Trying to Understand the Syrian Puzzle from Three Different Dimensions

Re-Blogged From The Middle East News Service

The Syrian Civil War has been transformed into a regional and -more recently- an international conflict. Its international background took a new form when Russia decided to undertake its own aistrikes operations in Syria with the aid of Iran and Iraq.

The Cold war’s two pole international system- USA vs Russia and satellites– is no longer relevant just as the map of this world’s geopolitics designed in the aftermath of the communism’s fall. Today we cannot explain an event through only one cause and effect relationship. There are many interpretations which overlap, contradict and complete each other. This is especially true regarding the Syrian crisis, that rising of ISIS (Daech) terrorist group in Syria and Iraq and the direct or indirect intervention of regional powers and external powers in the region.

current situation in syria map october 2015

However, it is possible to attempt to provide some clarity in a changing and complex crisis, while the simplification risk exists and is an instrument that must be handled with great care: The recent conflicts in the region could be outlined in three poles: the religious conflict between Sunnis and Shiites; a confrontation for regional domination; and a show of strength (cold war tactics) between the West (the United States) and Russia.

An explanation through the religious conflict between Sunnis and Shiites is tempting but remains partial

syria ethno-religious map
The ethno-religious composition of Syria in 1976. Institute for the Study of War –

Perhaps the Sunni-Shiite rivalry provides an important key while trying to understand Middle East modern conflicts. The Shiites of Iran &Iraq, the Lebanese Hezbollah, the Alawites (formed by a division of Shiism, whose recognition as Muslims became official just in the middle of the last century who originated the President Assad’s clan in Syria, ) are “fighting” against Sunnis.

ethno-religious composition of syria graph
From Wikipedia
The Alawite sect of Shia Islam has the second highest religious following in the Syrian Arab Republic and remains at the heart of the Assad regime's grassroot support.
The division between Sunnis and Shiites began after the death of the Prophet Mohammed some 1,400 years ago, as a disagreement about who should succeed him.

The Sunnis felt that Abu Bakr, a close friend of the prophet's, ought to be the next Muslim leader.But the Shiites claimed that Mohammed had annointed his son-in-law, Ali, as his rightful successor.

The Sunnis won out, but a split was born, and that rift was cemented when Ali's son was later killed by the ruling Sunni's troops -- an event which the Shiites commemorate every year.

Fast-forward more than a thousand years, and the situation is worse than ever. According to a poll by Pew Research, some 40% of Sunnis don't even regard Shiites as real Muslims.

One hundred years ago, around the time of the First World War, the Middle East was carved up in a Franco-British pact called the Sykes-Picot Agreement. But the Europeans had little interest in understanding the religious and ethnic intricacies of the Middle East when they divided up the region. Still, these arbitrary borders became the blueprint for today’s maps.

The Shiites were divided primarily among Iran, Iraq and Lebanon, with Alawites (an off-shoot of Shia Islam) in Syria. This area has come to be known as the Shia crescent.

Sunni Muslims make up the bulk of the population of other countries in the region, with pockets of Shiites scattered among them.

As you might expect, problems arise in countries where both sects are vying for power, or one feels oppressed. In Syria, for example, a Sunni majority has been ruled for the last 45 years by an Alawite minority.

In Iraq, a Sunni minority ruled over the Shiite majority for decades. After the U.S. invasion, Saddam Hussein — a Sunni — was overthrown, and a Shiite government took over. That government proceeded to marginalize the Sunnis, and now some of those disenfranchised Sunnis have gone on to form the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS.

Let’s do a quick who’s-who in the Middle East: Al Qaeda and ISIS are Sunni Muslim groups. Hezbollah is Shiite.

Osama bin Laden was a Sunni. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is an Alawite. And the Iranian mullahs are Shiites as well, which helps explain why Iran has gotten involved in the conflict in Syria.

However, a very important thing to know for the ongoing war, the dividing line not only runs between Shiites and Sunnis. These two are divided. If some Sunni monarchies of the Gulf, especially Saudi Arabia, have encouraged the creation of ISIS some other groups( created maybe with Gulf countries’ help) such as the Al-Nusra Front, a branch of al-Qaeda, and various Sunni militias, like the Salafists of Ahrar al-Sham,and the Islamic Front, are now fighting the Islamic state (ISIS or Daech).The Kurds, whose religion is also a branch of Sunni Islam, are at the forefront of Daech’s opponents.

To add more religion in the whole scene, recently the blessing of missiles comes after Patriarch Kirill, the Primate of the Russian Orthodox Church, declared that Russia’s intervention in Syria, which is aimed at the rebels now aligned against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, is a “holy battle”.

It is true that for almost twenty years now, a strong relationship has been established between the Patriarchate of Moscow and the Iranian mullahs. They organize regularly some meetings during the spectre of a dialogue called “Orthodoxy and Islam”.

Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia: who is going to rule the region?

There are three big regional powers in the Near-Middle East: Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. They hold up very well “the religion banner” in order to justify their involvement in the Syrian conflict. What is at stake too, and perhaps above all, it is the hegemony in a region starting from the Aegean Sea to the Persian Gulf, a region full of oil resources at a crossroads for north-south and east-west as well.

  • Iran

For the West, after the agreement found between the P5 +1 group* this summer regarding the its nuclear program, Tehran should play a more active regional power role especially for the West so that the clerical regime plays a stabilizing role in regional conflicts.

