The religion-fueled fight in Syria

By David Patrikarakos
February 19, 2014

The second round of peace talks in Geneva between representatives of Bashar Al-Assad’s regime in Syria and rebel forces has ended with both sides blaming each other for the lack of progress. Beyond the finger-pointing, however, lies a growing danger to the goal of a negotiated settlement. The civil war’s religious divides are widening, making compromise unthinkable.

Representatives of the Syrian regime went to Geneva solely with the hope of convincing the opposition to let President Bashar al-Assad stay in power so he can forge an alliance against jihadist forces fighting in Syria, most notably the al Qaeda affiliates Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. Their argument — one that many, including former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, have made — was that Assad is better than any likely alternative.

But the Syrian National Coalition, representing opposition forces, rejected the proposal outright. The coalition, which purports to be a post-Assad transitional government in waiting, has decided, along with Secretary of State John Kerry, that al Qaeda will be dealt with after Assad is gone. Its standing, however, is severely constrained by its lack of political credibility on the ground. It has become little more than a vehicle for Qatar and Saudi Arabia to vie for control of Syrian politics.

The problems in Syria, however, are far greater than the shortcomings of each side’s negotiating teams in Geneva. When the civil war began in 201l, it was a fight between Syrians demanding greater civil rights and a government that ultimately provoked them into violent confrontation through its own brutality. That political struggle quickly morphed into a wider sectarian war between Sunni and Shia, flaring up across the Middle East.

Shia Iran was an early — and vital — financial and military supporter of Assad. It is intent on make sure he does not fall. Hezbollah’s decision to send fighters into Syria last year, at Iran’s command, to strengthen Assad’s hand made the region’s Sunni giant, Saudi Arabia, even more fearful of creeping Shia hegemony.

Riyadh promptly stepped up its involvement in the war. It was instrumental in founding the Islamic Front, a coalition of seven rebel groups, in November. The front’s rapid evolution into the most effective rebel fighting force is partly due to Saudi funding and arms shipments.

In Syria, Saudi and Qatari-backed Sunni Salafi, who practice a strict form of Islam, face off against Iranian-backed Shiite and Alawite Islamists. (The Assads are Alawites, an offshoot of Shi’ism.) Both sides, as Middle East analysts Phillip Smyth and Aaron Zelin have shown, have demonized and dehumanized each other to the point that the hope of compromise between a government desperate to cling to power and an out-of-touch coalition far removed from the religious hatreds on the battlefield may be futile.

Apocalyptic religious divisions, rather than political grievances, now dominate the Syrian civil war. The Salafis describe their Alawite opponents as “Nusrayri,” pointedly recalling Abu Shuayb Muhammad Ibn Nusayr, the eighth-century founder of the Alawite religion. His followers are said to be followers of a man, not God — which to Sunni clerics like the Qatar-basef Yusuf al-Qaradawi make Nusayris greater infidels than Jews or Christians.

The Shias, meanwhile, decry their enemies as “bani Ummayad” (“sons of the Ummayads”), a deliberate reference to the massacre of the Shias’ Imam Hussein, the son of Ali, and his 72 followers at Karbala by the Ummayad Caliph Yazid in 680 AD. That historical event stands at the center of Shi’ism. By labelling their foes Ummayads, the Shia rebels, or more precisely the clerics that issue the religious fatwas, fuse the present to an emotionally charged past. The righteousness of the fight against Sunni rebels is thus not rooted in the Syrian conflict but in the righteousness of Hussein’s cause against the Ummayyad Caliph.

In such a religion-fueled atmosphere, both Sunnis and Shiites fighting in Syria consider prisoner executions not as political acts but as fulfillment of their religious duty. Both follow religious fatwas that call for holy war. Shiite jihadis in particular regularly describe the rebel Sunnis as “takfiri,” a group religiously permissible to kill. Both sides view the fight as an existential battle between Salafi Sunnism and Khomeinist Shiism; both paint their enemies as non-Muslims — for which death is the only fitting punishment.

Even when the fighting takes on a less sectarian character, ethnic divisions predominate. The intra-rebel fighting between the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, who seek autonomy for Syria’s Kurds, and rebel groups that refuse to accept any separatist notions has also become a zero-sum game.

There was no discussion of all this in Geneva. As if to underline the futility of the talks, approximately 1,900 people were killed in Syria over the nine days the two sides met — to add to the 130,000 killed since the war started three years ago.

Neither side has yet addressed the real issues at stake. Nor is there an end in sight for the Syrian people.

 

PHOTO (TOP): A member of the Free Syrian Army prays with his gun in front of him in Aleppo December 25, 2012. REUTERS/Muzaffar Salman

PHOTO (INSERT 1): Civilians walk towards a meeting point to be evacuated from a besieged area of Homs February 9, 2014. REUTERS/Thaer Al Khalidiya

PHOTO: A girl cries near a damaged car at a site hit by what activists said were barrel bombs dropped by government forces in Aleppo’s Dahret Awwad neighborhood, January 29, 2014. REUTERS/Saad AboBrahim

8 comments

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What is Mr Patrikarakos talking about? Are “the two sides” supposed to sort out what happened 1200 years ago by negotiating? Even if they could, so what?

Posted by nossnevs | Report as abusive

Mr. Patrikarakos, you like every other Western propogandist like to paint a picture of two sides that have equal grievances and equal concerns.

The facts are:

The government is the only legitimate player that may follow some rules of engagment.

The rebels are all terrorists. Any group that Saudi Arabia funds are terrorists.

Where the 9/11 attackers Shiite?? NO, THEY WERE SUNNI.

