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Najmuddin A. Shaikh: Syria and the Spread of Sectarianism in the Muslim World

Part I

The figures emerging from Syria are grim. Two months ago, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) announced that by their conservative count some 93,000 people had been killed in since the insurgency began in March 2011. Today it would be fair to assume that the figure has crossed the 100,000 mark. 

Since the beginning of this year Syrians have been fleeing their country at the rate of 6000 a day. In Jordan alone there are now 550,000 Syrian refugees. The UNHCR chief, Mr. Guterres says that his organization has registered some 1.8 million Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries. It is almost certain that the number of unregistered refuges who have found shelter with friends and relatives is such that the total number will exceed 3 million 

Within Syria the UN office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimates that some 4.5 million have been displaced… By the UNHCR’s estimate some 6.8 million refugees abroad or within Syria need «urgent help» and UNHCR would require more than $3 billion for the rest of this year to provide such assistance. Such vast sums are of course becoming more and more difficult to collect from the usual donors.

The state of Syria’s war wracked economy is, to say the least parlous. Its foreign exchange reserves have fallen from $18 billion to around $ 3 billion. The Syrian pound which had an exchange rate of 47 to the US dollar has now fallen to 330. Eggs, according to one consumer were available at 24 Syrian pounds per dozen but now cost 120 Syrian pounds. The United Nations has estimated that the impact of the war on the economy has been about $80 billion with production having shrunk by 35%, the tourism industry a substantial contributor having collapsed and unemployment now being at over 50%. . Western economists say that with inflation running at almost 90% Syria has joined the rare band of countries suffering hyperinflation comparable to what the Germans experienced in the 1920s.

Today Syria’s economy, long admired for having a negligible national debt, is being kept afloat by a $1 billion loan credit line from Iran and the supply on credit of some $500 million of oil brought in by Russian tankers. As the war drags on Syria will need more loans and even then may be unable to maintain the food and energy subsidies that had been the hallmark of the socialist economy. 

Perhaps most ominously from the perspective of an eventual recovery there has been a massive brain drain from Syria. Egypt has 70,000 registered Syrian refugees but according to unofficial and probably more accurate estimates there are some 140,000 Syrians in Egypt today. Press reports from Egypt talk of the creation of areas in Egypt’s cities that are now referred to «little Syria» populated by Syria’s middle class businessmen and professionals. Many of these refugees believe that they are in Egypt only temporarily but there are others who have transferred all their assets to Egypt including entire factories. 

A Middle East expert at the London School of Economics maintains that «the entire professional class has basically migrated» and opines that without their return reconstruction and even reconciliation will not be possible. The question is, will they return, or will this on a larger scale create a generation of exiles exactly as happened in the early 80’s after an unsuccessful uprising against Bashar’s father. (It would perhaps be fair to say that the present leaders of the insurgency, who came out of exile, were those who had left Syria during the Hafez Assad crackdown that had devastated the city of Hama. The turmoil of that period occasioned by an uprising of Sunnis led by the Muslim Brotherhood was however in relative terms inconsequential when compared to the devastation that the present conflict has wrought). 

On the ground the position of the government forces appears to be improving. They can be said to be holding on to urban areas- roughly 30 to 40% of the total area but with some 60-65% of the population while the insurgents hold about 60-70% of the territory and a much smaller part of the population. Now however Assad’s forces are making advances. After they were able apparently with the support of Hezbollah forces from Lebanon to take Qusayr, they are now, it seems, on the verge of capturing Homs a city that they have had under siege for more than a year. 

There is no doubt that this military triumph after a series of setbacks was owed to the assistance provided by the battle hardened Hezbollah Shia militia and that illustrates the sectarian problem the Syrian conflict is causing not just in Syria but throughout the Arab and perhaps the Muslim World including the Muslim Diaspora in Europe.  

