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Questions raised and risks posed by Syrian intervention

Part One of a two-part analysis of the geopolitical sectarian dynamics and possible fall-out of military intervention in Syria. Read Part Two here.

Jonathan Githens-Mazer
30 August 2013

The Syria situation continues to burn unabated – a conflict which becomes not only consistently more entrenched, violent, embittered and bloody, but which, in its quest for oxygen, has increasingly drawn in regional players like Israel, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Lebanon and Iran.

There is currently a move, behind the scenes to try to think about the secondary effects of a military strike - to both map out likely future scenarios for the conflict, to identify key pinch points in order to identify strategic moments for intervention and key decisions, and to help generate degrees of empathy amongst combatants that allow for fuller calculation of exactly what conditions will be necessary before a resolution to the conflict is possible.

There may be some specific aspects of the Syrian case that render this approach slightly more problematic – in terms of levels of operation, specifics of motivation, and the potential for desired outcomes moving forward. In particular, the shift of the Syrian conflict, from what was at least partially defined along longer-term internal Syrian feelings of economic, social and political discrimination and repression (on the part of Sunnis) at the hands of Alawite elites (nominally aligned with Shias), and has now become aligned with much wider and deeper sectarian orientations that define key political drivers in the Gulf, in a chaotic and precarious Iraq, in a divided though functioning Lebanon, and in a situation where Iran is defined as the key ontological threat by the two disparate states of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Israel.

As will be discussed, this raises significant issues for definition of any form of possible transformation in the Syrian case – does it require transformation in the perspectives of internal Syrian actors (i.e. pro-Assad forces, the Free Syrian Army and groups like the Al Nusrat Front)? Does it require transformation of strategic geo-political conditions by state actors like Israel, KSA, Qatar and Iran? Or does it require some form of religious transformation, such that sectarian interest is not considered the zero-sum outcome for Sunnis and Shias being mobilised as foreign fighters to participate in the Syrian conflict?

Summary of the conflict

The specific risk in the Syrian case is one of perspective – and understandings of what the conflict is about. In part, this is because the conflict itself has mutated from one which was ostensibly caused by, and associated with the Arab Spring/Arab Uprisings and become increasingly symbolic of much wider, deep-seated and lethally passionate sentiments about the sectarian practices of Islam. This sectarianism includes identities as ‘true Muslims’ vs. kuffar who engage in Bid’ah (un-Islamic innovation) and Shirk (worship of false idols – which encapsulates both Alawite practice and some Sunni discourses on Shia Islam in some specific orthodox Sunni interpretations) and those who feel their very identity is based on a need to confront injustice and tyranny (Shia Muslims), and who feel that any advancement of Sunni Islam in Syria will be of direct and concrete threat not only to their religious identity, but a concrete and tangible threat to their very lives. This sectarian analysis stands outside of other immediate political considerations, and creates a specific prism of this conflict as a zero-sum game.

The transformation from local Arab Uprising-inspired revolt to bloody intractable sectarian conflict had its roots in the brutality of the Assad regime. Syria had been universally recognised as one of the bloodiest and most repressive authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and North Africa prior to the uprising there. Previously, the regime had declared the Alawite regime as a form of Shi’ism (a proclamation not without theological debate), but which was politically expeditious for both Syria and Iran, allowing them to create a clear East-West axis and interdependence in the Middle East. Alawites controlled, or were patrons of, all key Government positions in Syria, and controlled a vast part of the Syrian economic system. While the majority of the Syrian Army was, for example, Sunni, the officer corps were entirely dominated by Alawite and Shia Syrians.

For Alawites themselves, this was a rational response to the injustices and repression that they felt had been done to them for 300 years before Syria became a French protectorate, and later gained independence. For many inhabitants in Syria, the state, its borders, and its elites were arbitrary  bastardisations of previous Ottoman millet experiences. The colonial period redrawing of maps (particularly the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1919) in no way reflected realities of identities or languages or ethnic identities on the ground. For example, the north east of Syria contained large pockets of Kurds, who were at points repressed and recruited by the Syrian state, and the far south east and west corners of the country include small but significant Druze populations. The coastal zones – the most commercially affluent and agriculturally viable, were (and still are) hugely intermixed, whereas vast swathes of the interior are uninhabited desert – with some populations hugely dependent on seasonal fluvial agriculture – flood waters which are decreasing thanks to water scarcity and ever further upstream damming and pressure on resource.

While internal pressures – economic, social, political and religious created a resonance for the Arab Spring in Damascus, Homs, and other large population centres in Syria in 2011, the conflict quickly spiralled out of control. What began as a series of (relatively) peaceful demonstrations following Friday (Jumma) prayers, were brutally repressed through the use of snipers, tear gas and state violence. The protestors began to take up arms – through organisations like the FSA and others – and there was a high degree of heterogeneity in identity and purpose amongst these first organisations. Some sought to gain the support of a wide slice of Syrian society – across the board from Sunnis, Shias, Alawites (if possible), Kurds etc. – in order to demonstrate that the nature of their conflict with the Assad regime wasn’t about religion, ethnic or tribal identities, but about the brutal nature of the Syrian state under Assad’s control. Others, however, saw this conflict as an opportunity for payback – both in terms of religious oppression of Sunnis, and more specifically as an opportunity to enact vendettas – both recent and ancient – against neighbours who were felt to have done wrong against a family or tribe in the past.

