FOREIGN AFFAIRS: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
The Islamic origins of Syria's civil war
, May 25, 2013
Conflicts within Islam, not democracy or human rights, are at the centre of the current Syrian war.
There are several levels of conflict in the Arab-Muslim world. The first is an economic conflict between the educated younger generation, who make up half the Middle East’s population, and the old oppressive regimes that could not supply them with jobs. This conflict led to the Arab Spring and to predictions by optimists that a democratic tidal wave would sweep through the Arab world, similar to the one that saw the collapse of the old Soviet empire. This was wishful thinking.
Instead, Islamist political movements have capitalised on the turmoil of the Arab Spring, winning power in Egypt, Tunisia, Pakistan and Libya. However, because Islamist organisations like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt have no agenda to solve the chronic shortage of jobs and services demanded by the younger generation, there is ongoing political turmoil in these countries that appears set to continue long into the future. Islamist governments have proved no better than their predecessors.
Then there are military-style terrorists trained in Taliban and al-Qaeda camps who have variously congregated at different times in Afghanistan, Iraq, Mali and now Syria, attempting to overthrow the regimes there and establish new Islamic states.
In other parts of the Middle East, including the Gulf States, Iran and Saudi Arabia, existing autocratic Islamist regimes are too deeply entrenched to be toppled by people power, and they have been propped up by the constant flow of oil money from the West.
An essay in the 2013 report of Human Rights Watch summarises the situation in these words: “Two years into the Arab Spring, euphoria seems a thing of the past. The heady days of protest and triumph have been replaced by outrage at the atrocities in Syria, frustration that the region’s monarchs remain largely immune to pressure for reform, fear that the uprisings’ biggest winners are Islamists who might limit the rights of women, minorities and dissidents, and disappointment that even in countries that have experienced a change of regime, fundamental change has been slow and unsteady.”
War damage in Homs, Syria.
Syria is different from other Arab countries, in a number of ways. Without oil revenue, its government was officially secular, but was actually a military dictatorship based on a coalition of religious minorities, led by the Alawite sect, a breakaway group from the Shia branch of Islam. This coalition, led by the Assad family since the 1960s, includes Alawites, Druze, some Christians and some Sunni Muslims who did not want an Islamist state.
The religious and ethnic minorities are concentrated in the west of Syria. The centre of the country is overwhelmingly Arab and Sunni, while in the east are regions which are predominantly Kurd, whose religion is Sunni but ethnically are completely different from either Arabs or Turks.
The opposition is overwhelmingly Sunni, and is backed internationally by the major Sunni states like Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the Gulf States which control the Arab League.
The current conflict in Syria cannot be understood as a battle for human rights or democracy, as neither side is committed to these values, despite the rhetoric. It is fundamentally a religious conflict between rival sects of Islam.
After the Arab Spring began in Tunisia early in 2011, demonstrations quickly spread to other Arab countries, including Syria. However, the regime of Bashar al-Assad deployed the Syrian army to suppress the protests which were led by Sunnis. As happened in north Africa, the protests gradually took the form of a military uprising, with the local Sunni opposition supplied with guns and ammunition by both nearby Sunni states, army defectors and by al-Qaeda affiliates which are also part of the Sunni militant tradition.
The Arab League, which is Sunni dominated and had not previously criticised the use of state force to suppress protests, condemned the Assad regime’s use of the army, suspended Syria from the League and sent observer missions to Syria to negotiate Assad’s departure. It later appointed the opposition Syrian National Council, a coalition of opposition forces, to take Syria’s place on the Arab League.
Assad, however, refused to leave, deploying the Syrian armed forces to defeat the rebels. Assad has received international support from both Russia and China, while the Syrian National Council has also received non-military support from the EU, as well as military hardware from Turkey and other Arab nations. It has been widely reported that thousands of Islamist terrorists, some linked to al-Qaeda and apparently including Australians of Middle Eastern descent, have also gone to Syria to overthrow the Assad regime.
A recent twist to the conflict is that Hezbollah, the Shia terrorist organisation in Lebanon which is aligned with Iran and was behind some of the worst atrocities in Lebanon’s civil war (1982-90), has entered the Syrian conflict to fight the Sunni rebels.
Hezbollah, which has been supplied with Syrian weapons for years, is also committed to the destruction of Israel, and has conducted attacks against Israeli territory and Jewish people; so Israel has sided with the Syrian opposition. When the Assad regime began to ship sophisticated rockets to Hezbollah forces in Lebanon recently, Israel launched air-strikes which destroyed the shipments within Syria’s borders.
The conflict is Syria is extraordinarily bloody, with a reported 70,000 people dying as a result of the fighting over the past two years. A further million of Syria’s 26 million people, mainly but not exclusively Sunni, have been displaced as refugees to neighbouring countries, including Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.
While the European Union, the US, the United Nations and Popes Benedict and Francis have called for an end to the fighting, no one has yet come up with a plan which resolves the bitter religious conflict which has caused the war, or put forward a power-sharing agreement which gives the warring parties a future in their divided country.
Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.