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Opinion: Sectarianism and Syria | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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A Syrian supporting the regime of Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad holds a placard with his picture and the national flag as he participates in a protest outside the US Embassy in central London, on Saturday, May 18, 2013. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

What does the political situation in Syria look like on the ground after the recent Israeli airstrikes and the bomb attacks on the Turkish–Syrian border?

Moscow’s peace efforts are once again being overwhelmed by the increasing signs of war. The Syrian regime, supported by Hezbollah militias as well as Iranian and Iraqi volunteers, continues to counter the attacks on all fronts.

Peace, meanwhile, is limping on two crutches: one shaky and American, the other solid and Russian.

Israel has become involved in Syria, as well, as demonstrated by the airstrikes it launched on Iranian and Hezbollah arsenals near Damascus. By accusing Assad’s regime of being responsible for the bombings of Rehanlı, in the Turkish province of Hatay, it is highly probable that Turkey will become involved in the Syrian conflict as well.

Hatay is the Turkish name for the former Syrian province of İskenderun; it lies on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea. During its mandate on Syria, France annexed İskenderun to Turkey in 1939, in an attempt to dissuade it from joining forces with Germany during the Second World War.

Rehanlı’s residents are Arab Alawites; they did not move to Syria after their town was annexed to Turkey. The town’s residents, along with the Turkish Alawite minority estimated to be five to ten million people, do not seem to like the Sunni regime of Erdoğan. Rather, they are biased towards the Alawite regime in Syria for emotional and sectarian reasons.

There are no permanent friends or enemies, but there are permanent interests in international relations. Over the past hundred years, Turkish–Syrian relations have witnessed boycotts, separation, talks, greetings, and even a state in the early 2000s that looked like they were dating, the two countries were so close. When the Syrian regime began to murder its own people, however, Turkey sided with the revolution, offering support through the borders. As a punishment, Bashar Al-Assad scuppered Turkey’s flourishing trade with Jordan and the Gulf.

In fact, the Alawite minority in Turkey have restricted the Erdoğan regime’s freedom to maneuver or to pressure and threaten the Assad regime. It is true that the Turkish regime supports the Syrian opposition factions; however, patience is wearing thin among the Arab Alawite remnants in Hatay/İskenderun over the influx of refugees, whether Arab or Kurdish Sunnis; the tension is directed at the Al-Nusra Front-linked armed rebels in particular.

In my opinion, the Reyhanlı bombings were committed by the hardliner jihadist Al-Nusra Front in response to the ill-treatment they suffered at the hands of the town’s Alawite residents. Yet, Turkey has accused the Syrian regime.

The ball now is in Turkey’s court: will Erdoğan react? When? How? Or will he remain silent, content to support the revolution from across the northern border? If he reacts, Turkey will be the new party involved in the Syrian civil war, after Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and Israel.

Others have predicted that the Golan Heights will become the next front in this war—but this is an empty Iranian threat. Iran and Hezbollah are in an awkward situation, as they have yet to react to the Israeli bombardment of Iran’s arsenals, which is under the control of the Alawite 4th Armored Division. Fighting on the Golan front is beyond Hezbollah’s capability, particularly after Israel has destroyed the Iranian shipment of surface-to-air missiles.

In fact, failing to react is an embarrassment to Hezbollah, rather than to Iran. This is because Hezbollah is killing Syrian Arabs in their own country, using Shi’ite blood to support Bashar’s project of establishing an Alawite state that extends from Damascus in the south to Aleppo in the middle and the Syrian coast in the north and the west.

Discontent among Lebanon’s Shi’ites over Hezbollah’s involvement in the Golan Heights and in the Syrian war grows with ever funeral procession for one of the party’s dead, returning from Syria for the last time.

Besides, Sunnis in Lebanon might not agree to participate in a government whose Shi’ite members are murdering Sunni Arabs in Syria. If no government is formed, Hezbollah and Iran would lose the possibility of dominating the political apparatus in Lebanon. This is a real possibility following the resignation of the former prime minister, Najib Mikati.

The importance of Al-Qusayr, which is being besieged by the regime’s troops and Hezbollah together with other districts in Homs, lies in it being a strategic link between Damascus and the mountainous and coastal towns populated by the Alawite minority.

The confrontations in Al-Qusayr and Homs appear to be purely sectarian, as the besieged opposition forces, together with tens of thousands of civilians and injured, are predominantly jihadist forces like the Al-Nusra Front. Moreover, Hezbollah’s participation gives the conflict the appearance of a Shi’ite–Sunni war.

I think that the reason the Free Syrian Army (FSA) is hesitant to lift the siege is because the Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Nusra Front refuses to be under the leadership of the FSA and adopt its military tactics.

The Alawite regime rushed to close the front that Lebanese Sunni jihadist groups had opened in Baniyas and Tartus, massacring Sunni civilians along the coast. However, opening such fronts should remind Bashar and his sect that the establishment of an Alawite state among a Sunni majority is a mere delusion. Bashar is not familiar with history: Syrians have already undermined a project that aimed at partitioning their country into five sectarian states after occupation—in 1920.

The Syrian opposition had high hopes that the US and Europe would arm its factions. However, oscillations between arming and not arming the opposition by the dove-like Obama administration have pressured the opposition into negotiating with Bashar. Russia has managed to force the US to accept an unfair political solution, without it or its two partners, China and Iran, making any concessions themselves.

Events on the ground will dictate who participates in negotiations. Jihadist groups have already refused to participate in any such negotiations; the Muslim Brotherhood has already agreed to participate. The spokesman of the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change (NCC), Haytham Manaa, has pushed himself into the spotlight, taking on a leadership role even greater than that of the NCC head, Hassan Abdul-Azim. Michel Kilo founded a new opposition organization in Cairo that is possibly affiliated with the “secularist” General Manaf Tlass and his father, Mustafa Tlass.

In the meantime, the regime has made significant gains on more than one front. Should the Iranian and Russian weapons continue to flow, the large areas that have been liberated by the FSA would turn into besieged and fragile islands, which would thwart the revolution.

The Syrian opposition’s problem lies in its chaos and its lack of unity, both politically and militarily. The FSA is in control of large pockets of land that expand from the desert of eastern Syria all the way to Aleppo and Idlib provinces in the north and the west. Tribes rushed to dominate the oil sector, which the Assad family once controlled. By losing control of that oil money, it became impossible for Assad to fund the project of restoring the country’s legitimacy and credibility before Arabs and the world.

Perhaps a joint Saudi–Turkish–Qatari effort could settle the issue before the Moscow “agreement” turns into a bilateral, binding one at the Obama–Putin Summit scheduled for mid-June.

I believe that these three states are capable of influencing the proposed negotiations between the opposition and the regime, if they succeed in strengthening the opposition’s field gains as well as in imposing a minimal degree of unity and coordination between its factions, and should Qatar be convinced that the imported jihadist opposition must be curbed.