It Will Be Alawite On the Night?
IT’LL BE ALAWITE ON THE NIGHT?
FEATURE: SCHNEWS’ TAKE ON THE SYRIAN UPRISING
SchNEWS – 23rd August 2012 | Issue 825
In the year and a half since the immolation of a Tunisian street vendor sparked off a region-wide revolution, the Arab Spring has gone from a wildly utopian, broadly secular hope in Egypt’s Tahrir square, through to a mess of Byzantine politics and bloody armed uprisings and foreign interventions. Despite the bloodshed in Yemen, Bahrian and Libya, the most lethal chapter in the history of the Arab Spring is undoubtedly the Syrian Uprising.
A series of popular mass demonstrations brought forward horrendous repression by the Ba’athist security forces, who saw Western spies, Al Qaeda Operatives and Mossad agents behind every protest. By responding with massive brutality, the Syrian state helped make its own paranoid prophesies come true – today CIA agents and Saudi funded Salafi jihadists work side by side to overthrow the Syrian Arab Republic.
The Syrian Ba’ath Party has form when it comes to massive repression. The infamous Hama Massacre cemented former leader Hafez al Assad’s reputation for brutality. To quell a Muslim Brotherhood-inspired revolt, in 1982 his forces massacred between ten and twenty thousand people in the city of Hama, where the revolt was strongest. Hafez al Assad, current president Bashar’s late father, was said to be particularly pleased that not a single photo of the mass killings and near destruction of much of the city made it out to the press. Such is the ruthless nature of the Syrian Ba’ath party.
But how things have changed since the ’80s. Not only do we now live in the age of camera phones and Youtube, but media in the Arab world has been revolutionised by the rise of Al Jazeera – the Doha-based news outlet funded by Qatar’s king, Emir Hamad Bin Khalifa al Thani. Founded in 1996, Al Jazeera has been a breath of fresh air into an Arab media world previously dominated by near-identical state propaganda channels that specialized in dictators’ puff pieces. Post 9-11, Al Jazeera’s coverage of the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq made Al Jazeera the last word in speaking truth to power. When CNN and the BBC were busy showing planes taking off and landing, Al Jazeera showed the devastation they wrought on the cities they bombed. Despite US protestations, it was not an accident that their offices in both Kabul and Baghdad were blown up by US missiles.
And so, in early 2011, when the Arab Spring erupted, Al Jazeera had the credibility and the experience to cover the twin revolutions of Tunisia and Egypt better than any other major news channel. But despite an officially hands-off policy, Al Jazeera has never been independent of the Qatari royal family. Al Jazeera doesn’t just support Qatari foreign policy, Al Jazeera is Qatar’s foreign policy. For a long time Qatar was akin to a Middle-Eastern Switzerland- friendly with Iran, yet host to a major US base, part of the Saudi-dominated Gulf Cooperation Council but hosted Taliban negotiations, and even held some contact with Israel.
With a population of less than two million (of whom some 80% are foreign guest-workers) and with perhaps one-third of the world’s readily available natural gas, they’ve become very, very rich, and have used their wealth to turn Doha into a world financial hub.
Much like Saudi Arabia, the Qatari monarchy claims legitimacy through its support of Islam and traditional Arab values (not that those traditions go back very far – Wahabist puritans did a thorough job of destroying most evidence of Arabia’s religious plurality in the 19th century). However, unlike Saudi Arabia, Qatar is very supportive of the international group of modernising Islamists known as the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan in Arabic). The Saudis hate and fear the Brotherhood as the only force with a reasonable chance of toppling their monarchy. Yet Qatar has embraced the Brotherhood, offering money, training and, crucially, airtime to Brotherhood movements and supporters around the world. Qatar’s own Muslim Brotherhood dissolved itself in 1999, arguing that the Qatari state had fulfilled its obligations. Many now have senior positions in Qatar’s government.
