Syria : the ticking bomb

Already a few weeks since I started to elaborate a letter about the situation in Syria and the Middle East in general, but I could not find the time to finalize it before this week-end. I wish to review the situation and the position of various countries in relation to the on-going events, and link those events to a number of conflicts and issues that have been in sleeping mode over the past years.


The Shiite exception

One of the key conflicts that is going on since centuries is the opposition between two Muslim groups, the Sunnites and the Shiites, both having different views on who had to be the leader of Islam after the death of Prophet Muhammad in 632 AD. I am not a specialist of the history of Islam, and you can find in books or the Internet many more details and in depth analysis of that history and of the conflicts between the two groups. Sunnites are majority in the Muslim world, but few countries have a Shiite majority. Those countries are Iran and Azerbaijan, with a very large Shiite majority, Iraq, Bahrain, Lebanon (where Shiites are not majority overall in regard of the big percentage of Christians, but are majority within the Muslim part of the population). Yemen also has a strong Shiite percentage but less than 50%. Interestingly, Iran, Iraq and Lebanon form a group of Shiite countries only separated by Syria, located between Lebanon and Iraq. Knowing that Syria, although with a Sunnite majority, is lead since the start of the Assad area by the Alawi minority (a variant of Shiism), it makes the group of four countries a stronghold of Shiism within the Muslim world, with a strong influence from the largest and richest, Iran. But Shiites are also present as minorities in many other countries, generally not very well treated and considered, sometimes oppressed, like was the case in Syria before the Assad period. Most interesting to note is a strong Shiite presence in the Eastern part of Saudi-Arabia, the Qatif region, the place where large quantities of Saudi oil reserves are located. Overall, Saudi Arabia counts around 15% of Shiites mostly living in those eastern, oil rich regions, while the rest of the population follows the Salafi group within Islam, very conservative and puritan. Any destabilization or risk of revolt from the Shiite regions is a vital risk for Saudi rulers and this point has to be kept in mind when we follow events in the region. In that respect, the growing influence of Iran is a real threat for the Saudi, that has to be contained by all means. To summarize the picture, and as most countries do not play a big role in the Sunnite/Shiite opposition, and again with some level of simplification, we can identify a Shiite group lead by Iran and a Sunnite/Salafi group lead by Saudi-Arabia and its ally in that respect, Qatar. Those two groups have shown the highest level of activity over many years, driven by quite aggressive leadership and conservative clerics in both Iran and Saudi Arabia. The following map illustrate the complex structure or the Muslim world in general, with several schools for both Sunnite and Shiite believers. As a short cut, Hanbali and Ibadi can be considered as the most conservative (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman), while Hanafi is the most liberal school (Russia and Central Asia, Egypt, Turkey, Iraq, Syria).

This is the first conflict situation that has to be understood before going further.

The Kurds

In addition, another conflict is at the heard if the issues in the region, this is the Kurd minorities. As a reminder, Kurds form an ethnic group that since the break-up of the Ottoman empire and of the following British rule, is spread between Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq, the four countries having fought since that time to keep the Kurds silent, in fear of an independent Kurdistan. All of you remember the years of terror and repression in Turkey between Ankara and the PKK. Finally the region is of course the place of the long time conflict with Israel, although this aspect does not play a significant role in the recent events in Syria.

