The GCC countries have been slow in reacting to and developing a policy towards the conflict in Syria. It is time for the GCC to become more engaged and make public its views and strategy. When contrasted with Iran—which has been fully involved from the beginning of the Syrian uprising in terms of financial, military and ideological support for the Assad regime—most GCC countries have been timid and too reliant on the leadership of other countries, such as the United States, Turkey, or even Qatar. It goes without saying that the outcome of the war in Syria is of fundamental importance to the future of the Arab world. Neither Iran nor radical Sunni Jihadists, nor for that matter the West or Russia, can determine the outcome of this conflict. The GCC countries must be the key players in this unfolding drama on multiple levels.
The Assad regime, and Iran, its principal regional backer, have portrayed the conflict in Syria as a sectarian war, pitting moderate Muslim and anti-imperialist forces against radical Sunni jihadists—Takfirists, in Sayyid Hasan Nasrallah’s assessment of the Syrian opposition. This narrative has been extremely influential and effective at convincing a reticent and exhausted US government not to get involved in the Syrian war. For a war-weary America under the leadership the very cautious President Obama, no choice can be made between an Iranian-backed authoritarian regime on the one hand and Al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadists on the other. Both are equally bad options, and as such the preferred strategy of the US has been to keep involvement in the conflict to a minimum.
One way in which Iran and Hezbollah have made their narrative palpable has been to focus on the destruction of shrines and tombs by the radical jihadists, as well as the brutal beheadings and mutilation of Assad’s supporters and troops. In more specific terms, the Iranian narrative has focused on the threat to the shrine of Sayyida Zaynab in Damascus, which has become a symbol of the clash between the forces of moderation and extremism. Since the GCC counties are supporting the opposition, the Iranian argument asserts that they are in effect supporting the violent and intolerant extremists who seek wanton destruction and killing.
The GCC, led by Saudi Arabia, must loudly offer a counter-narrative in this struggle. One way to do this is to publicly declare their condemnation of radical jihadist ideology and action, in particular the destruction of religious sites. Sayyida Zaynab, for example, could be declared an inviolate monument that no opposition group should try to destroy or harm in any way.
Making public such a stance and offering a counter-narrative would be important for several reasons. First, Iran’s sectarian narrative obscures the oppression and brutality that ordinary Syrians who are opposed to Assad’s rule continue to endure. They are accused by Iran as being radicals bent on committing genocide against Shi’ites and their shrines, and who therefore ought to be fought at all costs. Second, this Iranian narrative denies the fact that Saudi Arabia has waged its own war against the jihadist extremists of Al-Qaeda within the kingdom, in Yemen, and elsewhere. It is factually false for Saudi Arabia to be labeled a supporter of Al-Qaeda, a wrongful accusation that has taken a decade to refute in the US after the tragic events of 9/11. Third, US military support for the Syrian opposition will only materialize if the Syrian opposition is not seen as yet another Al-Qaeda affiliate or front. Only Saudi Arabia, with its intimate knowledge of the Islamist religious field, and the jihadists in particular, can help make the distinction between the minority of radical jihadists and the majority of legitimate opponents to the regime in Damascus.
It will not serve Syria or the Arab world to allow Iran to characterize the Syrian opposition as entirely made up of jihadist terrorists, and it is important for the GCC countries to marginalize those radical jihadists who are fighting in Syria. One way of doing this is to condemn jihadist beliefs and practices on matters such as the veneration of tombs and shrines and the unbelief of the Shi’ites. The war in Syria is not about sectarianism, but rather about justice for all, regardless of religion or sect. This ought to be the position of the GCC and the entire world.
The counterpoint to this article can be read here.