By Jahanzeb Hussain
When the Syrian uprising began two years ago, it seemed like the Arab Spring was taking its due course in the region. But now, the diagnostic is a little bit different. Not at least because 200,000 people have been killed in Syria, which is probably the most in the Middle East since the vicious civil war in Algeria in the 90s. It is also because the Spring seems to have lost its romance; the young and brilliant folks that we saw in Egypt and Tunisia were not to be seen in Syria, and in their stead, we saw groups of a different profile rising up against Bashar Al Assad. It seems like arms were involved in this situation from the start – and that led to eye brows being raised immediately. What kind of an uprising is it that uses guns like that? Syria looked like the exact opposite of Tahrir Square and the Pearl Roundabout in Bahrain. Not that taking up arms is inherently wrong, but it was bound to remind people of the Libyan uprising, which was supposed to be part of the Spring season as well but did not turn out to be exactly that.
The Syrian uprising then saw the making of the Syrian National Council and the like. It started to become clear that the uprising was highly fragmented and that there was no unity. The Council began seeking Western help and in doing so, it immediately came across as a compromised body – just like a similarly sounding body in Libya that was seen marching hand in hand with leaders like Cameron and Sarkozy, as well as the infamous charlatan Bernard Henri-Levy. The manner in which the Council called for the West to assist them in overthrowing Assad, it seemed as if they saw the West as a benevolent friend, who would come to the aid of those who call upon them, without anything in return. Maybe they should have learnt from the Palestinian leaders that hoping for backroom deals with Western leaders does not deliver anything. It was also clear that the Council was detached from the Syrian society since most of their main leaders were rich Syrians living in exile. They had not made any efforts to connect with the Syrian society and were more of a self-imposed lot. The Council had all the hallmarks of a vested interest and an opportunistic group.
After the Council came the Jihadis. And they stole the show. Because, it would seem, that they are more in tune with what is happening on the ground than most other. And this is also because they are running the show as well in some capacity. Though, before we get into the Jihadis, let’s look at what caused the uprising in Syria to begin with.
At the start, what happened in Syria was a peasants’ revolt in the periphery of the country. The center was not involved in the revolution, and the country’s main cities are still on the side of Assad, either by conviction or because they do not see any good in the rebels. Over the last decade, the Syrian regime had forgotten that, despite all, it was still a Baath regime. Its socialist slogans and promises mattered to many. But since the regime started neglecting the periphery, which also happened to be Sunni, something was going to give sooner or later. It is the Sunni peasant periphery that initiated the rebellion against the Assad regime, even though they used to be a mainstay in the Assad’s regime hold on Syria. It is not surprising that they were armed since arms have been in free flow in the region, especially after the Iraq war. Many Sunni fighters from Syria went to Iraq during the bloody civil war there which took place a couple of years after the US invasion.
The Syrian regime had actually maintained an effectively secular society and it is not a Shia state, contrary to what is often said in the media. In the country’s major cities, you could tell that everyone, regardless of their religion, had their place. The culture of the cities used to be very mixed and thriving. But sectarian identities are always there in every Muslim country and seeing how full Sunni mosques used to be in Syria everyday suggested that Sunni identity was strong, just as it is in the rest of the Arab countries. And it looks like that an uprising such as this turned out to be a catalyst in (re)activating the Sunni-Shia divide.
But this is not to say that what is happening in Syria is totally a religiously inspired, Shia-Sunni battle. It began far from such and even today, it is not black and white. In the ranks of the Free Syrian Army, you will find Sunnis, Shias and the Druze.
Nonetheless, as the conflict prolonged and the violence increased, sectarian and Jihadi parasites got an increased opportunities to make their mark on the conflict. Thanks to the fact that they are extremely well armed, well financed and have years of experience in battle, they have been able to overtake the type of protestors we saw in Egypt, Tunisia and Bahrain. No doubt the Jihadi impulses are also local to Syria, but what is local is also international in major conflicts, especially when a battle takes on the colors of sectarianism. Considering how strong sectarian sentiments are among Sunni Arabs, it is not surprising that the conflict has taken a turn for the worst and fighters from many different Arab countries have poured into Syria to wage Jihad. In many ways, Syria is a continuation of the Iraqi civil war of the previous decade. Sunni radicalism reached new heights during the civil war there, with Al Qaeda establishing itself in that country. Scores of Sunni fighters from various Sunni countries went to fight in Iraq, with the slogans that they have to stop the Safavids (a Sunni term for Shias, equating them with Persians) from taking over Iraq. This influx of Sunni fighters into Iraq is what is called the Iraqi Al Qaeda, and it is the same for Syria.
The memories of losing a previously Sunni Iraq to a Shia government there would be fresh in the minds of Sunni radicals. And an opportunity to avenge the defeat arose with the Syrian uprising and the creation of conditions conducive to it. After the new, Shia government took power in Iraq, many Sunni Iraqis had settled in Syria. In fact, almost all of the hotels in the vicinity of Bibi Zaibab’s shrine are owned by Iraqi Sunnis who are vehemently anti-Shia, even though almost all of the pilgrims to that site are Iranian Shias because Bibi Zainab is a revered Shia figure. It is these people who, from many parts of the Arab world, are now fighting the Assad regime, not on some progressive ideal but on sectarian lines. Even the Pakistani Taliban have opened an ‘office’ in Syria.
