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A Crisis in Pan-Arabism's Beating Heart - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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The recent Saudi-Syrian ‘dispute’ has reshuffled the cards; scattering some, while reorganizing others.

Affiliated to the 8 March Coalition Forces, the Lebanese ‘As-Safir’ newspaper was the first to introduce the term ‘dispute’ to the relations between the two states. However, this was unfortunate timing given the upcoming presidential elections in Lebanon. The Lebanese ‘goodwill intermediary’ Nabih Berri had heavily relied on the Saudi-Syrian close proximity to help reconcile between the authority and the opposition in Lebanon. The intention was finding a president that would be agreed upon by all parties  but Shara’s winds have blown counter to the desire of Berri’s ships.

Saudi Arabia’s sharp statement against Syrian policy, and more specifically against Syrian Vice-President Faruq al Shara, perturbed the regime in Damascus, which is unaccustomed to such severity expressed by Saudi Arabia in the media. Within a day or two, two Syrian clarifications emerged: the first was a ‘quasi-reply’ to the Saudi statement, which said: We will not respond. What was said is untrue. Refer to the text of Faruq al Shara’s interview; it will suffice.

The second statement was issued last Sunday, 19 August, but this time with a calmer tone. Stressing the importance of Saudi-Syrian relations, it also upheld that al Shara’s statements had been “unjustly distorted and misconstrued”, which in accordance with Arab media is an indirect apology.

Regardless, in essence, the situation has surpassed this media clash to indicate a more grave and dangerous dimension: political clashes over regional issues. It has become evident that concealing the clash between Saudi and Syria has become impossible to hide. The chasm of discord has widened since the collapse of the Baathist regime in Iraq, amidst fears that the Syrian Baathist regime will suffer the same fate. Moreover, prior to that the Syrian regime had started to gradually lose some of its clout in the state by virtue of the efforts of the resistance forces in Lebanon.

This conflict peaked with the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, and after accusing fingers were pointed at the security system affiliated to Syria in Lebanon. This is in addition to what followed of a series of actions, especially following the UN Security Council resolution 1559 (September 2004), which stated upon the withdrawal of the Syrian troops from Lebanon.

However, the current Saudi-Syrian controversy has come out of the shadows and into broad daylight  what was once whispered in is now announced loud and clear. The reason for this is because the discord is one over policies and visions between Damascus and Riyadh. The Syrian regime during Bashar al Assad’s term has been linked in a fully strategic manner to the fundamentalist regime in Tehran, and has become the bridge that links between Hezbollah (the Iranian island in Lebanon) and the sources of funding, armament and guidance in Iran.

Of course, the Syrian regime is haggling over these services. It wants from Hezbollah, which has been fuelled and nourished by the Iranian revolution ideologically and militarily, services that are similar to those sought by the Iranian regime. For is it not, the Syrian regime that is, Tehran’s ally in sickness and in health?!

But likewise, Iran too wants a multitude of complex services from Syria; it is struggling in Iraq against Sunni parties and forces, and even non-Sunni movements, such as the Shiaa al Fadhila party (Islamic Virtue Part).

As such, Syria’s sabotage of the political situation in Iraq and its dispatch of suicide bombers over there serves the same aim as Iran’s endeavors in Iraq. The overt slogan raised by both regimes is: resisting the American occupation, and who can undermine the sanctity and purity of that noble resistance?!

However, in the complexity of these paths and the entanglement of various threads between the nationalists and the fundamentalists, the Sunnis and the Shiaa, and between the overlaps of which party is more envious of the other or more devoted to its Arab identity raises the question of Syria’s Arab identity: What does the Syrian regime really want?!

Does Syria still retain its position as the ‘throbbing heart of Arabism”? Or has that heart suffered a cardiac arrest?

But away from the notion of nationalism for now with all its definitions, ailments, and those who had used it as a vehicle to further their own interests or to eliminate personal enemies under its name, or even attacked reform in their own nation using it as a pretext. Away from the reality of this idea in this part of the world, and away from resisting the Islamic discourse addressing nations about the Arab national identity. Stepping away and distancing oneself from all these questions, the centrality of the ‘Levant’ must be acknowledged, in addition to its role in creating and endorsing the launch of Arab nationalism starting with Zaki al Arsuzi, Akram al Hourani, [Michel] Aflaq, and the Socialist Baath Party, which was responsible for creating Hafez al Assad’s regime. Al Assad was the first Alawite officer to reach the seat of power in the history of the Levant (1970).

