In order to understand the current European and world migrant crisis, it is imperative to study the roots of the conflict impelling citizens to flee their own countries and hometowns for a better life. The war in Syria is fueled by regional and global powers, in their individual bids to increase their control in the Middle-East. Also, many governments causing the conflict could also have a hand in ending it. The crux of the matter is that for those who win Syria, regional power or world hegemony beckons.
The current migrant crisis is largely due to Syrian citizens fleeing their country, which has been devastated in the last 5 years by warmongering and ruthlessness. Around 400,000 people have died in the bloodshed. The conflict in Syria started as a people’s revolution in 2011 as they sought to remove President Bashar al-Assad and morphed into a civil war. An intrastate conflict that has divided Syrians politically along the line of whether to remove the Baath Party from power or not has emerged. However, the conflict has changed into being much more than just a battle for or against Assad – it has become sectarian with the country’s Sunni majority pitted against the president’s Alawite family (sub-branch in the Shia sect of Islam). Last but not least, a proxy war between regional powers with interests for control of the Middle-East has emerged, with the US and Russia also involved in their quest for world hegemony.
1. State and Non-State Actors of the Syrian Conflict
The power struggle in Syria is currently fought between three different entities. The first is the Assad regime, which has resisted a revolution determined to overthrow it since 2011 and has killed hundreds of thousands of its own civilians in the process. The Assad family has been ruling since 1971 when Hafez al-Assad brought himself to power after a coup. He served as president until his death in 2000. One month thereafter, his son Bashar al-Assad was elected president and he has been serving as commander-in-chief since then. He was re-elected in the controversial June 2014 presidential elections. Once considered as a reformer before the war by the international community, the US and its allies have demanded Assad’s resignation for crimes against humanity.
The second entity involved is the Free Syrian Army, referred to as “the rebels” by the media, which has identified itself as the people’s army. However, the many allegations of war crimes reported by the Human Rights Watch coupled with its non-moderate Islamic tendencies have been heavily criticised. The Pentagon reported in 2013 that “extreme Islamist groups” constitute “more than 50 percent” of the Free Syrian Army and that the percentage is “growing by the day”. The rebels have intended to appear much less radical than the Islamic state but have consistently proven the contrary. Quoting Dan Glazebrook, writer for The Guardian and The Independent: “The whole business about funding moderate rebels has always been a bit of a fantasy. There is nothing moderate about what they are being trained to do. There is nothing moderate about forming a militia and then going and killing as many police and soldiers of a sovereign state as you can. The Free Syrian Army – the so-called moderate rebels – celebrated their arrival in Aleppo for example by planting 2,000-kilo bombs in the city centre and looting the city’s schools. This whole idea of moderate rebels was always a myth”.
The third entity is the most terrifying and is a product of the American occupation of Iraq in 2003 (See: How did The Islamic State Come To Be?). The Islamic State is composed of individuals who proclaim the renaissance of jihadism and have declared the birth of the Islamic State, a caliphate that rules an area bigger than the United Kingdom, governed by one man, Al-Baghdadi. Furthermore, they possess an army that is very well trained and armed. IS is a Wahabi extremist group. It follows an extreme interpretation of Islam, promotes religious violence, and regards those who do not agree with its interpretations as infidels or apostates. IS compels people in the areas that it controls to declare Islamic creed and live according to its interpretation of Sunni Islam and Shari’a law. There have been many reports of the group’s use of death threats, torture and mutilation to compel conversion to Islam and of clerics being killed for refusal to pledge allegiance to the “Islamic State”. IS directs violence against everyone that opposes their ideology. It has demonstrated that ideology and adherence to Islamic beliefs and laws are secondary to its criminal financial enterprises supporting the group’s activities. IS is widely denounced by a broad range of Islamic clerics, moderate Muslims and even al-Qaeda-oriented clerics.
