By Erika Brady
Columnist, PhD Student at the Handa Center of Terrorism and Political Violence
It is difficult to know where to look in assessing the biggest threat to stability in the Middle East these days. Certainly, Syria has become the primary focus, and the tragedy unfolding there is rarely far from our minds. But as has been proposed by others, Syria is in reality a proxy war, a playing field for all of the sordid and ambitious goals of the greater regional powers that surround it. With the recent executions of 47 people in Saudi Arabia, including a highly respected Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr, stoking the fire of Shia animosity, what is happening behind the veil of Syria’s tragic ‘civil war’?
While it would be unrealistic to lay all of the blame of current instability at the door of religious divisions, certainly there is an element of the theological at the centre of unfolding events. Today, about 85 percent of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims are Sunni and about 15 percent are Shia. The two groups have continued to develop apart over the centuries, and although they share a fundamental commonality in following the teachings of Mohammad, significant differences in leadership and how Islam is taught have developed. Further, the two groups have splintered into various sub-groups, not unlike Christianity.
Is Syria is a proxy war? A playing field for all of the sordid and ambitious goals of the greater regional powers that surround it?
Countries who have a majority of Sunni supporters include Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Countries such as Iran, Iraq and Bahrain have a Shia majority. Where it becomes particularly relevant to regional stability today is in Syria itself, where, although the majority of the pre-war population followed a sub-group of Sunni Islam known as Hanafi Shafii, the ruling elite were Alawites (Alawi being a sub-group of Shia). The power imbalance, where a minority holds power in a given territory, should go some way to explain some of the ferociousness with which that minority group holds power. For the Alawites in Syria, keeping power is a necessity for survival – for the Sunni majority, the removal of the Alawites from power is essential for their future. The survival mode which has essentially fuelled the civil war aspect of the conflict in Syria should not be underestimated, and, at the core of the conflict, drives it on.
The conflict in Syria has grown beyond that of civil war alone, however, and has morphed into something more than its origins as a revolution. Violence has spilled over into neighbouring countries and refugees are impacting countries as far away as the US. In addition, foreign powers in the region are carrying out what can be understood to be a proxy war in the beleaguered state, and a further quasi-terroristic form of violence is being perpetrated by groups such as ISIS, having shattered the border shared by Syria and Iraq, and Jabhat Al-Nusra (Al Qaeda’s branch in Syria).
The survival mode which has essentially fuelled the civil war aspect of the conflict in Syria should not be underestimated, and, at the core of the conflict, drives it on.
The interference of both regional powers and smaller groups such as terrorist groups, further complicates an already complicated religious/political conflict. The various countries in the region have acted to support their own majority groups and this has resulted in the political alliances which exist today.
Compounding the theological differences mentioned above is a arguably political ambition unrivalled anywhere else in the world at this time. Leading this political crusade are Iran and Saudi Arabia. With the religious backdrop of the Sunni-Shia division, these two powerhouses have developed a system of alliances that threaten to unbalance a tentative and ephemeral status quo in the region.
With its Sunni majority population, Saudi Arabia has supported several of the anti-Assad forces for some time, providing funds and equipment and ensuring the support of its allies such as UAE and Qatar. On the other hand, Iran has provided its support to Assad and his regime, the two countries being strategic partners since the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. Further, Iran has its own interests in stabilising Syria, and sees Assad as the only way to do this. Iran’s own ties to Hezbollah, the Shia militant group and political party in Lebanon, has brought this group’s support to the side of Assad also.
With hundreds of groups fighting in Syria, some of whose affiliations and names have changed since the conflict began, it becomes increasingly challenging to get a clear picture of the quagmire that exists there. Indeed, to date, it has not been possible to analyse the groups in any detail, and the West is struggling to understand who is supporting whom. For this reason, the US has, to date, refused to provide military equipment to the opposition (anti-Assad) forces, fearing these weapons will fall into the hands of more unwholesome groups, not least ISIS.
With hundreds of groups fighting in Syria, it has not been possible to analyse the groups in any detail, and the West is struggling to understand who is supporting whom.
The involvement of ISIS has further complicated matters, although at first blush one would expect that the world would be united against the group. However, this has not been the case, and Western nations seem to be approaching the whole situation as if it were a tank full of alligators ready to bite the hand that feeds it, opting instead for air strikes. In reality, without appropriate support on the ground, this tactic in and of itself will not make a significant difference. With the proverb “my friend’s enemy is my friend” at the forefront of the West’s mind, attempts are being made to unit the various factions against ISIS which is seen as the biggest threat in the region currently. There has been mixed success on this score.
Russia has recently begun to support Assad through aerial attacks, promoting the perspective that “if it looks like a terrorist, if it acts like a terrorist, if it walks like a terrorist, if it fights like a terrorist … it’s a terrorist” (quote from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at the UN on 1 October 2015). Russia sees terrorism in a different light to the West, with a clear notion that there are no good terrorists, and they are therefore all enemies. On the other hand, the West is open to making alliances (potentially) with groups it perceives as the lesser of two evils, meaning that there are levels of interpretation on terrorist activity. This largely feeds into the challenges with defining terrorism, and the overlap that terrorism has with other forms of political violence such as insurgency and fighting for political freedom.
All this leads us back to a bleak picture of the Middle Eastern landscape, and one which is not set to change for the better any time soon. Religious denominations lie at the historical heart of the instability throughout the region, but have been compounded by 2oth century alliances and more recent political developments.
The conflict in Syria has surpassed most of our expectations and become the melting pot of hatred, despair and political connivance.
The conflict in Syria has surpassed most of our expectations and become the melting pot of hatred, despair and political connivance resulting in regional destabilisation on an almost unprecedented scale. Yet, while the world looks on at the ravaged visage of the Syrian state, we must bear in mind that what we cannot see, what is yet to be truly revealed, is the depths of the travesty and the true machinations of the regional powers. While all of our eyes are turned to the very public Syrian tragedy, it seems the Middle East is seething beyond Syria’s borders, and Iran and Saudi Arabia, along with their regional allies, are at the precipice of violence which could have ramifications throughout the world for decades to come.
For a useful guide to the Sunni-Shia Divide, click here. For an overview of the various groups and alliances in Syria, click here. For a video link on the various groups engaged in the Syrian Conflict, click here.
Feature image courtesy of Elizabeth Arrott/VOA News (2012)