The idea that the civil war in Syria is a spontaneous uprising of Syrian citizens, fighting for democracy and against an oppressive dictatorship, has looked quite shaky for a long time now. But a new report from the United Nations may have put the final nail in the coffin of this lie. The war in Syria is a sectarian conflict fought in large part by foreign proxies. What is at stake in this conflict is not just the future of Syria, but the future of the whole Middle East.
Syrian Conflict Now ‘Overtly Sectarian’
“As battles between government forces and anti-government armed groups approach the end of their second year, the conflict has been overtly sectarian,” says a report from the U.N. Commission of Inquiry.
The main sectarian fault-line in Syria is between Alawites – a branch of Shia Islam – and Sunnis. The United Nations report noted that Sunnis ‘broadly’ back the rebels trying to overthrow Assad’s regime, while government forces and militias are dominated by Alawites. This has been the case right from the start of the conflict, but now fighters on both sides are viewing the conflict in more explicitly sectarian lines, and attacks from both sides have escalated from strategic assaults on military targets to general attacks on whole communities. “In recent months, there has been a clear shift in how interviewees portray the conflict,” notes the report.
Other ethnic and religious groups “have also been caught up in the conflict, and in some cases forced to take up arms for their own defense or to take sides.”
The Battle for Dominance of the Middle East
The U.N. Commission of Inquiry report also points out that the “increasingly sectarian nature” of the war in Syria is a strengthening the hand of foreign groups sending fighters into the conflict.
Rebels groups fighting to overthrow Assad’s regime are pulling in Sunni fighters from across the Middle East and North Africa – many of whom are Jihadists inspired by the al Qaeda vision of a Pan-Arabic Islamic Caliphate. They are also pulling in weapons and funding from the Sunni Gulf Kingdoms, such as Saudi Arabia, and their Western allies in North America and Europe.
On the other side of the conflict Shi’ite groups from other countries have entered the conflict in support of the government. The Lebanese militant group Hezbollah has confirmed that its members are fighting in Syria, and Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards have been in the country for some time now, providing “intellectual and advisory support”. There are also many reports of Shi’ites from neighbouring Iraq crossing the border to fight in Syria, and of elicit arms shipments passing from Iran, through Iraq, and into Syria.
And then there is Turkey, and their ‘Kurdish problem’. Turkey, which shares a border with Syria, has been fighting an insurgency from Kurdish separatists for many years now, and there has been an increase in violence since the start of the war (Syria also has a large population of Kurds).
Middle Eastern geopolitics has always been dominated by the sectarian divide between Shia and Sunni Muslims. This is brought into sharp focus by the Syrian civil war, the outcome of which is likely to have a huge impact on which side has dominance across the region over the coming decades. A ‘Shia cresent’ of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon – loosely associated with the broader global axis of China and Russia, would be perfectly capable of challenging the power of the Sunni Kingdoms and their western allies – especially as the power of China rises to eclipse that of the west.
Democracy or Oil?
Western powers have thrown their backing behind the rebels. The reason given for this is that the war is a popular democratic revolution, with the people of Syria fighting to take back control of their country from a repressive regime. The West supports democracy and opposes Tyranny, therefore its governments support the rebels and oppose the government of Bashar al Assad.
How long can the West maintain this pretense? Not only is the war now ‘overtly sectarian’, but if you ask the rebels what they are fighting for, you will not get ‘democracy’ as the answer. The rebels in Syria are explicitly fighting for the creation of a (Sunni) Islamic state. Some of the most powerful ‘brigades’ (aka militia) of the Free Syrian Army have links to the global terrorist organisation al Qaeda (which was created as a joint enterprise between Saudi Arabia and America).
Is it a coincidence that the West is supporting Sunni groups who could hand dominance of the Middle East to their allies (and major oil suppliers) in Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf Kingdoms? Perhaps. Perhaps it is a coincidence – but it is a suspiciously convenient coincidence if it is one at all.