Syria in sectarian soup

By Ameen Izzadeen
The killing fields of Syria draw little or no real fire from the West which has been pounding Libya for the past two months, scaring the living daylights out of Muammar Gaddafi’s forces.

Unlike Libya, Syria has no oil. The absence of any Western military action is, therefore, goes without saying. The lack of interest in pursuing an interventionist approach to the Syrian regime’s atrocities speaks volumes about the western duplicity which the apologists of the West may describe as political realism. It only proves that the principle of the right to protect or R2P is largely a political tool resorted to by western powers only if it brings some benefits to them.

In the case of Syria, the West appears to prefer the status quo. In other words its intervention in Syria comes in the form of non-intervention.

The principle that is apparently guiding the West here is that a known devil is better than an unknown angel. But the West is taking no chances. It keeps a channel open to the opposition groups also.

The West has tried to project Syria as a rogue state. It accuses Syria of backing and sheltering insurgents fighting US troops in Iraq and arming and financing Lebanon’s Hezbollah, which is at war with Israel and the United States. Syria also has earned the West’s displeasure by sheltering leaders of the Palestinian freedom fighting group Hamas, an organization labelled a terrorist group by the United States. The West also accuses Syria of involvement in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. Besides, Syria is technically at war with Israel, a close ally of the West. If the record is so bad, why is the West not acting fast to save the protesters who are being killed?

The answer is: the Syrian regime is pliant. It had supported George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. It had cracked its whip on anti-West Sunni political forces. Besides, the protesters are an unknown quantity. The only thing that is known is that the people are as opposed to Israel and the West as they are to the regime which is dominated by the country’s Alawi minority. Israel is comfortable with the Alawaite regime which has virtually abandoned all moves to retake the Golan Heights which Israel occupied during the 1967 war. Israel and the West are apprehensive about the Sunni-majority-led uprising because they fear the possibility of an Islamist-dominated government if the protesters oust President Bashar al-Assad, an Alawite.

The Alawites are an obscure ethnic group with an esoteric set of beliefs. They are Syria’s largest minority constituting 12 percent of the country’s 22 million population. The other minorities include the Armenian Christians, the Kurds and the Druze. The Sunnis form 70 percent of the population and have been ruled by an Alawite-led governments since 1963. In the early period of the Alawites’ rise to power, the Sunnis, a majority of whom had a Baathist and Socialist political outlook then, did not mind being ruled by an Alawite. President Hafez al-Assad was seen as a Syrian rather than an Alawite. But when the oppressive Alawite rule continued and veered towards dynastic politics with Bashar al-Assad succeeding his father, the Sunnis protested. Their protests in 1973 and 1982 were brutally put down. But the Sunni majority’s hopes were revived when they saw the Tunisian and Egyptian revolts bearing fruit. The protesters are determined to fight to the last breadth in what is now turning into a sectarian insurrection against the Alawites.

This week’s massacre of some 120 soldiers in a remote village is attributed to a clash between the Alawi and Sunni soldiers.

Though the Alawites call themselves Muslims, they follow neither the Sunni Islam nor the Shiite Islam. The Sunnis regard them as Mushriks or polytheists because the Alawism insists that Ali, Prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law, was God incarnate, while the Shiites say they are Ghulat, meaning exaggerating. The Alawites claim they follow a Shiite school of thought, but Iranian Ayatollahs have distanced themselves from Alawism, though the Alawite regime in Syria and the Iranians are the best of allies.

During the French occupation of Syria under a League of Nation mandate, the Alawites, shunned and scorned by the majority Sunnis, courted the French, who in return favoured them in state jobs, especially in the military.

However, the Sunni leaders of the Syrian independence struggle, eager to incorporate the Alawites also into the independence fight, gave them the Muslim label in the 1940s.

Syria is an ancient country with a rich culture. The Greek and the Roman conquerors lived and died there. A decade or so after the death of the Prophet, Damascus became Islam’s seat of power with the Umayyad dynasty ruling a vast empire spread over three continents. Over the centuries, the Seljuks, the Mongols, the Mamluks, the Ottomans and the French either ruled or ravaged Syria, yet the country survived.

When Bashar al-Assad assumed power in July 2000, many thought he would introduce reforms and take the country towards a multi-party democracy. But those surrounding him, the Alawi elite, stopped him. The young Assad is virtually a prisoner of the system. He could make only cosmetic changes after he was rattled by the protests.

If the Assad regime falls and democracy is established, it is likely to change the power equation in the region. The Hezbollah, a powerful militant group which gave a good fight to Israel in 2006, will be the worst hit. If Israel were to attack Iran, many believed the Hezbollah would act as Iran’s proxy in an ensuing war. But with Syria out of picture, the Hezbollah will be a sitting duck.

Probably, with this in mind, the West is playing its usual double game. The United States and other Western powers are now promoting a Syrian opposition leadership largely comprising CIA assets. Just as the people’s movement in Libya has been hijacked the pro-Western stooges, the Syrian protest movement is also being hijacked. But the West’s schemes are unlikely to succeed in the IT-era Arab world where the people are highly literate and know who their enemies are.
(This article also appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

About ameenizzadeen

journalist and global justice activist
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