What distinguished the political culture in Syria was the enduring talk and slogans raised championing nationalism and Arab unity. Battles unfolding between parties in the political game were conducted within the framework of the question: Who is the most faithful towards their Arab identity and sense of nationalism?

But following the passage of many stages to the incumbent Syrian President, Bashar al Assad, things have changed significantly. This is not by reason of Bashar’s close ties with Iran, along with his tight security circle. Indeed, Hafez al Assad had maintained a good relationship with Tehran even during the height of the Iraqi-Iranian war  the same war that was introduced to the Arab world as the new ‘Battle of al-Qadisiya’ against the Persians.

Hafez al Assad held the flag of nationalism in one hand, and interests of his own regime in the other. To the Arabs he justified his close proximity to Iran as one in which it played the role of a protector against Saddam’s Baghdad at the time. Meanwhile, whispers were circulating in the rumor mill about sectarian ties being forged between the Alawite Shiaa sect and the Shiaa of Tehran. And yet notwithstanding these rumors, senior clerics from the Twelver movement [the Shiaa Ithna ’Ashariyyah] do not recognize the legitimacy of the Alawite, Druze or Ismalili Shiaa sects, however politics has its own rules and the distant past follows its own logic.

What used to whispered inaudibly during Hafez al Assad’s days is now declared publicly in his son Bashar’s era, especially after the transformation of the relationship between Damascus and Tehran from one of an alliance to a relationship of subservience; Damascus being the submissive regime.

Scores of Iranians infiltrated into Syria; suffice it to say that the volume of Iranian staff members working on the Iranian diplomatic mission in Damascus is several hundred! Talk of political Shiism campaigns is constant. Al Jazeera online related that some time ago that those attending the Friday prayer sermon of Syrian Jurist Wahba al Zuhaili (among them preachers) said that al Zuhaili had warned against the threat posed by these campaigns in one of the towns of al Raqqa governorate, located northeast of Damascus. He furthermore urged people to verify this information.

In an online interview with Al Jazeera, the director of al Khesrofia secondary jurisprudence school, Sheikh Mahmoud Quul Aghassi said that the story had started in al Raqqa after Iranian institutions had built shrines for the Prophet’s companion Ammar Bin Yasser and his disciple Uwais al Qarni, both of whom enjoy an elevated status in the Shiaa vision of Islamic history. He also added that they had opened up a cultural office and had set up a cassette tape sale booth.

However, it does not stop there. There is talk buzzing about another strange phenomenon that has manifested in Syrian society; the proliferation of the ‘Qubaisiat’ women. Attributed to Sunni female preacher Munira al Qubaisi, this school of thought follows a Shafie Sunni path with Sufi inclinations and is fast spreading among the women in Syria  and even outside of it. Yet, Damascus remains to be the uncontested center of the movement.

The ideology of the movement preaches an extremist outlook to women that destroys all their past achievements towards openness and renaissance. According to ‘al Hayat’ newspaper, 70,000 females are affiliated to this movement (6 May 2003). Incidentally, among the Qubaisi movement is Ahmed Gibril’s sister; Gibril is the founder and leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command (PFLP-GC). This is not to mention the flexibility in the Jihadi Salafist trend…

Yet, the question remains: What identity does the Damascus regime seek to endorse?

The Syrian foreign policy is undoubtedly of a Shiaa strain, while internally a battle is simmering between an unyielding Sunni extremism, as represented by the female followers of the Qubaisi movement, and a politicized Shiism, such as the active movements in al Raqqa and elsewhere. Adonis [eminent Syrian poet] expressed his distress in an article he wrote for ‘al Hayat’ newspaper regarding the prevalence of the ‘Qubaisiat’ women; whose influence has spread far and wide to Kuwait, Lebanon and Jordan. Meanwhile, the Shiism campaigns have equally disturbed the Sunni preachers who have publicly expressed their disapproval and opposition internally.

So what is left of Arabism and nationalism, and is that heart still throbbing?

To sum it up; we do not reject actions that are based on purely nationalistic premises because that is precisely what is required. However, we must be aware of the contradiction between the declared slogans and the current reality on the ground.

Whenever slogans are raised high and the voices that chant them ring loud; I always believe that something secretive and discreet is happening behind the scenes. Perhaps this is the case in Syria and elsewhere.

Mshari Al-Zaydi

Mshari Al-Zaydi

Mshari Al-Zaydi is a Saudi journalist and expert on Islamic movements and Islamic fundamentalism, as well as on Saudi affairs. He is Asharq Al-Awsat’s opinion page editor. Mr. Zaydi has worked for the local Saudi press, and has been a guest on numerous news and current affairs programs as an expert on Islamic extremism.

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