Muslims and Muslim governments are angry with Bashar al-Assad. They hold him responsible for the massacre of thousands of people, many of them innocent civilians, in Syria. They want him to go.
It is true that Bashar’s army has killed a lot of people. It has used excessive force --- as I have pointed out in a number of articles before this. Anyone with a conscience would condemn the mindless violence that has bloodied Syria in the last 17 months.
But Bashar’s violence is only one side of the story. The armed rebels opposed to him have also massacred thousands. How else can one explain the fact that almost one-third of the 17,000 people killed so far in the conflict are from the army and related security agencies?
The rebels are not only well equipped with a range of weapons and communication apparatus but are also supported by logistical routes developed by the CIA and intelligence provided by Mossad. Their weapons are delivered through “a shadowy network of intermediaries, including the Muslim Brotherhood,” and “are paid for by Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.” Since April 2012, hundreds, perhaps even a few thousand, militants, some linked to Al-Qaeda and its affiliates, from Iraq, Libya, Tunisia and Jordan have crossed over into Syria to fight the Bashar government in what they perceive as a “jihad.” It is reported that out of 200 rebels captured in Aleppo recently, 70 were foreign fighters.
The mainstream media in most Muslim majority states have not highlighted these aspects of the Syrian conflict. Neither have they subjected to scrutiny the authenticity of the news they carry on the conflict and the sources of the news items. As a case in point, the Houla massacre of 25 May 2012 was widely publicised all over the world as an example of the brutal, barbaric character of the Bashar government. Scores of children were allegedly butchered by his militia. A picture of a large number of dead children “wrapped in white shrouds with a child jumping over one of them” was offered as proof of the heinous crime. The picture was actually from the war in Iraq in 2003. The photographer himself, Marco Di Lauro of Getty Images, came out in the open to expose the fabrication. In fact, the Houla massacre itself was “committed by anti-Assad Sunni militants, and the bulk of the victims were members of the Alawi and Shia minorities, which have been largely supportive of the Assad”, according to the leading German daily, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ).
Houla is not the only case. A Christian nun, Mother Agnes-Mariam de la Croix of the St. James Monastery has published on the monastery’s website, an account of armed rebels gathering Christian and Alawi hostages in a building in the Khalidiya neighbourhood in Homs, and blowing it up with dynamite. The rebels then put the blame for the crime upon the Syrian army. There is also the story of Zainab al-Hosni, allegedly abducted by government forces and burnt to death. A few weeks later, Zainab appeared on Syrian television to nail the lie about her. The most widely quoted source for the alleged atrocities committed by the Syrian government is of course the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) which is a one man operation run by a Rami Abdul Rahman from Coventry, England. His statistics have been challenged on a number of occasions by Syrian analysts who have shown why his reporting is unreliable.
It is disappointing that most Muslim governments and NGOs are oblivious to all this and focus only upon Bashar’s wrongdoings. The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) at its emergency summit held in Mecca on 14 August 2012 reflected this biased approach to the Syrian conflict by condemning only the government while exonerating the armed rebels. A few states such as Algeria, Kazakhstan and Pakistan called for a balanced statement from the summit that would also apportion blame upon the armed opposition but their plea was ignored. Worse, Syria which was suspended from the OIC at the summit was not even invited to the meeting and given a chance to defend itself. It was denied the most elementary principle of natural justice. It is a right that is fundamental to Islamic jurisprudence.
Why has the Muslim world as a whole, especially its elites and its intelligentsia, adopted such a blatantly biased and starkly unjust position on Syria? Is it because many are ignorant of what is really happening in that country, given the orientation of the mainstream media? Or is it because Muslims revere the Saudi monarch so much --- he is after all the custodian of the two holy mosques--- that they are convinced that in seeking the elimination of Bashar al-Assad he is doing what is morally right? Or is it because many Muslim elites are beholden to Saudi wealth --- and Qatari largesse ---- that they are prepared to acquiesce in their wishes? Or is it also because of certain sectarian sentiments that Muslims appear to be incensed with the Bashar government?
It is these sentiments that I shall now explore. For many months now a segment of Sunni ulama (religious elites) in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and certain other states have been attacking Bashar as an Alawite leader who is oppressing the Sunni majority. Since Alawites are a branch of Shia Islam, the target has been Shia teachings and the Shia sect. Given the standing of these ulama, their vitriolic utterances have succeeded in inflaming the passions of some Sunni youth who view Bashar and his circle as infidels who should be fought and defeated at all costs. Even the spiritual guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, has now joined the bandwagon and accuses Shias of theological deviance and malpractices.
It is important to observe in this regard that in the context of Syria there is no rigid Shia-Sunni dichotomy. The Sunnis given their numerical strength dominate the army, the public services and the private sector. Some of the most critical positions in Syrian society are held by Sunnis. The Grand Mufti of Syria for instance is a Sunni of the Shafie doctrinal school. Indeed, sectarian, or for that matter, religious affiliation has very little weight in society. In many ways, Syria is a society that has sought to de-emphasise religious and sectarian loyalties and nurture a notion of common citizenship. Since the beginning of the conflict, it is the Western media that have been preoccupied with the so-called Sunni-Shia divide and appear to be deliberately stoking sectarian sentiments. The Arab media has followed suit.