The conflict was further exacerbated through foreign support for some of these groups. Turkey, for example, intervened on behalf of groups that were largely Muslim Brotherhood (Ikwhan) and Sunni facing – though found itself in a difficult position. Domestically, getting involved in the conflict in Syria is hugely polarising – so too, however, are massive sanctuary camps of Syrians fleeing the conflict inside its southern borders. Additionally, the Turkish Government has entered into a positive and constructive relationship with the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq, and begun negotiations with the PKK while, at the same time the PKK, via the PYD (a Kurdish nationalist and PKK affiliated party in Syria), has decided not to fight against Assad in exchange for zones for (relative) Kurdish autonomy in Northern Syria. The complexity of their positions becomes ever more apparent. While reports on recent riots in Istanbul’s Taksim Square were reported in European and American papers as being about popular dissatisfaction with the moderate Islamist Government of the AKP, some of the dissent has been about the change in policy towards the Kurds and the PKK as well as a deeper angst as to the Turkish role in Syria.

For Saudi Arabia, on the one hand there has been both official and unofficial support for groups that are promoting a clearly orthodox Sunni and anti-Shia doctrine, and these groups explicitly espouse an agenda that seeks to reorganise a future Syria along these lines. From the perspective of the KSA (and Qatar), such groups are fighting on the frontlines for the survival of a degree of status quo in the Middle East in the face of transnational Shia challenges, organised from Tehran. From their perspective, Shia control of Baghdad is abomination of previous Gulf security arrangements – and the Al Maliki Government has become nothing more than a puppet of Iran. The Syrian state is part of an arc of Shia control in the Middle East running from the Gulf and the Indian Sub-Continent through to the Mediterranean. This arc, from their perspective – is geographically unrepresentative of Islamic demography – and because Shi’ism is inherently an affront to true Islam (from their perspective) this represents an evil that must be put right. The threats posed to the longer-term prospects of a fellow Gulf monarchy in Jordan are also important in these calculations.

Furthermore, the KSA and Qatar relish their role as players on a global stage – as able to do what Obama, Cameron, and Hollande are politically unable to do – to directly intervene in Syria. The US, UK and France lack political appetite and suffer from conflict fatigue thanks to post-Iraq and Afghan experiences, and are wary as to the danger of a new cold war with Russia, who is backing the Syrian regime. Russia’s role is pragmatic and symbolic – Syria is a long-term ally, a home to the Russian fleet in Tartus, and holds a variety of Russian non-state financial assets. Furthermore, the loss of face for Russia at the massive (and from their perspective – over-reaching) intervention in Libya and overthrow of Gaddafi means that they are unwilling to find a solution for the Syrian conflict that does not foreground support for Assad.

For other states, like Israel, Lebanon and Iraq – the Syrian conflict has huge immediate geo-strategic and political implications – for example Israel views the arming of a hostile neighbour (Syria) with missiles and other military technologies (by Russia) as a clear and present danger to its immediate security – and has already kinetically intervened to prevent the proliferation of such capacities. Furthermore, Israel views Iran as the fundamental existential threat to the existence of the state of Israel – especially Iranian nuclear capacity – and therefore anything that weakens Iran is inherently of benefit to the long-term fundamental security of Israel. Iranian provision of men and materiel – in terms of Republican Guard fighters and technological knowhow – represent an immediate threat to Israeli security, from their perspective. The Lebanon is also being sucked into this conflict, and though its long and bloody Civil War was ultimately resolved through a form of non-functioning consociational settlement that provides the state with enough centrifugal force to keep it together – Hezbollah has already hugely contributed to the Assad regime’s fighting capacity – and is receiving further funding from Iran and encouragement to do so even more.

Different incidents on the Iraqi border – including the massacre of pro-Assad forces withdrawing out of Syria across the border into Iraq, the recent heightened anti-Shia bombing campaigns, and the jailbreak of 300 Al Qaeda operatives, indicated the extent the potential for Iraqi Sunnis, dissatisfied by what they perceive as a hugely unjust and repressive Shia-led government in Baghdad, to get sucked into the Syrian conflict in order to help their Sunni compatriots – and to eventually carve a clear safe niche for themselves in a differently organised Middle East state system.

Lastly, there is the way that this conflict is operating at a symbolic level. The conflict in Syria has come to symbolise this issue for many Muslims not directly associated and affiliated with the Syrian crisis itself – and after statements by key scholars like Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, is likely to draw in more participants from abroad who view the conflict through this lens[1]. These symbolic lenses in turn have an ‘observational effect’ on the conflict, such that while the crisis may not have started out as geo-political proxy wars or indeed as entrenched sectarianism, these ideas are likely to shape the conflict’s development.

Because these ideas are now forming discourse about Syria, there will likely be an increased connection between those who perceive the challenge to Assad’s role as being about democracy vs. despotism (on the grounds that Syria under the Assad’s has been massively repressive, violent and brutal) and those who choose a more sectarian analysis of this conflict (that Assad’s dominant minority Alawite regime sought an alliance with it’s other minority Shi’a population, and exploited this alliance to increase it’s alliance with Iran, via organisations like Hezbollah in Lebanon). On the other side of this equation, those loyal to Assad read these challenges conversely – and see this is an attempt on the part of Sunni Syrians to deliver ‘payback’ to minority communities throughout Syria – and that the nature of this conflict has become zero-sum – were Assad to lose, more or less the entirety of the Syrian Alawite and Shi’a communities will be subject to genocide and extermination.

The geo-political context inflames these perceptions – where deep concerns have not been assuaged by Saudi Arabian backing for militias challenging pro-Assad forces (which are viewed as being pro-Wahabbi forms of Islamic practice), and the latest pronouncements by leading Sunni scholars such as Qaradawi calling for Sunni Muslims to join in Jihad against Shi’a Muslims in Syria[2].


[1] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-22741588

[2] http://www.france24.com/en/20130601-top-muslim-cleric-urges-sunnis-join-syria-war (ACCESSED 4 June, 2013)

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