If you think the war in Syria is hard to follow, that’s because there’s actually three of them—at least. Distinct but interconnected, the competing web of allegiances and motivations puts al-Qaeda on the same side as the USA and makes a solution impossible. By SIMON ALLISON.
Many people, like this reporter, find the Syrian war confusing sometimes. It throws up all kind of strange and unnatural contradictions, like America appearing to be on the same side as al-Qaeda-linked jihadists and Al-Jazeera turning into a typical, propaganda-spouting state media house. No doubt policy-makers also find it difficult to understand. It’s been nearly two years and there’s still no sensible international policy on Syria, just a steady stream of ad-hoc condemnations and hamstrung mediations.
There’s a simple reason for all this confusion and complexity: it’s a very, very complicated situation. Even worse, there’s not just one war being fought in Syria, but at least three and possibly even more.
War number one is the one we’re all familiar with (especially if we’ve been watching too much Al-Jazeera). This is your typical Arab Spring narrative, pitting a downtrodden civilian population against the brutal regime that has repressed its people for so long. It’s a simple tale of good-versus-evil, of democracy taking on dictatorship, of the people sticking it to the man. We’ve seen variations of the theme in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, all of which ended with the people hurling off the yoke of dictatorship and replacing it with a new, enlightened, freely-elected government (oh, wait; it hasn’t quite ended like that in any of these countries, but let’s not spoil a good story with the facts).
Elements of this story are true in Syria. Certainly, the regime was brutal and autocratic, happy to stifle political freedoms and concentrate wealth and power in the hands of a very few, mostly of the Alawite ethnic minority. In fact, the Syrian security forces had such a world-class reputation for torture that they were, on occasion, prevailed upon by American intelligence to practise their craft on detainees as part America’s extraordinary rendition program.
There was popular dissent, too. Not much of it initially, but it grew in size and voice in the wake of the uprisings in other Arab countries. Whether or not the anti-Assad movement was really a majority will be argued over endlessly in years to come, but it is important to recognise that just as there was a large anti-Assad sentiment, so there was a significant chunk of the population that was happy with the status quo; autocracies are stable and peaceful, after all, unlike revolutions and civil wars.
War number two is not really about Syria at all. Instead, it’s about Middle Eastern and global geopolitics, and it’s very messy. In one corner is the Syrian Alawite regime and Iran, who are natural allies. The Alawites are a sect of Shi’a Islam, while Iran is an explicitly Shi’a state (as opposed to Sunni Islam, the other main branch of the religion). Russia finds itself in this camp too, desperate to protect its vital naval base in the Syrian port of Tartus—its only reliable warm water port. So too does China, which sees no reason to put its excellent trading relationship with Syria in jeopardy.
Ranged against this formidable combination is a regional alliance of Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, all of which would love to see Bashar al-Assad replaced with a more compliant Sunni leader. All have designs on regional leadership, and in Syria they find common cause. Turkey was one of the first countries to express support for the Syrian rebels, while both Qatar and Saudi Arabia have helped to fund and arm them. Qatar has also been accused – with some justification – of using its hugely influential satellite TV channel, Al-Jazeera (specifically the Arabic version) to influence public opinion by portraying a one-sided version of events.
Lurking behind this regional triumvirate is the United States and the Western world, their foreign policy distorted, as usual, by their Iranian paranoia. Robert Fisk, doyen of Middle East correspondents, summed up their approach in the Independent: “This is an attempt to crush the Syrian dictatorship not because of our love for Syrians or our hatred of our former friend Bashar al-Assad, or because of our outrage at Russia, whose place in the pantheon of hypocrites is clear when we watch its reaction to all the little Stalingrads across Syria. No, this is all about Iran and our desire to crush the Islamic Republic and its infernal nuclear plans—if they exist—and has nothing to do with human rights or the right to life or the death of Syrian babies.”
Syria, in other words, is a proxy war; a relatively safe place (for everyone else, not for Syria) to fight the battles that can’t yet be fought in the open.
But it doesn’t end there. There’s a third war happening. This one pits the nominally Shi’a (though relatively secular) Syrian state against the global Sunni jihadist movement (known to Americans as “terrorists”). A flood of reports recently have explained how fighters from all over the Arab world, many of them battle-hardened in Afghanistan, Libya and Iraq, have come to the support of the Syrian rebels.
This from Ed Husain in the National Review is typical: “Our collective excitement at the possibility that the Assad regime will be destroyed, and the Iranian ayatollahs weakened in the process, is blurring our vision and preventing us from seeing the rise of al-Qaeda in Syria. In March of this year, jihadis mounted seven attacks against Assad. By June, they had led 66 “operations”, and over half of these were on Syria’s capital, Damascus. The Syrian opposition is benefiting hugely from the terrorist organization’s determination, discipline, combat experience, religious fervour, and ability to strike the Assad regime where it hurts most.”
The War on Terror has reached Syria and somehow, America and al-Qaeda find themselves fighting on the same side. No wonder no one seems to know what’s really going on.
Nor does anyone know how to stop it. With all these tangled conflicts and competing interests and motivations, figuring out a solution seems like an impossible task. Which, so far, is exactly what it’s proven to be. DM
- Robert Fisk: Syrian war of lies and hypocrisy
- Syria between Scylla and Charybdis
- Vicious cycle of retaliation could leave Syria ungovernable
- Syria: chaos, more chaos and a regime on the edge
Photo: Civilians gather as smoke rises from petrol tankers after they were hit by a fighter jet in the Bab al-Nayrab district in the Syrian city of Aleppo August 27, 2012. REUTERS/Youssef Boudlal