Hezbollah’s assistance to Assad forces in terms of the acknowledged physical presence of Hezbollah fighter alongside the Syrian army is a comparatively new phenomena but assistance by way of weaponry and training has been flowing both from the Hezbollah and from Iran. Latest estimates suggest that the Hezbollah has about 10,000 fighters in Syria now and Robert Fisk, one of the western journalists respected for his knowledge of Middle East politics, stated in the British «Independent» newspaper that the Iranian authorities, presumably the Supreme Leader, sanctioned the movement of some 4000 Islamic Revolutionary Guards to Syria just before the presidential elections in June. These will of course be in addition to the large number of «civilian and paramilitary forces» that have been in Damascus for some time to guard the mausoleum of, Sayyeda Zainab a much revered and much visited shrine and one of the most important pilgrimage sites for Shias. The rocket attack on the shrine on Friday 19th July ,which is said to have killed the much-respected custodian of the shrine, will further inflame passions and reinforce civil clamour in Shia ranks around the world for sending more forces to protect the shrine. 

The presence of a large number of Iraqi Shias in Syria has of course been well documented. In June, a BBC correspondent interviewing an Iraqi recruiter of Shia volunteers was told that 6000 to 7000 fighters had gone to Syria to fight along side Assad’s forces. While there are many Iraqi Shia groups seeking a role in Syria, primarily to protect the Sayyeda Zainab shrine, it seems that the most prominent has become the Abu Fadl al-Abbas which has upwards of 10,000 volunteers – all of them Shia Muslims, most of them from Iraq. Other reports suggest that three main hardline Shia groups, the Mahdi Army, the Asaib Ahl Al-Haq and the Kataaib Hizbullah, are sending volunteers to Syria at a rate of 50 per week but this number is likely to increase after the reported attack on the shrine in Damascus. 

The Iraqi government has professed neutrality in so far as the conflict in Syria is concerned but its actions on the ground, for understandable reasons are not quite compatible with this declared policy. The new Iraqi Ambassador to the USA, in lobbying for the early delivery of the F-16s that the US is supposed to supply to the Iraqi air force said that they were not in favour of allowing the use of their airspace by Iran for the supply of assistance to Syria but without a well equipped air force were not in a position to enforce a ban. This argument has not won many adherents the belief being that Iraq was deliberately turning a blind eye because of the apprehensions Iraq’s Shia dominated government entertains about the results of a opposition victory in Syria. This was clearly articulated by on February 27th this year by Prime Minister Maliki when he warned that «a Syrian opposition victory would lead to the breakout of a civil war in Lebanon and divisions in Jordan, as well as a sectarian war in Iraq».

For Iraq another concern is that sectarian rhetoric has intensified in the Sunni majority provinces of Iraq lying along the Iraq-Syria border with Free Syrian Army flags and banners being on prominent display. The Al-Qaeda dominated group called the Islamic State of Iraq has now joined hands, despite the differences that have emerged as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant as the extremist Sunni organisation bringing together the Sunni dissident of both Iraq and Syria and the foreign fighters who have reached Syria and joined the Jabhat al-Nusra. 

One must note that in the eyes of the orthodox Shias and this means the clergy in Iran and Iraq and the Hezbollah, the Alawites are not Shias and many would even term them heretics. From their perspective they are in Syria not to defend in religious terms the Alawite regime but the Shia shrines. Their support for Assad is grounded entirely in reasons of state. Syria is Iran’s only Arab ally and the conduit for Iran’s support for the Hezbollah. But in the eyes of the world this has now become a battle between the Shias and Sunnis. 

To sum up for reasons of religion and even more so for reasons of state the Shias of Lebanon, Iraq and Iran are assisting in a very coherent manner the Assad regime. On the other side the Sunnis too have been galvanised to support the Syrian opposition, which is no longer seen as a rebellion against a dictatorship but as a struggle by an oppressed Sunni majority against a Shia minority regime. The Sunnis however do not have the same coherence and their international support is also divided.