The ‘loss’ of Iraq to a Shia government was seen – mostly wrongly – as a victory for Iran. Countries like Saudi Arabia were the most worried about this ‘loss.’ The occasion to weaken or ‘(re)gain’ Syria from Shias was a good prospect for Saudi geo-politics. That is the reason why they have been the most gung-ho about overthrowing Assad and arming the rebels. But it still might a mistake to think that the Saudis are arming Al Qaeda in Syria. It might well be financing some unsavory figures but it would be irrational from the Saudi point of view to arm groups such as Al Qaeda, who are not that big of a fan of the Saudi monarchy. Saudis are aware of the dangers that Al Qaeda poses to the monarchy; not only Al Qaeda, but the Salafis are also in opposition inside the kingdom itself. One could argue that it could be a marriage of convenience but we should not forget the fact that the Saudi state is a very pragmatic state and not an ideologically fanatical one, as many like to think. For example, it might have no love for Shias, but it has curtailed some of the Wahabi exuberance and has allowed the Shias inside Saudi Arabia to have their own mosques and enjoy some cultural and religious rights. This is because most of the Saudi oil is located in Shia regions of the country. In Syria, the Saudi and Qatari money and arms are more likely to go to someone whom they can also control or do not have a danger from. Not every Jihadi is affiliated with what is called Al Qaeda and share every aspect of their ideology (even the ‘official’ Al Qaeda in Syria has split with its counterpart in Iraq), so it is more likely that the Saudis are arming some other kind of Jihadis, along with what is supposed to be the Free Syrian Army.
Inevitably, the main reason why the Saudis want to weaken, if not destroy, the Assad regime is because the Saudis see Iran as their ultimate enemy. The idea among Sunni Arabs is very strong that each and every Shia has their loyalty with Iran and that Shias can never be trusted. So the Syrian regime, the Hezbollah, and everyone who happens to be Shia is seen as an arm of the Iranian state. But more than just this religious sentiment, there is also the historic Arab and Persian rivalry, which trumps even inter-Shia relations. However, above everything else, the reason why the Saudis want to break Iran is because that will the Kingdom geo-strategic supremacy in the Muslim world. For the Saudis, therefore, striking Assad is hitting Iran.
And hitting Iran is not only a goal shared by Jihadis and Saudi Arabia, but the United States is also keen on that, as we all know. But the American strategy is very different than what the Saudis would like Obama to pursue. If it had been George Bush, the US probably would have invaded Syria already, but Obama is less extreme than his predecessor. He is also not going to be dragged into Syria by the Saudis on the Kingdom’s terms. The US sees its own interests in this situation, which is to weaken Syria – and not dismantle the Assad regime the same way Bush dismantled Saddam Hussain’s regime in Iraq. Because a situation like Iraq will only cause more and more chaos, which will also spill over in other countries. And if that happens then the Western interests will be harmed and NATO will have no choice but to intervene – and intervene heavily, which is something they cannot afford at the moment, not least because it would lead to a massive international war.
What has been happening in Syria for the past two years is actually serving US and Israeli interests and, contrary to what many believe, the US does not see a reason to fix something that is not even broken. What the US wants is to weaken Syria and by letting the regime and the rebels kill each other, Syria is getting destroyed. 200,000 deaths and two million refugees … why does the US need to invade when so much annihilation has already happened without any significant effort from the US? When and if Syria comes out of this bloody civil war, it will not pose any danger to the US regional interests; the Syrian civil war has played right into the hands of Uncle Sam.
All of the American pretentions that it will see with the UN and the Congress to intervene in Syria are just a show. The US knew very well that Russia will veto any resolution against Syria at the UN, but Obama went ahead with it anyway so that the world could think that it is due to Russia China that Syria is burning. The circus at the British parliament is also the same; the West needs to give a picture that its political system would not allow intervention, even though leaders like Cameron and Obama really want to do something about Syria.
As far as the Israelis are concerned, they see Hezbollah being distracted by Syria. The Resistance will have to use its strength and resources in Syria and sacrifice a lot as the conflict goes on. Israel probably does not see as to why Hezbollah’s attention have to be brought back to Israel at the moment. Also, the Resistance’s popularity in the Arab streets has plummeted after its intervention in the conflict on the side of Assad. Any direct moves into Syria by the West might reinvigorate Hezbollah’s appeal in the masses.
Up till now, the Syrian conflict has been localized and no major shockwaves have been felt in neighboring countries, even if many other countries are involved in the conflict. As long as the conflict stays manageable like this, the US will not intervene directly. It might take some other steps but we have to wait and see what they are. It will not be surprising if the US even ends up pushes for a political dialogue.
But what is the possibility of that taking place? It seems like the situation in Syria, which was created due to the fact that negotiations were never sought, has become extremely hard for any meaningful dialogue to happen. But sooner or later, something will have to give. Negotiations will have to take place between the regime and the rebels; and for that, countries like Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar will have to drop their stance that Assad has to leave. These countries will have to push the rebels to find a compromise with the regime. Iran will have to be given its due space to act as well. But will the US accept Iran’s role? In the past, when Iran proposed negotiations in Syria, the US pushed the IAEA to open Iran’s nuclear dossier at the UN, in a counter move.
Whatever happens in Syria, one thing is clear that bombing the country is going to lead to more violence and more suffering for its people. Violence and absense of dialogue created the present situation in Syria, and an American attack is not going to slove anything. Nor would the arming of the rebels do anything to halt the violence. The only possible solution is dialogue and regional countries have the responsibilty to push for it.
Jahanzeb Hussain is the editor of Collateral Damage
Photo credit: James Lawler Duggan