The Regional Fight for Dominance: Iran vs. Saudi Arabia
Since the start of the civil war, Iran has expressed its support for the Syrian government and has provided it with financial, technical, and military support, including training and some combat troops. Syria has consistently provided Iran with an element of strategic depth. It gives Iran access to the Mediterranean and a supply line to Iran’s Shia Muslim supporters in southern Lebanon, next to the border with Israel, as well as support to the Lebanese armed movement Hezbollah. Iran sees the survival of the Syrian government as crucial to its regional interests. In other words, Iran’s alliance with Syria gives Tehran the ability to project its power right up to the Israeli border. Losing this ability to project its power via Syria would represent a strong blow to Iran. This helps explain why Iran’s government has supported President Assad in Syria’s conflict with rebel forces. In addition, the two governments share a common view of the world. In particular, they appear to view any opposition to their respective administrations as a Western-inspired plot.
Sunni governments in the Middle-East, such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey, have been keen to see Assad’s government overthrown due to its stance as a minority government in a majority Sunni country and because it would serve to weaken the position of Iran in the region. The Saudi motivation for intervening in Syria is three-fold. The Saudis view events in Syria as a historic opportunity to enhance their own strategic position. They want to be viewed as the protectors of Arab Sunnis region-wide as they view themselves as the regional Islamic power, but they are also working to weaken Iran and keep the Muslim Brotherhood in check.
2. Syria’s Three Wars
The sectarian divide in Syria is central to understanding the roots of the conflict, why it is being fought and how it will be resolved. This conflict did not begin as a strictly religious conflict. It began much as the uprisings of 2011 in other Arab countries throughout the Arab Spring: average citizens of all walks of life going to the street to claim the freedoms that had long been denied by a dictator with a tight grip on power. It is true that oppositionists went to the street out of political, not theological differences, but the fact that the political imbalance was drawn along religious lines put these religious identities at the heart of the fight. Sunni Muslims are by far the biggest Muslim sect in the world and in Syria.
President Assad and his father before him belonged to the small Alawite minority (Shia). Many Syrians believe that Alawites have enjoyed privileged access to resources and power. Because of this, the war is infused with religion.
It is not surprising that most of the Free Syrian Army, the largest rebel group, is Sunni. Similarly, the current prosecution of the war particularly among many proxies and funders is also breaking along religious lines. Shiite-led Iran is funding Assad’s campaign and Hezbollah is fighting against the Sunni oppositionists. Deposed Egyptian President Morsi severed diplomatic ties and opposition to Hezbollah’s role due to the insistence of a strong group of Sunni clerics. Likewise, Sunni-led Saudi Arabia and Qatar are funding various Sunni opposition groups. The head of al-Qaeda’s Iraqi presence, a group adamantly fighting against the Shiite-led government in Baghdad, is strongly supporting various elements of the Syrian Sunni opposition.
While there are non-religious funders and backers, notably Russia and the United States, one cannot overlook the strong religious interests of the others. Let us investigate the religious demographics of Syria and how they are relevant to the conflict. The population is mostly Muslim (estimated between 87 and 90%) with a predominantly Sunni majority (64 to 74% of Syria’s population) and a minority of Shias (13 to 21%, including the Alawite branch).
History tells that when the prophet died, the two sects divided over who would lead the Muslim community. The Sunnis regard themselves as the traditionalist branch of Islam. About 85 to 90% of the Muslim population worldwide is Sunni. The Shiite are about 120 to 170 million worldwide. They are the majority in Iran, Bahrain and are in great numbers in Yemen. In countries that have been governed by Sunnis, Shia tend to make up the poorest sections of society and, of course, the opposite is true in Shia governed countries. They often see themselves as victims of discrimination and oppression. Some extremist Sunni doctrines have preached hatred of Shia and vice-versa. The current conflicts in Iraq and Syria have naturally acquired strong sectarian overtones. Young Sunni men in both countries have joined rebel groups, many of which echo the hardline ideology of al-Qaeda. Meanwhile, many of their counterparts from the Shia community have been fighting for, or alongside, government forces.
There are therefore two clear camps on the regional and international levels: Russia and Shia Arab nations on one side versus America, its European allies and Saudi Arabia on the other front. But the grizzly thing here is why so many countries are involved in the war and why they care so much. It is all about interests which we will be discussing in the second instalment of this series on Syria, to be published tomorrow.