But with the Arab Spring and the Libyan conflict, Qatar’s Al Thani monarchy has turned its back on its former policy of neutrality, and has used the uprisings as a chance to try and gain greater power through a combination of military force and big stick diplomacy. Al Jazeera gave the oxygen of publicity to the uprising that toppled Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, with the (successful) gamble that the post-Mubarak government would be dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, and thus ideologically and politically allied to Qatar. The most visible shift of Al Jazeera from pseudo-independent news organization to full-blown Qatari propaganda machine was the firing of longtime AJ chief, Palestinian Wadah Khanfar in late 2011 – his replacement was Sheikh Ahmed bin Jassim Al Thani, a member of the Qatari royal family.
It was highly unlikely that Gaddafi’s regime, the politically repressive yet financially generous Libyan Arab Socialist Jamahiriyah would have fallen without military intervention. So the Qatari leadership squandered Al Jazeera’s credibility on spreading the stories of rape and mass murder that helped green-light NATO’s military intervention. Qatari officers and weapons spearheaded the rebels’ military on the ground, whilst the Qatari state used major oil deals to financially underwrite the rebels’ Benghazi leadership.
After an ‘easy’ victory in Libya, Qatar and its Islamist allies tried to pull of the same trick again against the Syrian Arab Republic. The second time would not prove quite so straightforward. Two major obstacles prevent Syria from becoming a Libyan rerun. On the international scene, Chinese and Russian intransigence has definitively blocked any UN Security Council resolutions authorizing military force. Both these independent powers feel justifiably tricked into supporting a limited ‘protection of civilians’ mandate, one that has before become immediately a legal fig-leaf for regime change. And just as importantly, the Syrian Ba’ath party has proved to be a much hardier beast than the former Libyan dictatorship.
Hafez al Assad (current leader Bashar al Assad’s father) virtually destroyed the Muslim Brotherhood’s Syrian chapter in the 1980s. Even though Bashar al Assad has been a little more liberal, tolerating mild criticism and some cultural / religious diversity, membership of the Muslim Brotherhood warranted the death penalty. Like father, like son.
Qatar’s former neutrality has been replaced with membership of an ‘Axis of Bullies’ – along with the neo-imperial powers of the USA, Great Britain, Turkey and Saudi Arabia – whose interests have all converged on destroying the Syrian Republic. Most of them share an interest in taking down Iran’s most important ally, but for the Islamic states (i.e. Turkey and the Gulf monarchies) the replacement of an apostate regime for a Sunni Islamist one is a prize worth killing for in and of itself. Commentators who claim intimate knowledge of Qatari relations have said that the formerly close Qatari-Syrian relationship soured when Bashar Al Assad refused to consider bringing in the Muslim Brotherhood into the Syrian political system. Ever since then Qatar has sided with the anti-Syrian alliance.
But this regional great game is being played with grave risks. Syria is a complex mosaic of faiths, religions and cultures with origins that go back millennia. Just as happened in Iraq and Lebanon, sectarian conflict could tear the country apart. To give just a flavour of Syria’s diversity: not only are there villages in Syria that speak Aramaic (the language of Jesus) but there [are] others tucked away where Satan (Shaitan) is worshiped – just as in pre-biblical times when Jehovah was just one god in the pantheon. Yet some 70% of the population is Sunni, and the Syrian Ba’ath party is dominated by people from the minority Alawite sect. Sunni grievances at being ruled by a minority faith has become the backbone of the resistance to the Syrian state. The more the conflict has been militarized with Saudi/Turkish/Qatari money, weapons and fighters, the more that the sectarian Sunni tendencies of the uprising have come to dominate. And within that the Sunni bloc, the most extreme Islamist groups are becoming ever more prominent. The same groups of jihadist fighters that were previously killing Shi’ite civilians and American troops alike in Iraq have now turned their suicide vests on Syria. And not only on the Ba’ath regime but also the minority faiths that are perceived as Ba’ath sympathizers.
