Author Summary: Sectarian Framing in the Syrian Civil War

Author Summary by Daniel Corstange and Erin A. York

AJPS-AuthorSummary-Sectarian Framing in the Syrian Civil WarTheir article “Sectarian Framing in the Syrian Civil War” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

Civil war narratives are not just window dressing. Governments and rebels go to great lengths to win the battle for hearts and minds, since a sympathetic portrayal of their side of the conflict can attract domestic and international support. But are their efforts to frame the narrative effective in altering public perceptions of the civil war?

We study the effects of different conflict narratives in the Syrian civil war — particularly the one about sectarianism. The Syrian conflict is notable for its intensity and complexity. It began with Arab Spring-inspired calls for political reforms, but then ballooned into a destructive, multifaceted contest that has sucked in Syria’s neighbors and other foreign powers.

Explanations for the war have proliferated, one of which is that the conflict is sectarian at its core: a dispute between a regime dominated by religious minorities pitted against a Sunni majority. But this characterization competes with alternatives, including a fight for democracy over dictatorship, and accusations of foreign meddling. Both the government and the rebels have tried hard to pitch the war in terms favorable to their own side while casting their opponents in an unfavorable light.

We examine how well people respond to the different civil war narratives with a framing experiment embedded in a survey of Syrian refugees in Lebanon. To do so, we vary both the narrative invoked as well as whether or not it competes against an alternative explanation of the war. So, for example, we can see if people change how they think about the fighting if we pitch it to them as a sectarian dispute, as a fight for democracy, or a competition between these visions of what the war is about.

Do the narratives affect how people understand the fighting? Of the different pitches we gave them, only the sectarian explanation moved anyone to revise what they thought the fighting was all about. Even then, it only swayed government supporters, and only when they heard the sectarian narrative in isolation. When we presented it alongside a competing explanation for the war, such as a fight between democracy and dictatorship, the effect of the sectarian narrative evaporated.

So what? In Syria, the experiment suggests that government efforts to scare its supporters with sectarian rhetoric can work, but only to the extent that it can keep alternative narratives out of the public discourse. It also reveals an important distinction between the support bases for the warring factions. In particular, we could not budge opposition supporters from their pro-democracy narrative, no matter what we told them. It is perhaps a small consolation, but it implies that extremist groups such as ISIS have not deflected ordinary opposition sympathizers from the uprising’s original narrative.

More broadly, this experiment suggests that elites are more limited in their ability to control the civil war narrative than we might otherwise imagine. They can’t offer up any old explanation they like and expect people to parrot it back to them (we tried — it didn’t work). It may be more effective to pitch a conflict in ethnic or sectarian terms, yet even these narratives can be countered by opposing arguments — and the opposition surely has the incentive to get those arguments out in the open. Ultimately, elites are limited by the pitch they try to make, the audience to whom they make it, and the environment in which they operate.

About the Authors: Daniel Corstange is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science and the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University; Erin A. York is a Ph.D. student at Columbia University with a focus on comparative politics of the Middle East and additional interests in quantitative methods and political economy. Their article “Sectarian Framing in the Syrian Civil War” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.

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