The latest news from Iraq about the storming of two prisons by the insurgents and the consequent escape of some 500 prisoners, many of the them members of the Al-Qaeda or the Al-Qaeda associated Islamic State of Iraq, have added a new edge to the apprehensions about the assistance that the extremist forces in the Syrian opposition will be getting from sympathisers in Iraq. Already there are reports that most of the prisoners have made their way into Syria having evaded the dragnet that the Iraqi forces had laid down. The initial inquiry by the Iraqi government suggests that the attackers were assisted by some of the guards and one can presume that many of the alleged accomplices were Sunnis… This too will prompt further efforts by Maliki to cull out Sunnis from sensitive posts in Iraq’s security agencies.
The Sunni estrangement in Iraq was owed to Prime Minister Maliki’s authoritarianism and his deliberate policy of easing Sunnis out of politically important positions in Iraq’s power structure. This was largely responsible for the fact that Sunni leaders who, in the course of the Sunni awakening had thrown out the Al-Qaeda from their areas now became more sympathetic to the extremist message. From the perspective of the Iraqi Sunnis it has now become essential that the Syrian Sunnis prevail in the struggle against Bashar since this would provide them with the backing they would need to combat Maliki.
By the same reasoning Maliki will want to prevent a Sunni victory in Syria and would want to assist all forces working with Bashar. There is therefore little likelihood that Maliki will make any effort to prevent the Iranians from transiting through Iraqi air or land space to assist Syria. Nor will he seek to prevent the further flow of Iraqi Shias to Syria to assist the Bashar forces.
In the Lebanon, there have now been attacks by Sunnis on the Hezbollah as retaliation for the assistance the Hezbollah is providing to Bashar in Syria. While there has been no recent census in Lebanon estimates are that the Sunni and Shias are about equal in number (1.4 million each in a total estimated population of 4.8 million). There is a genuine fear that as the fighting in Syria drags on and as Hezbollah becomes more deeply engaged the Lebanese Sunnis assisted, financially and otherwise, by the governments and private individuals of the oil-rich Gulf States will intensify their attacks on the Hezbollah in Lebanon. A civil war situation may well come to prevail.
In the Gulf States, at the governmental level, there was always concern about Syria being under Iranian influence, but at the public level there was greater concern about an Alawite minority ruling over a Sunni majority. There was sympathy for the uprising when it started 2 years ago but its sectarian dimension received a fresh impetus when influential preachers like Shaikh Youssef al-Qadrawi, the influential 86 year old Egyptian preacher who moved to Qatar some years ago and now has a devoted following throughout the Arab world issued a call for Jihad in Syria. And yet these countries have substantial Shia minorities. In Kuwait for instance Shias comprise some 15-20% of the population. The Kuwaiti Emir in a televised speech denounced the “abhorrent breath of sectarianism” which he said could “lure the fire of fanaticism and extremism” but the fact is that every call for Jihad in Syria by Sunni preachers has a sectarian colour and therefore puts at risk the Shia minority populations in these countries.
In the other Muslim countries, particularly Pakistan, the sectarian divide occasioned by the Iran-Iraq war of the 80’s has clearly been exacerbated by the Syrian situation. While the claim that the TTP, the extremist insurgent group seeking the overthrow of the government, has sent volunteers to fight in Syria may be exaggerated but there is no doubt that violence against the Shias who are denounced as infidels and heretics will increase.
In Europe, as I learnt during a recent visit to a Scandinavian country, there is a strong concern that Muslims now going to Syria to support the opposition will on return bring extremist and sectarian beliefs back to the hitherto tolerant Muslim communities in Europe. Similar fears exist in Russia even though the few reports of Chechens being in Syria suggest that their number does not exceed a few dozens, and that most of them are those who had been out of Chechnya for sometime. Nevertheless the longer the conflict in Syria lasts the greater the prospect that the traditionally tolerant Sufi strain of Islam prevalent in the Caucasus will give way to the more extreme orthodox version that has become so important a part of the Syrian opposition forces. Similarly in China the Uighurs in Xinjiang have mainly local grievances but from the perspective of the Chinese authorities there is every prospect that the conflict in Syria will serve as an inspiration for the spread of the “three evil forces” of religious extremism, separatism and terrorism.
When Moscow and Washington first agreed on the need for holding Geneva II, the expectation was that it would be convened in June. Since then however the divisions within the ranks of the Syrian opposition and the setbacks they suffered militarily and which they attributed to the lack of solid military support from the “Friends of Syria” led to their refusal to participate in any such conference until they had regained lost ground on the battlefield. Secretary Kerry at one point said that for various reasons such a conference could not be held before September. Now even that date seems to be out of reach. The obvious truth is that if the “Friends of Syria believe that the outcome of the conference must be the ouster of Bashar then there is little chance of the conference being convened let alone being successful.
One reason is that the West is now chary of providing the military assistance the Opposition wants since there is the very real fear that the sophisticated weaponry the FSA is demanding will fall into the hands of the extremists who have been the ones scoring military victories and establishing some form of government in the areas that have been “liberated”. The British, the principal proponents of such assistance, have now backed away presumably under American pressure. All they could do was secure, in EU councils, a decision to label Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation and to impose sanctions on it. These are largely meaningless since Hezbollah has few if any assets in Europe and none of the Hezbollah leader are going to want to travel to Europe.
In the meanwhile the relations between the Islamists and the Free Syrian Army have deteriorated further with the killing of a leading FSA commander by the Jabhat al-Nusra. FSA commanders have spoken of this amounting to a declaration of war. There have also been clashes between the Kurds and the opposition in which the Kurds have apparently held their ground and the relative autonomy they have enjoyed since Assad’s forces withdrew from the Kurdish majority areas. In other words there is considerable disarray within the opposition ranks.
On the other hand, recent military advances have boosted the confidence of the Bashar regime. It has now changed the entire leadership of the Baath Party with the exception of Bashar and it is hoped that this new leadership will inspire greater confidence among the Syrian people. There are unconfirmed reports that soldiers who had defected to the rebels are now coming back to the Syrian army because of their disillusionment with the direction the revolution has taken after the ascendancy of the extremist elements.
As regards the possibility of a military intervention, the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff presented to the US Senate a set of options and the costs and risks associated with each option which make interesting reading. It was clear that from the US military’s point of view the costs were extremely high and the risks very great. One can be almost certain that there will be no physical military intervention by the West and it is equally certain that the Arab supporters of the opposition do not have the means to be able to intervene.
So what lies ahead? Despite modest military successes it is clear that the Bashar regime cannot hope to prevail just as it is clear that the Bashar regime is not likely to fall. Will Syria be balkanised with Bashar focusing his attention on creating an “Alawite” enclave? Will the Kurds secure the same measure of autonomy as the Kurds in Iraq? Will there be a Sunni enclave created in Iraq to join the Syrian provinces to create a new Sunni state? These are the fears and apprehensions that exist, each of them dangerous for the stability of the region.
What is certain however is that no early end of the conflict is in sight and therefore there is no early end to the accentuation of the sectarian divide throughout the Muslim world and Muslim communities in countries where they are in a minority.