The way in which Sunni-Shia sentiments are now being manipulated convinces me that geopolitics rather than sectarian loyalties is the motivating force. If sectarian loyalties are really that important, how does one explain the close ties that the Sunni Saudi elite enjoyed with the Shia Shah of Iran, Reza Pahlavi, in the sixties and much of the seventies? Was it because the Shah was the gendarme of the US and the West in the Persian Gulf and an ally of Israel? Was this the reason why the Saudis could get along so well with the Iranian elite? Isn’t it revealing that it was only when the Shah was ousted in a popular revolution in 1979 and the new Islamic leaders of Iran rejected American hegemony over the region and challenged the legitimacy of the Israeli entity, that Saudi relations with Iran took a turn for the worse?
Saudi animosity towards the new independent minded Iran was so great that it bankrolled the Iraqi instigated war against Iran from 1980 to 1988. The primary goal of that war was to strangulate Iran’s Islamic Revolution at its birth. The war brought together a number of pro-US Arab states with the notable exception of Syria. Needless to say the US and other Western powers aided and abetted this anti-Iran coalition. It was during this time that anti-Shia propaganda was exported from Saudi Arabia to Pakistan and other parts of South and Southeast Asia. Groups within the Shia community also began to respond to these attacks by churning out their own anti-Sunni literature.
In spite of the relentless opposition to it, Iran, much to the chagrin of its adversaries in the region and in the West, has continued to grow from strength to strength, especially in the diplomatic and military spheres. One of its major achievements is the solid link it has forged with Syria, on the one hand, and the Hezbollah in Lebanon, on the other. It is the most significant resistance link that has emerged --- resistance to Israel and US hegemony--- in West Asia and North Africa (WANA) in recent decades.
Israel, the US and other Western powers such as Britain and France, and actors in WANA like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, are worried. The Iran helmed resistance has increased their apprehension in light of five other related developments.
One, Iran’s nuclear capability. Though Iranian leaders have declared on a number of occasions that they regard the manufacture and use of a nuclear bomb as haram (prohibited), there is no doubt that the country’s nuclear capability has been enhanced considerably in recent years.
Two, the inability of Israel to defeat Hezbollah and gain control over Lebanon which it regards as its frontline defence. This was proven again in 2006 and today Hezbollah is in a more decisive position in Lebanese politics than it was six years ago.
Three, the Anglo-American invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003 and the introduction of electoral democracy which has led to the rise of Shia political power. Shia political elites in Iraq are by and large inclined towards Iran, which the US sees as a huge setback for its hegemonic ambitions in the region.
Four, the Arab uprisings, especially those that are mass based, like in Tunisia and Egypt, have raised questions about the shape of democratic politics in the region in the coming years. Will it give rise to the emergence of Islamic movements that challenge the legitimacy of Israel, US hegemony and the role of feudal monarchies in WANA? Or, would it be possible to co-opt the new Islamic actors into the status quo?
Five, how will all these changes unfold in a situation where US hegemony is declining? How will Israel and the other states in WANA that are dependent upon US power for the perpetuation of their interests fare when the US is no longer able to protect them as it did in the past?
For Israel in particular all these developments in WANA portend a less secure neighbourhood. Total control and predictability are crucial elements in Israel’s notion of security. It is because of its obsession with security that guarantees control over its neighbourhood that it is determined to break the link between Iran, Syria and the Hezbollah. It reckons that if Bashar is ousted that link would be broken.
This was obvious in the conversation between Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Russian President, Vladimir Putin, as reported by the respected Jewish journalist, Israel Shamir. Netanyahu made it clear that Israel preferred “the Somalisation of Syria, its break-up and the elimination of its army.” Bashar’s successor ---- after his ouster--- he stressed “must break with Iran.” Netanyahu gave the impression that Israel was in a position to “influence the rebels.”
Since this is Israel’s agenda for Syria, all the moves and manoeuvres of states like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey to eliminate Bashar would be very much in line with what Israel wants. Any wonder then that both Israeli leaders and its media welcomed the suspension of Syria from the OIC. In this regard, Israel would have been thrilled to read a pronouncement by Al-Qaradawi in May 2012, widely reported in the WANA media that “If the Prophet Muhammad was alive today, he would lend his support to NATO.”
More than endorsement from within the region, what Israel has always been confident about is the patronage and protection of the US and most of Europe. On Syria, and in the ultimate analysis, on Iran, the Israeli political and military elites know that the centres of power in the West share its diabolical agenda. Indeed, it is Israel that determines the US’s position on critical issues pertaining to WANA. It is the tail that wags the dog.
Israel’s relationship with a major Arab state like Saudi Arabia, (with whom it has no formal diplomatic ties) on the one hand, and the US, on the other, tells us a great deal about who is in charge of who. The Kenyan- American scholar, Professor Ali Mazrui, once described the Saudi-US nexus this way: the problem with the custodian of the Holy Mosques is that there is a custodian of the custodian.
If I may add, since it is Israel that decides US foreign policy in WANA, it may not be inaccurate to say that there is a custodian of the custodian of the custodian.
Dr. Chandra Muzaffar is President of the International Movement for a Just World (JUST).
21 August 2012.