So far, that hope, especially endorsed by US President Mr Obama,has disappointed. Iran until today sees to enjoy regional instability to increase its influence in the Middle East, based on Shiite and some other communities and undertaking a role in the Syrian conflict with Assad’s forces.

Iran fights, directly or indirectly, on other fronts in the Middle East also. In Iraq, where it supports the Shiite-ruled government against the Islamic state; in Yemen, where it supports the Houthi rebels against the official government backed from Saudi Arabia. This leads to a bloody war where Saudi Arabia heads a coalition of Arab states. After seven months of war in Yemen there is a death toll of 5,000 people, including many civilians.

  • Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia and Iran are in competition for the regional hegemony. It is a fight between Sunnis and Shiites, between Arabs and Persians, but especially between two powers, each with their “sponsors” in the international community USA and Russia accordingly. The Saudis are since longtime the United States allies in the region and remain, even though differences remain regarding the fate of “Arab Spring” nations, the role of Islamist groups and … oil prices have somewhat “loosen” the good relationships of the last decades.

Questions remain as for the role of Saudi Arabia: the Saudi Arabia has sought to keep its regional influence through direct military intervention in Yemen’s immediate neighbors, especially by supporting radical Islamist groups, starting with ISIS when it was formed before to turn against it. Questions remains of Saudi Arabia’s role in funding and arming extremist groups such as Al-Nusra Front, which fights against both the ISIS and Bashar Assad’s regime. It serves as an intermediary for the delivery of US arms to different rebel groups, sometimes rivals between them, which the Arab Gulf emirates fund in Syria.

  • Turkey

For reasons relating to both domestic politics and international context, Turkey has failed to achieve its ambition to become “the” major regional power in the Middle East. Foreign Minister and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Ahmet Davutoglu both had theorized the idea of “post-Ottoman” diplomacy.According to this “plan” Turkey had to be the center of gravity of the area that was owned by the Ottoman Empire before 2-3 centuries etc. With its neighbors, Ankara had to have “zero conflict”. But not only Erdogan emerged rather weakened from his various attempts to consolidate personal power, but Turkey is at odds with most of his neighbors, when the country is not in open conflict with some of them.

Concentrated in the north, along the Turkish border, the Syrian Kurds used to have an ambivalent attitude towards the Assad regime, sometimes supporting it and sometimes been opposed to. They are, with the support from US, Daech’s strongest enemies but as allies of the PKK in Turkey, Turkey fights against them, and Turkey itself is a NATO member and a United States ally.

This is just one of the paradoxes of this new war in this new Middle East. The classic motto saying that “the enemy of our enemy is my friend” is too clear to be applied to a complex reality in which our enemies sometimes act as our allies and where our friends are actually our adversaries.

And What About Israel?
Israel while remains hostile regarding the agreement on the Iranian nuclear, after the recent meeting between Putin-Netanyahu, seems to be more flexible to the Assad regime in Syria as long as the regime is not itself or from Hezbollah a threat in the Golan, and its support for the Hamas remains into “acceptable limits”. The Israeli government is facing currently new clashes and a revolt in the occupied territories that keeps the Israeli government somehow away from the other wars in the region.

Did United States and Russia enter a new Cold war era?

US and its allies lead a coalition called “Operation Inherent Resolve” that targets ISIS -and other terrorist groups’- positions in Syria and at the same time Russia with Assad’s forces and Iran’s support runs its own coalition that a lot of analysts see it as a concurrent one in Syria: it reminds them the Cold War times between the ” Westen and the Easten blocs” where the two blocs used to avoid by every possible mean to fight each other directly like the position of the two camps in Ukraine recently.

Both camps military airforces are present in Syria without counting Israeli devices
which are trying to stop any transfer of heavy weapons in the South Lebanon by Hezbollah. Russians and Americans are in contact to avoid incidents that could escalate tension. Russians and Israelis too. The fact remains that under the guise of fighting against a common enemy, ISIS terrorism in the region, everyone works for the success of its own strategy and respective protected regime.

For Roger Cohen (of Barack Obama’s foreign policy is characterized as a Doctrine of Restraint. It is clear, not least to the Kremlin, that Obama is skeptical of the efficacy of military force, wary of foreign interventions that may become long-term commitments, convinced the era of American-imposed solutions is over, and inclined to see the United States as less an indispensable power than an indispensable partner.

President Vladimir Putin has seized on this profound foreign policy shift in the White House. He has probed where he could, most conspicuously in Ukraine, and now in Syria. Obama may call this a form of Russian weakness. Nonetheless, the fact remains that Putin has reasserted Russian power in the vacuum created by American retrenchment and appears determined to shape the outcome in Syria using means that Obama has chosen never to deploy. For Putin, it’s clear where the weakness lies: in the White House.

Obama, however, was elected to lead a nation exhausted by the two longest and most expensive wars in its history. Iraq and Afghanistan consumed trillions without yielding victory. In Afghanistan, in Libya and most devastatingly in Syria, Obama has seemed beset by ambivalence: a surge undermined by a date certain for Afghan withdrawal; a lead-from-behind military campaign to oust Libya’s dictator with zero follow-up plan; a statement more than four years ago that “the time has come” for President Bashar al-Assad to “step aside” without any strategy to make that happen, and a “red line” on chemical weapons that was not upheld.




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