Syria’s Christian, Alawite, Palestinian, Jewish (Damascus has a sizable Jewish population – they tend to keep their heads very firmly down), Kurdish and Druze groups all fear repression from the Ba’ath party. But more than that they fear potential genocide and ethnic cleansing, Iraq style, from an empowered religious majority forcing its hegemony on Syria’s minorities. Knowing this full well, the Ba’ath party have perfected the divide and rule game that the French attempted during the colonial period; the Baathists have been very effective at giving rights and preferences to minority groups as a counterweight to a potential Sunni bloc forming. Judging from the massacres and extrajudicial killings that have been committed in the rebel areas, Syrian minorities’ fears are very real. One of the prime movers in the Syrian uprising, Sunni cleric Adnan al-Arour, said of the Alawites that Sunnis “shall mince them in meat grinders and feed their flesh to the dogs.”
The downfall of the Syrian regime has been predicted for over a year now. But it is possible that the game is changing. The battle of Aleppo (possibly the world’s oldest city) has, for the moment at least, reached a deadly parity of violence. Government forces have arrested the military push by the Free Syrian Army that looked like it would take Syria’s second city and then march on to Damascus, but have so far failed to advance into the key rebel zones. Despite desertions, the Ba’ath Party has retained the loyalty of the Syrian military, and the overwhelming power of regime tanks and warplanes that have inflicted terrible casualties on rebels and civilians alike. The battle has raged in the country’s population centres, and, in the typical fashion of 20th/21st century warfare, has made little or no distinction between combatant and civilian.
Syria has long been seen as the fulcrum of the wider Arab world around which everything else hinges. Chaos in Syria was never going to stay in Syria for very long. During the early phase of the rebellion, organized Kurdish groups generally stayed out of the conflict. As the rebellion turned into a full-scale military conflict, Kurdish groups (specifically the PKK-affiliated Syrian Kurdish Democratic Party and the Kurdish National Council) declared that they had broken away from Ba’ath authority. What at first glance seemed to be a siding with the rebellion, has turned out to be a much more Machiavellian move. With the tacit agreement of Bashar al Assad, the Kurds declared an autonomous Kurdish region, not unlike Iraqi Kurdistan. In one move Assad had been able to score a double victory – firstly, he freed up his armed forces in the Kurdish areas to throw at the Free Syrian Army, pushing the battles around Damascus and Aleppo in the government’s favour. But, perhaps more importantly, this move has also thrown Turkey’s own plans into complete disarray. PKK (Kurdish Worker’s Party) allies now control a swathe of territory on the Turkish state’s Kurdish populated border, emboldening PKK forces in their armed quest for autonomy in the Kurdish third of Turkey. The Turkish military now has to divide its time between its proxy war in Syria and its efforts on quelling its own insurgency, forcing it to attack allies of its allies in the process. It seems that Bashar al Assad is a devious political schemer after all, and not just a hapless optometrist with a bizarre career twist.
If Turkish foreign policy was for a short, sharp rebellion and a new friendly government they have sorely miscalculated. Syria used to cooperate with Turkey on its ‘Kurdish problem’. Now Turkey have handed their mortal enemies the PKK the greatest gift that an insurgency can have – an ally across the border, an area to which they can escape, re-arm and plan, out of sight of Turkish warplanes.
There are signs the uprising’s international supporters may be backing away ever so slightly from the rebellion. In a symbolic gesture at the recent Organization of the Islamic Conference meeting, regional adversaries Ahamdinejad and Abdullah (Iran’s president and Saudi Arabia’s king respectively) sat side by side, even as the toothless body voted to expel Syria. The message, ambiguous as it is, may be that even as the region’s powers meddle in Syria, they may not be willing to risk turning Syria’s conflict into a full-scale regional war. However, as recent events in the Middle East have proven, the wishes of authoritarian leaders are not guaranteed to translate into facts on the ground. Reality has a way of undoing even the best laid plans.