A sectarian case study

December 25, 2016

Understanding the dynamics of sectarian conflict in Syria

A sectarian case study

Since 2011, violence and bloodshed seems to have permeated in once peaceful Syria. As another victim of the so-called "Arab Spring," more than one million people seem to have perished in what is called the deadliest sectarian proxy war in that unfortunate country.

Why has the regime of Bashar al-Assad representing the minority Alawite group, an offshoot of Shiite sect, survived amidst the US, Saudi and Turkish efforts to displace that regime and how will Syria continue to be a major destabilising factor in the Middle East if the armed conflict is not resolved peacefully? Why are the UN and Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and Arab League dormant and unable to prevent bloodshed in Syria?

These are the questions to understand the dynamics of sectarian conflict in Syria and the involvement of extra-regional powers, particularly Russia and the United States. The Syrian conflict is a complex and complicated case study because of four main reasons: First, there are several warring groups struggling to displace each other, like the Islamic State (IS), Kurd, Shia and Sunni Arab groups. Second, sectarian militias from Lebanon, Iraq and Iran are also involved in the Syrian civil war, which is tantamount to serious involvement of sectarian groups from regional countries.

Third, regional players like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iran and Turkey are quite entrenched in the Syrian conflict because of a variety of reasons and, finally, extra-regional powers namely the United States and the Russian federation are supporting opposite sides, thus augmenting the plight of the Syrian people.

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In this situation in Syria, the real beneficiary is Israel, as Muslims belonging to Sunni and Shia sects are fighting with each other, whereas Kurds who are ethnically non-Arab also have their stakes in the conflict. No one now talks about the illegal occupation of Israel of the Arab occupied territories, like the Golan Heights, the West Bank, and the blockade of Gaza as the focus is now shifted to the sectarian violence in Syria and Iraq.

The real sufferers of the civil war in Syria are the people who, regardless of their ethnicity and sect, have been made victim of power ambitions of parties involved in the conflict.

Competing goals of different players in the Syrian conflict were rightly analysed by Ali Alfoneh and David Andrew Weinberg from the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies that, "after more than two years of conflict, there are now multiple factions at war in Syria, including al Qaeda affiliates, Salafi fighters, Iranian revolutionary Guards, Hezbullah forces, and Iraqi Shia militias. All this makes Syria a proxy battle for regional Middle Eastern powers as much as a civil war over Syrians’ political direction and destiny."

A chain of events galvanised the sectarian divide and violence in the Middle East, starting from the outbreak of the Iranian revolution in February 1979, the so-called siege of Kaaba by Iranian pilgrims in November 1979, the outbreak of Iran-Iraq war in September 1980, Saudi and Kuwait’s support to Iraq’s President Saddam Hussain’s war to prevent the rising ‘Shia crescent’ in the Arabian peninsula, the escalation of sectarian conflict in Bahrain, Lebanon, and Pakistan and so forth.

The ouster of Saddam Hussain’s regime following the second Gulf War in March 2003 exposed Iraq to worst sectarian violence as the majority Shia population marginalised the minority Sunni community because Saddam’s regime, although secular, represented the privileged minority Sunni population. The rise of Sunni Jihadi culture was primarily the outcome of American military occupation of Iraq and the Shia rise to power in the post-Saddam era and its nexus with the Iranian regime.

Syria, as the neighbour of Iraq, was directly affected where the majority Sunni population felt discriminated against and marginalised as a result of decades of monopolisation of power by the Alawite group, first during the regime of Hafiz al Assad since 1965 and then by his son Bashar al-Assad since 2000.

Syria became a battleground of proxy war because of three main reasons: First, the Arab Spring in Syria witnessed widespread demonstrations against the repressive regime of Bashar al-Assad in March 2011. Since the regime was primarily composed of minority Shia sect of Alawite group, it became a target of demonstrators who demanded democratic rights, particularly the right of assembly, freedom of speech, and the holding of free and fair elections.

A coalition named Syrian National Council was established composed of democratic groups, the banned Muslim Brotherhood, Kurdish nationalist groups and other anti-Assad groups. The purpose of the coalition was to oust the Assad regime and replace it with a popularly elected government. Massive crackdown against opponents by the Assad regime resulted in large-scale bloodshed and displacement of millions of people in the neighbouring countries and the world.

What was called a democracy movement transformed into sectarian and ethnic violence, leading to the destruction of Syria’s second biggest city -- Aleppo. Second, the involvement of Iran in the Syrian civil war in support of the Assad regime proved to be counterproductive as the Sunni Arab regimes, particularly Saudi Arabia, also intervened thus transforming a democratic movement as a sectarian proxy war.

Iran’s involvement in Syria was designed to protect its interests in Lebanon as a Sunni regime replacing Bashar al-Assad would have been hostile to Hizbullah, an Iranian supported group and its interests in Iraq. It was against this background that the hardcore extremist Sunni Islamic State made inroads into Syria to act as a bulwark against the Alawite group and to create Caliphate in the region.

Third, National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces supported by the United States and some Arab Gulf states, however, failed to oust the repressive regime of Bashar al Assad. Lack of unity among the opposition forces provided an opportunity to the Assad regime in seeking massive military supplies from Russia and Iran. If the United States was aligned with Sunni groups supported by Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar, Iran and Russia supported the Assad regime.

Qatar’s covert involvement in the Syrian conflict was initially to support the movement against President Bashar al-Assad but, gradually, its intervention was aimed at protecting the besieged population in different war-torn areas of Syria.

About competing goals of Iran and Turkey in Syria, Ali Vaez, a senior analyst in the International Crisis Group in his article, "Turkey and Iran’s dangerous collision course" published in December 19, 2016 issue of The New York Times (International Edition) very well argued that, "Turkey and Iran are now on a collision course mostly because of their involvement as the region’s major Sunni and Shiite powers in the deepening sectarian conflict in Iran and Syria. Tehran interprets Turkey’s Syria policy as primarily a product of a neo-Ottoman ambition to regain clout and empower pro-Turkey Sunnis in territories ruled by its progenitor. In the same vein, officials in Ankara contend that Iran seeks to resuscitate the Shia version of the ancient Persian Empire."

Therefore, the sectarian war in Syria has a historical background rooted in the past mistrust, animosity and discord between the Persians and Arabs.

The real sufferers of the civil war in Syria are the people who, regardless of their ethnicity and sect, have been made victim of power ambitions of parties involved in the conflict. When history will be written about the Syrian civil war, the role of regional and international players along with local armed groups in unleashing the process of bloodshed and destruction will have a special place.

The new Secretary General of the UN, Antonio Guterres, has a special responsibility to help end the vicious cycle of armed conflict in Syria so that peace is restored and the process of reconstruction and rebuilding is launched without any delay.

A sectarian case study