Syria is not another Arab Spring

What we have seen over the past months is very interesting, with most western countries supporting the so called Free Syria Army against the ugly dictator Assad. I believe the situation is not that simple and a more balanced approach would be more adequate. At first look, it is easy to think that the Assad family rules the country with terror since the 70's and that all rebels or free army members are fighting for human freedom and the establishment of democracy in the country, pretty much the same sentiment most of us had about the events in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya in 2011. However, Western countries are fast at supporting the so called Arab revolutions with nice words or bombs in the case of Libya, but they are not the ones who financed and supported the only structured oppositions groups in those countries. Those groups are generally conservative Islamic parties, armed and financed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, countries that indeed provide most of that support publicly, or at least at a level of confidentiality that should not fool the secret services of western countries. Obviously the risk of such revolutions is a destabilization of those countries and/or the probability of an Islamic government. After the enthusiasm we all felt during those revolutions, the reality is not always as expected, and the outcome shall largely differ between the countries. As it looks today, we have to be quite worried about the situation in Tunisia where recent attacks by Salafist groups against non-conservative communities and the lack of reaction of the authorities are not encouraging. Libya is still a question mark, with destabilization of regions and ethnic groups like the Tuaregs, although in some respect, such geopolitical changes had to be expected sooner or later. Egypt is on my views encouraging now, with a government that of course is dominated by the Brotherhood, but the first period of ruling looks quite constructive and we can hope that the evolution shall be to a "light" Islamic variant comparable to Turkey, combined with the legitimate return of Egypt as a key player and influencer in the region. As far as Syria is concerned, the situation is much more risky and already degenerated into a full scale civil war, far more terrible than what happened in Libya. If you read my letters written early 2011, I was not counting Syria as a probable candidate for a next Arab revolution, based on the relative stability and legitimacy of the regime. Do not be mistaken by the previous sentence.... Assad and his party never were democratically elected, nor did they pay much attention to human rights. The secret police inherited practices from the old Ottoman empire, then got help from numerous Nazis who went there to hide after WWII, and was later trained by the soviet KGB, definitely not a good base to respect and cultivate human rights. But the regime managed to establish a balance between the Sunnite majority, while protecting the Shiite (Alawi) who were treated like slaves before Assad took power, and also other minorities like Christians or Ismaeli, although tensions have existed over most of the period, with periodical provocation against Alawis. Coming back to the other cases of regime change, Tunisia and Egypt are quite similar in terms of ethnical coherence and were not ruled by a minority or a clan. Interestingly the change of regime in both countries went relatively fast and with relatively few casualties. The old regime in both cases was weak in terms of personal courage and willingness to go to the ultimate stage of the fight. Many people in the ruling elite preferred to give up, expecting a peaceful transition, and this is actually what happened until now, for example in Egypt with an ex-prime minister who managed to run in the presidential elections and finish second after now president Marsi. In Libya, the situation was quite different, with a country composed of a number of clans, and ruled by one of them. Because of that situation and of the reckless behavior of Gadhafi and his family members, the elite of the country could not afford to lose, or the risk was at best exile, and more probably being massacred by the wining clans. The elite fought to the end and probably may have won if not for the bombings of western countries, that we may support or condemn, the future shall may be tell us what was the right option.

Ticking bomb (s)

Syria is even worst in terms of deadlocked situation, as the Alawi elite is faced with two options, winning or being massacred by the winners. A Fatwa is still active against the Alawi, issued by Ibn Taymiyyah, a 14th century Islamic scholar who influenced Salafism, declaring them “greater infidels than Christians, Jews or idolaters” and calling for a holy war against them. The Syrian elite started early to use all options to curb the so called revolution. And this is where we have to stop and think twice. We understand that the Syrian army is using all possible means, but has problems to control the situation, sometimes losing ground. It is clear that the army is not fighting against unarmed, or lightly armed citizens asking for democracy, as explained by most western media. What we see is a full blown civil war and the support provided to rebel fighters is very significant, both in weapons and money, and without it they would have been defeated long ago. Such support comes from somewhere, and the most probable source are those conservative countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, who have both the money and the politic motivation to provide it : liquidating the Assad Alawi regime would be a major blow to the Shiite group of four countries mentioned above. It would (and is starting to) destabilize Lebanon and make Iraq even more fragile than it is today, with a reactivation of the Sunnite/Shiite fight. The big loser in such a scenario is clearly Iran. Furthermore, the next step in destabilization shall be the Kurds. Chaos in Syria would probably push Syrian Kurds to join with Kurds of Iraq, who are today in semi-autonomy, seeking to form a common Kurd country uniting Kurds from Syria and Iraq. If this were to happen, the attraction would be enormous for Kurds in Turkey to become more active again in order to join the newly formed Kurdistan, this time given a serious blow to Turkey, the other rival to Saudi Arabia in the region. Finally, as as the creme on top of the cake, Iranian Kurds would be tempted to revolt and join the new country, this time bringing the blow directly to the heard of the main rival of the Saudi, Iran. Here is a picture of how that new country would look like, although its creation would cost years of war and massive bloodshed.

Whatever scenario shall concretize, the continuous support of western countries to the anti-Assad forces looks extremely naive and/or suicidal. Many years of instability and war are before us, and a more constructive approach of the problem as suggested months ago by Russia and China may have been a unique chance to avoid that disaster and achieve a compromise, preserving stability and the security of minorities in Syria and avoiding to open a new Salafist front, that can now expend to the whole of the middle-east. The solution was in bringing the key shareholders to a negotiation table : Assad, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. The UN, EU and US missed the opportunity to follow Russia in that, unwilling as usual to think outside of the box and accept Iran as a valid counterpart (based on western moral values criteria, Saudi and Iran should either both be valid counterparts or both rogue states), or consider Russia as a constructive and influential player in the Middle-East. The US have been fooled by Iraqi exiled figures in believing that they would be welcome with flowers in Baghdad, all western countries are now being fooled in believing that the Syrian rebels (including foreign Jihad fighters) shall establish democracy in Syria and protect Alawi, Christians and other minorities. In the current war of influence between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the West is systematically supporting the Saudi, ignoring the blows it gets in return, and ignoring the fact that Iran's social structure is much closer to western values and principles than the social structure of Saudi Arabia and its allies. Shall they learn some day?