Religion-fuelled fight in Syria
Apocalyptic religious divisions, rather than political grievances, now dominate the Syrian civil war, writes David Patrikarakos
THE second round of peace talks in Geneva between representatives of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria and rebel forces has ended with both sides blaming each other for the lack of progress. Beyond the finger-pointing, however, lies a growing danger to the goal of a negotiated settlement. The civil war’s religious divides are widening, making compromise unthinkable.
Representatives of the Syrian regime went to Geneva solely with the hope of convincing the opposition to let President Bashar al-Assad stay in power so he can forge an alliance against jihadist forces fighting in Syria, most notably the al-Qaeda affiliates Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. Their argument — one that many, including former US ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, have made — was that Assad is better than any likely alternative.
But the Syrian National Coalition, representing opposition forces, rejected the proposal outright. The coalition, which purports to be a post-Assad transitional government in waiting, has decided, along with secretary of state John Kerry, that al-Qaeda will be dealt with after Assad is gone. Its standing, however, is severely constrained by its lack of political credibility on the ground. It has become little more than a vehicle for Qatar and Saudi Arabia to vie for control of Syrian politics.
The problems in Syria, however, are far greater than the shortcomings of each side’s negotiating teams in Geneva. When the civil war began in 201l, it was a fight between Syrians demanding greater civil rights and a government that ultimately provoked them into violent confrontation through its own brutality. That political struggle quickly morphed into a wider sectarian war between Sunni and Shia, flaring up across the Middle East.
Shia Iran was an early — and vital — financial and military supporter of Assad. It is intent on making sure he does not fall. Hezbollah’s decision to send fighters into Syria last year, at Iran’s command, to strengthen Assad’s hand made the region’s Sunni giant Saudi Arabia even more fearful of creeping Shia hegemony.
Riyadh promptly stepped up its involvement in the war. It was instrumental in founding the Islamic Front, a coalition of seven rebel groups, in November. The front’s rapid evolution into the most effective rebel fighting force is partly due to Saudi funding and arms shipments.
In Syria, Saudi and Qatari-backed Sunni Salafi, who practise a strict form of Islam, face off against Iranian-backed Shiite and Alawite Islamists. (The Assads are Alawites, an offshoot of Shi’ism.) Both sides, as Middle East analysts Phillip Smyth and Aaron Zelin have shown, have demonised and dehumanised each other to the point that the hope of compromise between a government desperate to cling to power and an out-of-touch coalition far removed from the religious hatreds on the battlefield may be futile.
Apocalyptic religious divisions, rather than political grievances, now dominate the Syrian civil war. The Salafis describe their Alawite opponents as ‘Nusrayri’, pointedly recalling Abu Shuayb Muhammad Ibn Nusayr, the eighth-century founder of the Alawite religion. His followers are said to be followers of a man, not God — which to Sunni clerics like the Qatar-based Yusuf al-Qaradawi make Nusayris greater infidels than Jews or Christians.
The Shias, meanwhile, decry their enemies as ‘bani Ummayad’ (‘sons of the Ummayads’), a deliberate reference to the massacre of the Shias’ Imam Hussein, the son of Ali, and his 72 followers at Karbala by the Ummayad caliph Yazid in 680 AD. That historical event stands at the centre of Shi’ism. By labelling their foes Ummayads, the Shia rebels, or more precisely the clerics that issue the religious fatwas, fuse the present to an emotionally charged past. The righteousness of the fight against Sunni rebels is thus not rooted in the Syrian conflict but in the righteousness of Hussein’s cause against the Ummayyad caliph.
In such a religion-fuelled atmosphere, both Sunnis and Shiites fighting in Syria consider prisoner executions not as political acts but as fulfilment of their religious duty. Both follow religious fatwas that call for holy war. Shiite jihadis in particular regularly describe the rebel Sunnis as ‘takfiri’, a group religiously permissible to kill. Both sides view the fight as an existential battle between Salafi Sunnism and Khomeinist Shiism; both paint their enemies as non-Muslims — for which death is the only fitting punishment.
Even when the fighting takes on a less sectarian character, ethnic divisions predominate. The intra-rebel fighting between the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, who seek autonomy for Syria’s Kurds, and rebel groups that refuse to accept any separatist notions has also become a zero-sum game.
There was no discussion of all this in Geneva. As if to underline the futility of the talks, approximately 1,900 people were killed in Syria over the nine days the two sides met — to add to the 130,000 killed since the war started three years ago.
Neither side has yet addressed the real issues at stake. Nor is there an end in sight for the Syrian people.
Reuters, February 19. David Patrikarakos is the author of ‘Nuclear Iran: The Birth of an Atomic State’. He has written for the Financial Times, London Review of Books and New Statesman.
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