Where the London and Madrid bombers Shiite? NO, THEY WERE SUNNI.

Were the Mumbai attackers Shiite? NO THEY WERE SUNNI

Was the shoe bomber a Shiite? NO, HE IS A SUNNI

Is Al-Qaeda Shiite?? NO AL-QAEDA IS SUNNI

So based on the facts, all of the worlds terrorism is coming from one branch, not both as you assert.

But you, like most Western propogandists, want to paint Iran and any group affiliated with Iran as terrorist and the same as Al-Qaeda only because Iran is the ONLY MUSLIM POWER THAT STANDS IT GROUND and IS NOT PART OF THE US IMPERIALIST SYSTEM.

AND THE FACT OF THE MATTER IS ALL TERRORISM EMINATES FROM THE US AND ISREAL. THEY CREATED AL-QAEDA, AND NO ONE ELSE!!!!!!!!!

Posted by KyleDexter | Report as abusive

I don’t think the author is attempting to take sides; he is only pointing out that the conflict has become religious in nature rather than secular, and that religious wars are more difficult to resolve.

Posted by stevedebi | Report as abusive

The writer is trying to project a view totally incorrect. Not only Syria but also Iraq and Libya functioned as a unit without reliogious friction until the west, mainly the US managed to incite religious differences among the populations to the advantage of the west. In Iran they did it in the fifties and installed a puppet Shah who was ousted later by the religious clerics and wee what US has to face now in Iran. It is the dame story in Syria. The US is responsible for all the carnage happening there. In fact the UK adn the US are the trouble rousers of the world. Now they are also interfering in Ukrainia.

Posted by garawi | Report as abusive

I’d really disagree with the characterization of this as a religious war. Sunnis and Alawites were NOT clamoring to kill each other before Assad began murdering opposition activists. If anything, it is political grievances which are front and center, the religious element is something that just got added later.

Posted by delta5297 | Report as abusive

@stevedebi

Your response to KyleDexter is not accurate.

The conflict is not religious. The Syrian government is not fighting to impose any religion in Syria.

I heard from Assad, when responding to a question, say that Syria’s relation with Hezbollah is not based on religious considerations because Hezbollah is a religious movement while Syria is a secular state. He made that argument to show that the Syrian state is not linked to one particular religious group.

Sayyed Nasrallah also repeatedly denies the assertion that the conflict in Syria(or Lebanon) is religious. He said that the people they are fighting are equal opportunity killers who kill randomly shi’ites and Sunnis alike and even kill each others even though they are all Sunnis.

The narrative that the Syrian conflict is of religious nature is intended to disguise the real reason behind this conflict which stems from a decision by the US to achieve regime change in Syria by all means including religious extremism and terrorism.

Syria is being attacked by the US hiding behind Saud Arabia, Qatar, other puppet Arab states using radical extremists under their religious and financial controls.

Posted by Fromkin | Report as abusive

I think the best option is to get the hell out, let them kill each other, Do not take any immigrants from this part of the world and if they attack do what Reagan did in Libya try to kill the leader and every member of his family that is what they understand, wipe there seed from the face of the earth, it will eventually come down to that

Posted by innismor | Report as abusive

“When the civil war began in 201l, it was a fight between Syrians demanding greater civil rights and a government that ultimately provoked them into violent confrontation through its own brutality. That political struggle quickly morphed into a wider sectarian war between Sunni and Shia, flaring up across the Middle East.”

This statement is riddled with many inaccuracies.

The conflict was provoked by US not the Syrian government. The US administration received authorization from Congress to pursue regime change in Syria through The Syrian Accountability Act passed in 2004.

Since then the US has tried to attack Syria and its allies using various means: Israel, color revolution and Islamist militants(Hezbollah war in 2006, Hamas war in 2008,Iran green revolution in 2009, Syria’s “peaceful protests” in 2011.)

Syria has a conscript army. Every family must provide at least one son to serve in the army. And based on its ethnic/religious make up, it follows that its army must be about 65 to 70% Sunni.

How can one explain that the majority Sunni army has remained loyal to Assad(who is from some offshoot shi’ite sect.. as Reuters likes to remind us)in a war between Sunni and Shia?

For over three years Syrian aggressors have failed their mission to overthrow the Syrian government.

Journalists and those who are described as experts need to start telling the truth to the public why Syria has withstood Western and Arab States onslaughts instead of continuing to mislead the public with bogus arguments about a 1200-year-old religious conflict between Sunni and Shia.

Maybe Syria has withstood because its enemies underestimated the strength of the secular State that Hafez el Assad built in Syria which has protected Syria from regime change and religious extremism used by its enemies to destroy the Syrian society.

So the truth is the conflict in Syria was trigered by failed attempt regime change by foreign forces and which has morphed into a struggle of a secular State resiting attacks by religious fundamentalist monachies.

The question one should ask is why Saud Arabia and other Arab monarchies think that they have the right to impose their wahabi, takfiri, salafi ideologies on secular Syria?

Why is al Qaida which was supposedly created to fight Soviet’s communism in Afghanistan in the 80′s is being allowed by the West to settle in secular Syria?

The religious narrative that Western propagandists are trying to spoon-feed us does not fit secular Syria. The time has come for those who flooded Syria with Islamist militants, jihadists, Mujaheedins, al Nusra, ISIL, Islamic fronts, al Qaida,etc…to pull them out now that Saudi Bandar Bush has been sidelined.

Now is the time to stop pursuing regime change and start pursuing peace. Enough with this nonsensical propaganda which support senseless bloodshed.

Posted by Fromkin | Report as abusive