Foreign intervention in Syria appears to be a repeat of the Afghan jihad. In the 1980s, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the Persian Gulf States joined hands to develop a network of jihadis from all over the Arab world. The purpose was to defeat a leftist regime in Afghanistan. Turkey joined the nexus in Syria, replacing Pakistan. The alliance of radicals supported by some states made many in the world look up. The perception grew that the civil war in Syria was a battle between secular and orthodox forces.
The trouble in Syria began in July 2011 when protests broke out in several cities. The Syrian opposition claimed that the Assad regime broke up the peaceful protests violently. The regime countered that some protestors had other designs, and initiated violence against the state and citizens. The situation escalated quickly. Soon enough an armed resistance emerged. The nascent armed resistance provided some credence to the Syrian claim that the protests and the ensuing violence appeared planned.
It is reasonable to believe that the Syrian conflict was never a sectarian conflict. The initial protests in Syria had multiple motives. Sectarianism did not figure prominently then. The rule of the deceased President Hafez al-Assad contributed to disenchantment. An almost half century long family dictatorial rule initiated the first wave of protest. The drought engulfing Syria in the first decade of the new century also gave impetus to the people to rise against the current regime.
In the current environment, the Syrian Baath Party or the Assad regime’s adhering to secular values is often overlooked. The Syrian regime always shunned any alliance with any country in the region that relied heavily on religion for governance. That included both Saudi Arabia and Iran. The Syrians were not warm to the Shia rule in Iran. As long as President Hafez al-Assad remained the president of Syria, the country did not develop any special relations with Iran.
A tremendous intellectual gulf exists between Iran, Syria and the Hezbollah of Lebanon. The Syrians always promoted liberal social norms in society. Faced with violence, Syria turned to sectarian Iran and Hezbollah for support. The reason for the Syrian tilt to Iran was its growing isolation engineered by neighbouring Saudi Arabia, a conservative state emboldened by US support. Was it possible for the Syrians to stay secular without any alliance with another set of sectarians? The answer lies in the conduct of the Syrian state after the Baathist takeover. The Baathists, with the help of the army, led by deceased President Assad, strictly managed the state. They did not allow any dissent or moderate opposition to function, thus allowing sectarianism to take roots in the void.
The regime’s ties with the Shia Alevi sect added fuel to the dissent. A gulf emerged when the majority Sunni sect felt isolated from the state’s affairs. The preferential treatment to the Alevi and the rising influence of the Assad family or people linked with the family resulted in space in the political sphere. Under Hafez al-Assad, his brother was a vice president. Most ministers were related to the Assad family by way of marriage or kinship. Secularism became a tool to paint the picture of a moderate state in the region. There were hardly any substantial initiatives to strengthen secularism. When faced with the Sunni sectarians in a struggle for power, the regime sought allies in the Shia sectarian regime of Iran and the Hezbollah of Lebanon.
The US and its western allies also share some blame in pushing Syria into this situation. They ignored the Syrian desire to improve relations with the western camp. President Bashar al-Assad made several attempts to improve relations with the US, France and the UK. They were all ignored. When Syria was driven out of Lebanon, it began to see the new realities, hostile to Syria, emerging in the region.
President Obama’s push to war with Syria began in 2011. After several lines in the sand, he drew a red line over chemical weapons. It was not that the US and its allies had not been making noises about chemical weapons in Syrian possession; they had been at it for quite a while.
To provide some room for the US to manoeuvre, Israel also made several intrusions into Syria. Israel bombed Syrian nuclear facilities to draw Syria into a larger conflict, providing the US an opening. The Syrians did not take the bait. President Obama tried to bamboozle the opposition to war by trumping up chemical weapons charges, reminiscence of President Bush’s faux pas before the war in Iraq. President Obama’s aggressive designs met unexpected resistance in Europe and the US. The British parliament declined to endorse the US’s push. US citizens took to the media in opposing the war hysteria drummed up by the Obama administration. Every opinion piece or news in support of the war drew an almost unanimous opposition to the war against Syria by readers in the comments sections. A statement by a US senator supporting the war was responded to by 1,800 opposing comments in less than one hour, condemning the senator for warmongering.
The US and Saudi Arabian effort to escalate the war in Syria failed. The effort did promote a concentration of violent and terrorist forces that gained strength in the area. The terrorist groups trained in Syria with Saudi Arabian support form the nucleus of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) that has captured parts of Iraq. The US has now been forced into bombing ISIS-held areas in Iraq. The US also bombed the pockets controlled by extremist groups in Syria, providing relief to the Syrian army. An aggressive approach by the US in 2012-2013 met with humiliation then and still managed to escalate the existing civil war in Iraq.
Professor Stephen Walt of Harvard University in a tweet observed, “When Obama and Kerry are sounding like President Bush and President Johnson, you know the problems are structural, not just personalities or circumstances.”