of power, effectively creating an Alawite reign. “Many Syrians, including the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups, considered the Assad regime to be a religious travesty,” Tendler said. “They didn’t want a heretic in power, even a secular heretic.

That led in turn to the brutally-repressed revolt of 1982, when the government killed between 10 and 20,000 Syrians in Hama. Syrians would not rise again until March 2011, when, inspired by the Arab Spring, anti-regime and Islamist groups revolted against al-Assad’s son, Bashar. “It isn’t fair to present the current revolt as purely religious in nature,” Tendler said. “The vast majority of the rebels objected to the oppressiveness of the regime, the high unemployment rate, the poverty and the censorship in the country. However, the regime’s behavior—and the anti-regime propaganda—have revolved around the religion of the Assad family.”

Tendler also touched on the United States’ ambivalence about taking a position in the conflict. “The Alawites don’t feel they can surrender because they worry that they will be massacred in reprisal, and the government has committed far too many crimes at this point to ever be forgiven by the rebels,” she said. “There’s no clear end in sight to the struggle, and that’s one of the main reasons why the U.S. is hesitant to take a role.”

Tendler, who graduated Stern College for Women in 2004 and received her PhD from Princeton University in 2012, wrote her dissertation on the initiation rites of the Alawite sect and recently rediscovered a critical manuscript in the field of their study. This semester, she is teaching “Islam and the West,” “Orthodoxy and Heresy in Medieval Islam,” and “Elementary Arabic” at Yeshiva College.

“Given the long term contributions of Jews to the study of Islamic history, languages and thought, I think it’s crucial to have someone like Bella on our faculty who can speak to the issues of heterodoxy and intercommunal strife which have periodically plagued the Muslim world for centuries,” said Dr. Sam Gellens, assistant director of the honors program.

“It is great to have someone like Bella Tendler, who came through the ranks at Stern College and accomplished tremendous things in the outside world, come back to share her expertise here with a new generation of YU students, and enrich at the same time the life of our honors program” said Dr. Gabriel Cwilich, director of the honors program.