Source: Strategic Culture Foundation

 Part II


The latest news from Iraq about the storming of two prisons by the insurgents and the consequent escape of some 500 prisoners, many of the them members of the Al-Qaeda or the Al-Qaeda associated Islamic State of Iraq, have added a new edge to the apprehensions about the assistance that the extremist forces in the Syrian opposition will be getting from sympathisers in Iraq. Already there are reports that most of the prisoners have made their way into Syria having evaded the dragnet that the Iraqi forces had laid down. The initial inquiry by the Iraqi government suggests that the attackers were assisted by some of the guards and one can presume that many of the alleged accomplices were Sunnis… This too will prompt further efforts by Maliki to cull out Sunnis from sensitive posts in Iraq’s security agencies.

The Sunni estrangement in Iraq was owed to Prime Minister Maliki’s authoritarianism and his deliberate policy of easing Sunnis out of politically important positions in Iraq’s power structure. This was largely responsible for the fact that Sunni leaders who, in the course of the Sunni awakening had thrown out the Al-Qaeda from their areas now became more sympathetic to the extremist message. From the perspective of the Iraqi Sunnis it has now become essential that the Syrian Sunnis prevail in the struggle against Bashar since this would provide them with the backing they would need to combat Maliki.

By the same reasoning Maliki will want to prevent a Sunni victory in Syria and would want to assist all forces working with Bashar. There is therefore little likelihood that Maliki will make any effort to prevent the Iranians from transiting through Iraqi air or land space to assist Syria. Nor will he seek to prevent the further flow of Iraqi Shias to Syria to assist the Bashar forces.

In the Lebanon, there have now been attacks by Sunnis on the Hezbollah as retaliation for the assistance the Hezbollah is providing to Bashar in Syria. While there has been no recent census in Lebanon estimates are that the Sunni and Shias are about equal in number (1.4 million each in a total estimated population of 4.8 million). There is a genuine fear that as the fighting in Syria drags on and as Hezbollah becomes more deeply engaged the Lebanese Sunnis assisted, financially and otherwise, by the governments and private individuals of the oil-rich Gulf States will intensify their attacks on the Hezbollah in Lebanon. A civil war situation may well come to prevail.

In the Gulf States, at the governmental level, there was always concern about Syria being under Iranian influence, but at the public level there was greater concern about an Alawite minority ruling over a Sunni majority. There was sympathy for the uprising when it started 2 years ago but its sectarian dimension received a fresh impetus when influential preachers like Shaikh Youssef al-Qadrawi, the influential 86 year old Egyptian preacher who moved to Qatar some years ago and now has a devoted following throughout the Arab world issued a call for Jihad in Syria. And yet these countries have substantial Shia minorities. In Kuwait for instance Shias comprise some 15-20% of the population. The Kuwaiti Emir in a televised speech denounced the “abhorrent breath of sectarianism” which he said could “lure the fire of fanaticism and extremism” but the fact is that every call for Jihad in Syria by Sunni preachers has a sectarian colour and therefore puts at risk the Shia minority populations in these countries.

In the other Muslim countries, particularly Pakistan, the sectarian divide occasioned by the Iran-Iraq war of the 80’s has clearly been exacerbated by the Syrian situation. While the claim that the TTP, the extremist insurgent group seeking the overthrow of the government, has sent volunteers to fight in Syria may be exaggerated but there is no doubt that violence against the Shias who are denounced as infidels and heretics will increase.

In Europe, as I learnt during a recent visit to a Scandinavian country, there is a strong concern that Muslims now going to Syria to support the opposition will on return bring extremist and sectarian beliefs back to the hitherto tolerant Muslim communities in Europe. Similar fears exist in Russia even though the few reports of Chechens being in Syria suggest that their number does not exceed a few dozens, and that most of them are those who had been out of Chechnya for sometime. Nevertheless the longer the conflict in Syria lasts the greater the prospect that the traditionally tolerant Sufi strain of Islam prevalent in the Caucasus will give way to the more extreme orthodox version that has become so important a part of the Syrian opposition forces. Similarly in China the Uighurs in Xinjiang have mainly local grievances but from the perspective of the Chinese authorities there is every prospect that the conflict in Syria will serve as an inspiration for the spread of the “three evil forces” of religious extremism, separatism and terrorism.

