Syria is not Iraq. This is demonstrated by the fact that moderate Arab states, particularly the Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia, are today being presented with a historic opportunity.
The problem lies in viewing present-day Syria through the prism of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The Iraq war is one of the major crises of Arab politics, particularly when viewed from an ideological standpoint. Here, I am talking about when Iraq is viewed as a sacred historical ideal that influences everything that came after, or when it is viewed from a purely religious standpoint whereby any discussions will entail takfirism and other accusations.
Politics in the real world is filled with paradoxes, objections, and deceit, depending on the circumstances and facts. Thus, viewing the Syrian crisis as a repeat of the Iraqi scenario is simply wrong.
By its very nature, history, as a series of political events, never repeats itself. The situation in Syria is completely different to Iraq for a variety of reasons incorporating, but not limited to, the differences between the forms of Ba’athism in the two countries, as well as different geographical borders, political arenas, and opposition forces. In addition to this, we have new developments on the Syrian scene, including the presence of “fighting groups” who have no affiliation to politics.
In addition to this, the nature, size, and timing of any potential strikes against the Syrian regime will also be completely different to that of Iraq, not to mention the geopolitical arena and the destruction and death toll that has befallen Syria after more than two and a half years of civil war.
Furthermore, the media’s close reporting of the Syrian crisis has also affected the international decision-making process on Syria, with all sides maneuvering and gambling on public outrage.
Those who view the Syrian crisis through the lens of the Iraq war are missing out on the fact that Bashar Al-Assad’s allies all come from outside the Arab world. None of his allies can be said to be moderate or neutral Arab states, or even post-Arab Spring countries.
It is for this reason that the Iranian axis is made up of proxy states or dissatisfied groups or movements that do not respect the concept of national sovereignty, instead prioritizing their own narrow interests over that of the national interest. Therefore, the moderate Arab states, led by the Gulf, are now facing a historic opportunity regarding the Syrian crisis, in the same way that Egypt is facing a historic opportunity following the collapse of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Gulf states’ opportunity is to rearrange regional balances following the collapse of the Assad regime according to a new Arab political identity built on interest-based alliances rather than pan-Arab slogans. Behind the amiable façade of such slogans, the reality is dominated by political struggles and ineffective alliances based on shared ideologies, rather than national interest. In this case, Ankara’s seeming move towards the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, backed by some Gulf states, can be viewed as an even worse repetition of the grander Arab Spring scenario. This could be viewed as Turkey, utilizing its political and economic influence, attempting to reproduce a similar scenario in Syria and empower the Brotherhood there. This post-Assad scenario must be confronted by the moderate Arab states, particularly the Gulf states and Egypt.
The moderate axis’s historic opportunity requires that they go beyond overthrowing the Assad regime. These moderate states must work to rearrange Syria’s domestic situation, removing the groups that have emerged during the civil war whose objectives are not necessarily in line with Syria’s stability and recovery. The post-Assad scene must also not only center on regional alliances, particularly as this is contingent upon foreign policies and geopolitical considerations. The real issue, however, lies in the potential influence of external parties such as Hezbollah, particularly as such groups could escalate the situation on the ground and cause even more bloodshed following Assad’s fall. Thus, post-Assad Syria could be steered towards open war, even raising the possibility of long-term foreign intervention to protect Israel.
One clear difference between the post-Saddam political scene and the likely post-Assad scene is the religious and sectarian considerations. In our region, even in the political arena, we are steered by our religious affiliations, even if this is concealed by political slogans. In the Syrian case, the regime has a dual Ba’athist and Alawite nature that does not overlap. At the same time, the Alawite sect does not possess the power to dilute Sunni domination of Syria’s cultural and social identity. In fact, despite the Ba’athist Assad regime’s appetite for power, it never resorted to sectarianism, being keen to guarantee the loyalty of its Sunni partners in the Ba’athist party.
Herein lies the paradox of inserting religion into the Syrian struggle or of claiming that it is a religious war. Therefore, the Syrian and Iraqi scenarios are completely at odds in this case. We must also take the diversity of the Shi’ite sect’s presence in Iraq into account. This consists of disparate Khomeinist velayat-e faqih trends and reformative schools like that of Ayatollah Muhammad Mahdi Shamseddine and Ayatollah Muhammad Hussein Fadlullah. This is not to mention the presence of regional Shi’ite political entities such as Hezbollah and others.
Indeed, influencing these groups that do not seem to believe in the concept of state sovereignty, like Hezbollah, is not impossible, for nothing is impossible in politics. Yet, it is hard to be optimistic about this, particularly in light of the different views and opinions among members of the same group. The Jordanian Brotherhood, for example, opposes the ouster of Assad or foreign intervention in Syria, without regard for the view of their Syrian Brotherhood counterparts. Thus, in many ways, the region is nothing more than an arena for political dissension, splits and divisions, in addition to earthly political struggles that shift into religious and sectarian wars.