Over the last week, reports from the ground level and from those that have fled Syria* for safe havens have been coming through, sharing a lot of information about where they are, what is going on in Damascus and in other parts of Syria, and where some key Syrians have fled. These contacts have also shared what they feel are the causes of conflict in Syria. All Syrians beg the international community to unite to stop the increasing violence and killing of civilians by all armed elements, both uniformed and informal. They feel that the immediacy of stopping the violence in Syria has become hostage to big power politics, and to the egotism of the P5 in working together to uphold pledges made under the United Nations Charter in 1945 to protect the world from another war of global dimensions and escalating consequences. The General Assembly this week finally passed a majority resolution that remains toothless that should have emerged more than two months ago from the Security Council.
Causes of conflict
Over the months, I have written a lot about the conflict in Syria (see Middle East analysis category). Information that I got from my contacts in Syria and in diaspora echoed a lot of the concerns and identification of causes of conflict that I had written about. Over the last two weeks, even mass media and cable news channels have presented evidences of the same causes of conflict, albeit from a sanitized perspective. Four main causes can be identified:
Falling out of favor: In the era and spirit of Sadat, in the effort of the US to secure its new best friend at the time, Israel, the US did not object to supporting the man who eventually dictated over Syria for decades and then passed the power scepter to his son, Bashar Al-Assad. The objective of the US was to secure Israel’s flank or the Golan Heights and maintain the status quo in terms of Israel’s occupation of those Syrian lands. In exchange, Al-Assad the father won immunity for consolidating his power, eliminating all viable political opposition, and like Saddam years later, establishing a vast, powerful and networked secret service. The decades did not upset the apple cart of Assad’s power even when extra-judicial kills and torture were hallmarks of his relentless rule, and all through those decades the US, UK and others never really took up the cause of human rights, the welfare of the people of Syria or of the representational aspects of the many religions and peoples of the Syrian lands. That is because the status quo with Israel was maintained and never threatened by Al-Assad. When the mantle of power was passed to Bashar, the US, UK and others made sure that as a prerequisite, Bashar sign on to the death pledge made by his father to secure Israel, and so he did, gain for over a decade in exchange for unchallenged rule and leadership. Then two years ago, something happened and Bashar Al-Assad faltered. Rumors emerged in Syrian society, that something had gone wrong in a less advertised meeting with senior State Department officials. A few weeks later, sectarian unrest started on a miniature scale and escalated to the present civil war. The clear reading is that Bashar Al-Assad lost favor with the US government and since then, Syria has been cast into violent escalating conflict with constant demands by the US for regime change.
The Arab Spring and Religious Extremist Movements: If you analyze the outcomes of all the Arab Spring movements, all except Yemen have resulted the election of parties or personalities linked to Islamic fundamentalist parties to leadership. Tunisia narrowly missed electing a fundamentalist dominated government but Egypt, Libya and Iraq all have elected religiously fundamentalist and aligned personalities to power. Except in Iraq, all the regimes are Sunni fundamentalist drawing financing and constituency from extremist Wahhabist parties in Saudi Arabia and Sunni power brokers in Qatar, Kuwait and UAE. Whether by design or by accident, the Arab Spring meant to break long-term dependency relationships between the US and the Middle East conglomerate of dictators that it supported and financed to stay in power, so that the US could move its focus to the Asia-Pacific as its main region of confluence, resulted in catapulting the Middle East into a wave of religious fundamentalist political revival. Syria will be no exception. Working through surrogates like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the US attempted unseating the last dictator that still remained intact within the rubric of the old US Middle East power pyramid: Al-Assad. When Assad falls, Syria will fractionize into civil war and religious acrimony or religious wars. While it is not clear that the majority Sunni will take over power with civilian support in post-Assad Syria, as they are currently the majority it can be a high probability. Then the power of the financing from Saudi Arabia might result in a Sunni fundamentalist government.