When Moscow and Washington first agreed on the need for holding Geneva II, the expectation was that it would be convened in June. Since then however the divisions within the ranks of the Syrian opposition and the setbacks they suffered militarily and which they attributed to the lack of solid military support from the “Friends of Syria” led to their refusal to participate in any such conference until they had regained lost ground on the battlefield. Secretary Kerry at one point said that for various reasons such a conference could not be held before September. Now even that date seems to be out of reach. The obvious truth is that if the “Friends of Syria believe that the outcome of the conference must be the ouster of Bashar then there is little chance of the conference being convened let alone being successful.

One reason is that the West is now chary of providing the military assistance the Opposition wants since there is the very real fear that the sophisticated weaponry the FSA is demanding will fall into the hands of the extremists who have been the ones scoring military victories and establishing some form of government in the areas that have been “liberated”. The British, the principal proponents of such assistance, have now backed away presumably under American pressure. All they could do was secure, in EU councils, a decision to label Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation and to impose sanctions on it. These are largely meaningless since Hezbollah has few if any assets in Europe and none of the Hezbollah leader are going to want to travel to Europe.

 In the meanwhile the relations between the Islamists and the Free Syrian Army have deteriorated further with the killing of a leading FSA commander by the Jabhat al-Nusra. FSA commanders have spoken of this amounting to a declaration of war. There have also been clashes between the Kurds and the opposition in which the Kurds have apparently held their ground and the relative autonomy they have enjoyed since Assad’s forces withdrew from the Kurdish majority areas. In other words there is considerable disarray within the opposition ranks.

 On the other hand, recent military advances have boosted the confidence of the Bashar regime. It has now changed the entire leadership of the Baath Party with the exception of Bashar and it is hoped that this new leadership will inspire greater confidence among the Syrian people. There are unconfirmed reports that soldiers who had defected to the rebels are now coming back to the Syrian army because of their disillusionment with the direction the revolution has taken after the ascendancy of the extremist elements.

As regards the possibility of a military intervention, the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff presented to the US Senate a set of options and the costs and risks associated with each option which make interesting reading. It was clear that from the US military’s point of view the costs were extremely high and the risks very great. One can be almost certain that there will be no physical military intervention by the West and it is equally certain that the Arab supporters of the opposition do not have the means to be able to intervene.

So what lies ahead? Despite modest military successes it is clear that the Bashar regime cannot hope to prevail just as it is clear that the Bashar regime is not likely to fall. Will Syria be balkanised with Bashar focusing his attention on creating an “Alawite” enclave? Will the Kurds secure the same measure of autonomy as the Kurds in Iraq? Will there be a Sunni enclave created in Iraq to join the Syrian provinces to create a new Sunni state? These are the fears and apprehensions that exist, each of them dangerous for the stability of the region.

What is certain however is that no early end of the conflict is in sight and therefore there is no early end to the accentuation of the sectarian divide throughout the Muslim world and Muslim communities in countries where they are in a minority. 

Najmuddin A.Shaikh spent 38 years in the Pakistan Foreign Service before retiring in 1999. Foreign Secretary from 94-97. A member of the Board of Governors of the Pakistan Institute of Strategic Studies, Islamabad. He writes a weekly column on foreign affairs in the "Daily Times" newspaper and is a commentator on the same subject on various TV and radio channels. Attends unofficial international conferences on issues of importance to South Asia on a regular basis. Lives in Karachi.

  Source: Strategic Culture Foundation

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