Syria: The New Watershed for Sectarian Proxy Wars?


We are now just over a year into the Arab Spring, a long time in politics perhaps, but the effects or potential effects of the Arab Spring are only just starting to be felt.  The revolution that began in the Maghreb, has the potential to divide the Mashreq on a scale previously unimagined.   The battle for Syria could cause the region to combust in a horribly violent way.  The prevailing view is that the cold war between the Sunni and the Shi’a is brewing into a hot one which will begin in Syria, but in all likelihood will engulf the region from Iraq to Lebanon.  It has the potential to ignite a sectarian fire that could spread into Bahrain, the eastern provinces of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and beyond. Given the tragic events in Houla and escalating violence in al-Haffeh, how representative of the broader population is the opposition in Syria? Whilst the shelling of Homs, the massacres at Houla and Mazraat Al-Qubair demonstrate that the Asad regime has undoubtedly lost legitimacy amongst large swathes of the Syrian population, it still retains support in Damascus and Aleppo, and possibly elsewhere.  This is predominantly because there is no clear majority in these cities due to the mélange of religious sects coexisting side by side, many of which are minority sects who fear being targeted in a civil war. However, as I recently commented, the ability of journalists to speak with pro-government supporters in Syria is severely limited and therefore it is very difficult to obtain an accurate gauge of public opinion.

A recent Israeli report on the content of Syrian discourse on social networks reflects the content of much of this blog and demonstrates that Syrian activists are as aware as the wider world of the problems besetting their country.  Dissident Syrians are as frustrated as those in the West with the lack of a coherent leadership amongst anti-regime activists.  This has led to a cautious welcoming of the efforts and organised approach of the Muslim Brotherhood. There is deep scepticism that any other regional actor will come to Syria’s aid, because they are worried about the stability of their own regimes, and in the case of Turkey; about the potential for Kurdish independence as a result of a fractured Syria.  If this report is can be relied upon, of key importance is that it did not indicate that there is significant anti-Alawite feeling amongst Syrians as there is recognition that many Alawites do not support Asad.   The Syrians on social networks were concerned that the rebellion was being framed as a civil war when in fact it is not an ethnic/sectarian conflict, but is based on a desire to rid the state of the Asad family and its regime.  A key concern in the discourse was the fear foreign jihadists, coming in from Iraq and Jordan, causing chaos and thus providing Asad with the legitimate excuse that the violence he perpetrates is because he is eradicating terrorism.  Last, but far from least, foreign intervention was welcomed because of the prevailing belief that Iran and Russia are already providing significant logistical support on the ground to Asad.

If the opinion of the cognoscenti is correct, and Asad’s days are truly numbered, how the regime will fall, when it will fall and what will be the aftermath is the real question.  The Syrian opposition is fragmented and notoriously unable to get along, but there are those who wait in the shadows for a potential shot at leadership. One potential candidate could be Abdullah Dardari, former Vice President and Economic Minister until May 2011, when he along with the rest of the cabinet were sacked in a symbolic gesture by Asad aimed at appeasement and containing the protests.  He currently resides in Lebanon and works for the UN, but spends a great deal of time giving public talks about his views on the regime and his time as Vice President.  Consequently there is a suspicion in Lebanon that he harbours long terms ambitions of grasping the reins of power should Asad fall.  As an Alawite married to a Sunni, it can be assumed he would be in favour of retaining Syria’s secular policies.  If the content of his public rhetoric can be taken at face value, it gives a suggestion that he would attempt to install some kind of democratic process in Syria.

Irrespective of the view of ordinary Syrians, currently Syria is victim to the power plays of those with larger interests, and it is fast becoming the new great battleground for the region between Saudi Arabia and Iran.  Syria constitutes the pivotal link in what is known as the “axis of resistance”, a chain of Middle Eastern states that starts in Iran and crosses the region through Syria to southern Lebanon. The axis is Shi’a dominated in that its leadership: Nasrallah, Khamenei and Asad, are from Shi’a sects as are large swathes of its support base.  However it should be stressed that the axis is not a Shi’ite-only movement.  There are others across a multitude of sects in Syria and Lebanon who support the resistance movement, known in Arabic as ‘Al-Muqawimah’.

Prior to the Syrian uprising, which began in March 2011, relations between the axis of resistance and US-friendly Sunni states were in a state of what could be described as a cold war.  Now, in areas of Syria where chaos reigns, (predominantly Homs, but intermittently in other regions such as Hama, Palmyra, Latakia and the border areas), a proxy war is emerging between these two forces which could develop into a regional hot war between two main Muslim sects, and which would necessarily draw in other minority groups.

There is speculation that if Syria falls, it will end up in the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood and therefore into the Saudi Arabia/GCC camp. There is little doubt that the Sunni Gulf states of Saudi Arabia and Qatar are providing support to resistance movements in Syria. Officially, the intervention of Saudi Arabia and Qatar in the Syrian crisis is restricted to medical aid for victims of the fighting in Homs and elsewhere.  Qatari charities in particular have set up hospitals in the north of Lebanon in Tripoli to treat civilians and members of the Free Syrian Army.   However, unofficially, academics and journalists alike have stated that Saudi Arabia and Qatar are offering material support to opponents of Asad within Syria.  This support is said to consist of arming and funding the Free Syrian Army.  Qatar has made no attempt to deny these claims. In a statement too not long ago, the Qatari Foreign Minister was reported as saying ‘We should do whatever necessary to help [the Syrian opposition], including giving them weapons to defend themselves.’

The presence of Sunni fundamentalists in Syria is impossible to verify, but rumours abound: media coverage and Al-Zawahiri himself ( Al Qaeda’s number two) have alluded to it.  There are also rumours that support from these types of groups has been extended to opponents of Asad supporters in Tripoli amongst the Sunnis of Bab Al-Tabbaneh.   As ever, the US has also been accused of intervening in Syria.  A statement by an Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister, Hossein Amir Abdollahian, reported that on a visit to Russia, he was provided documents that proved the US, have been covertly providing the Syrian opposition with thousands of weapons.  But there is also speculation that Iran provided crucial support in the Houla massacre.  Given this, the chances of peace in Syria any time soon are remote if both sides have regular access to weapons and fresh supplies of willing fighters.

It is also worth noting the position of Russia vis-à-vis the axis and the uprising.  Russia has staunchly supported Asad thus far by: anchoring war ships off the coast of Tartus; vetoing any moves to sanction or intervene in Syria at the United Nations; and continuing to supply Asad’s regime with weapons.  But how long it can retain this position in the light of the attack on Homs, Hama, Houla and now Qubair is questionable.  Domestic public opinion in the Middle East is slowly turning against Russia (and China to some extent) for their role in sustaining the Syrian regime.  If Asad fails to crush the revolt, there will come a point where the Russians will need to consider their position in the region carefully.  If Asad falls and the Free Syria movement succeeds alongside their Sunni, US-backed supporters, Russia will be badly placed to exert any influence in the Middle East for quite some time.  This will be placing Asad under further pressure at present, as he must be aware that there is a finite limit to unqualified Russian support.

Vanessa Newby, Human Protection Hub, GAI

Author: protectiongateway

Human Protection Hub

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