12 Jun 2013

War, politics and sectarianism in Syria

Sand and dust is whipping around Doha in great gusts, wind tunnelling between the high rises and stirring the normally millpond-like waters of the Gulf. The previously calm political seas are choppy too.

By arming rebels trying to overthrow President Bashar al Assad in Syria, Qatar and the regional power Saudi Arabia may be dragging the region into a sectarian war.

This week, at the annual US-Islamic Word Forum in Doha, I listened to the Qatari Deputy Prime Minister, Ahmas Bin Abdullah Bin Zaid al Mahmoud, pleading for American support.

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“Should ….the United States, fail to offer prompt and decisive assistance to the Syrian people to aid them in fulfilling their aspirations, we fear that the crisis at hand might have even more serious repercussions on neighbouring states, the Arab Region, and world peace,” he said.

Roughly translated, that means: help, we’re out of our depth. And we might be losing.

For decades many have portrayed the central conflict in the Middle East as Israel vs the Palestinians. In fact, the tension between the two strands of Islam – Shiism and Sunnism – has deeper roots. It echoes an even older conflict, between Persians and Arabs.

Iran, aka Persia, is Shia. Saudi Arabia is Sunni. Stability in the Middle East depends on these two powers being in balance. Now they’re polarized on either side of the conflict in Syria.

Pundits here believe that the Emir of Qatar, whose Sunni government has provided the Syrian rebels with about $3bn in arms and other supplies, was genuinely shocked by the attacks on Syrian people by the regime of Bashar al Assad. But the Qataris weren’t too fussy about who they sent weapons too, and increasingly arms are falling into the hands of Sunni extremists whose aim is not just to topple Assad but to wipe out Shi’as and also members of his minority Alawi sect.

Today I was looking at video from Deir al Zour that shows Sunni rebels pulling back a blanket to reveal a bloodied body.

“This is the remains of the Shiia dogs … Allah Akbar… These are the Shiia … this is your end you dogs,” crows one fighter.

The Sunni cleric Yusuf al Qaradawi, based in the Qatari capital, Doha, recently called on Sunnis from across the region to go and fight the Shias in Syria.

Meanwhile, Shia fighters are pouring in from Iran, Iraq and Lebanon.

As in all sectarian wars (think Northern Ireland, Cyprus, Israel/Palestine) each side says the other started it.

Qatar is the only country that has handed over its Syrian embassy to a representative of the rebels. The rebel ambassador Nizar Hrakey, told me that sectarianism was all the fault of Iran, which not only backs Assad, but recently encouraged its proteges, the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, to intervene on the government side.

“It is clear today how Iran and its Hezbollah militia…seek to systematically spread Shiite Islam throughout the Syrian territories,” he told me.

But on the other side, the Iranian government sees Qatari and Saudi support for the largely Sunni rebels as an attack on Iranian influence.

Iran backs Assad because it predicts an extremist Sunni regime, possibly allied with al-Qaeda, and which would regard Shi’as as apostates, would emerge if he fell from power.

The war in Syria is destabilising a region already affected by sectarian tension exacerbated by western intervention.

Under Saddam Hussein, Iraq had a Sunni government. Now it has a Shia government, allied to Iran – an unintended consequence of the US invasion.

Lebanon, torn apart by sectarianism – Sunnis vs Shias vs Druze vs Christians – fought its own 15 year war. Now its uneasy peace is under strain because Syria’s conflict is spilling over the border. Extremists on both sides are piling into Syria.

“Sunni extremism has been going on in this region for quite some time,” says Salman Shaikh, the director of the Brookings Institution in Doha. “Before, those voices were more on the margins, more in the extremes, but they’re now becoming mainstream and that is why we’re seeing the Sunni/ Shia clash.”

In the coming days and weeks, the US and its allies Britain and France must decide whether to start sending weapons to the Syrian rebels. Those in favour say this will strengthen moderates and hasten the demise of Bashar al Assad whose regime has murdered and tortured so many Syrians. Those against say western intervention would further whip up sectarianism, unleashing a tempest across the Middle East.

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