Regional Interference and Contagious Explosion of Syria: While Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait acted as surrogates for the US, they also had their own very particular reasons for supporting the oust of Al-Assad and the ascendency of a Sunni leadership in Syria. The current freedom struggle in Syria was fostered on support from those three neighboring States. Financing for “study visits” to Saudi Arabia and for the Sunni community and religious practice in Syria start to flow in abundance. Erstwhile marginalized Imams in mosques all over Syria are paid travel and lavish hotel stays in Jeddah, Mecca and Medina with shopping money like they have never had. The declared purpose of these activities and financing for madrassas to be set up in Sunni mosques all over Syria, is to bring the Syrian Sunnis back into the mainstream of Sunni religious practice. I was told that while in Saudi Arabia, these Imams and community leaders were given lectures and classes on how to organize civil disobedience. They met with representatives who talked about planning military campaigns and of civil defense and of violence. They were offered training camps. I have no idea how many if any accepted to attend these camps or accepted support for violence-mongering back in Syria but all this happened over the last two years. Today, MSNBC reported that Al Qaeda had approached freedom fighters in Syria to provide them weapons and financial support. Of course the Syrians have a right to political self-determination but what the origins and trajectory of this movement is as important as why it exists. Due to the support and origins of this struggle, the violence and conflict in Syria has already started to seep into Saudi Arabia and I predict will spread its contamination to Kuwait and light the explosion waiting-to-happen in Bahrain. My sources from Syria tell me that a number of key Shiites working in Syria’s secret service have infiltrated into Saudi Arabia. I also have it on very credible authority that some key senior Sunni army officers have defected to Saudi Arabia while retained their relations with Al-Assad directly. In my blog post call the Islamic Mosaic, I outlined the patchwork of Sunni and Shiite communities in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, UAE, Oman and Yemen. This mosaic will feed the contagion spread from Syria and perhaps fueled by its defecting officials. Meanwhile, in Turkey, the Turkish Alawite community still strongly supports Al-Assad and criticized Turkey’s support for rebel movements within Syria, as well as, Turkey’s potential contribution to any intervention in Syria as a neighboring country and a key member of NATO. I know that Syria has already started to explode outward and infect the region, making the specter of a larger Middle East war imminent.
The Legitimacy of the Syrian Struggle: Finally, the Syrian bid for more representation of communities and a more open and pluralistic political system is totally legitimate. In a way, the forgoing three casualties add legitimacy to the suffering of the Syrian people and makes their struggle against political dominance and imposition all the more compelling and logical. Their political and civil aspiration cannot be denied.
In my analysis, Syria is already exploding and spilling its venom out to the neighboring countries, fermenting the seeds for longer-term instability and igniting latent conflict factors like religious and political marginalization of minorities. The tendency of the Arab Spring to result in the resurgence of Islamic fundamentalist governments has been notable and Syria will be no exception. However, in Syria, the mosaic of religions and communities will result in a protected civil war before the majority Sunni might dominate that political spectrum. In the process, the what remains of the country will be destroyed in terms of infrastructure and social fiber. This will be difficult to repair. Globally, the failure of the international community to unite in action in the Security Council has spotlighted the reemergence of big power competition and rival spheres of influence. It signals the end of the era of a unipower, the US, and the return of a second and potentially a third power center, Russia and China respectively. This trend has emerged not only because Russia and China have challenged the US over Syria, but because they are now perceived by non-align countries and most neutral states as an alternative ally to the US. The reputation of the US as a “fickle friend” has been consolidated through the Arab Spring: once the US lost usage for their long-term pawns, these were thrown out without much regard and the countries that were erstwhile allies or most favored nations, suddenly found themselves isolated and cut off from US friendship. While the clear priority should be to stop the killing of innocent civilians in Syria no matter what their religious affiliation, that truth has been drowned out by the noise of all the above combined factors, a fact that in itself is a tragedy for every human being. Let’s prioritize Saving Syrian lives.
* A few of my informants in Syria and in the region are Iraqis that escaped to Syria after Desert Storm II.