The Syrian whirlpool

UN human rights investigators confirm outsiders, including jihadis, are present in Syria

On Monday 17 September the United Nations chief investigator for Syria, Paulo Pinheiro, said that “foreign elements”, including fundamentalist fighters, are operating inside the war-torn country. He also accused both sides of carrying out war crimes, although the list of atrocities alleged against the government was longer. Activists estimate that up to 27,000 people have lost their lives in the conflict so far. But what Mr Pinheiro was outlining was official confirmation of what many people have known and even admitted before: that overseas influences are being deployed inside Syria for outside political and religious objectives.

On Sunday 16 September General Mohammad Ali Jafari, the commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, confirmed that members of its special forces are in Lebanon and Syria providing “counsel and advice”. However, the commander denied that the existence of the commandoes meant that Tehran had a ‘military presence’ in either country. On Tuesday 18 September Egypt hosted Iran as part of a get-together of the ‘Islamic Quartet’, which also includes Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Cairo warned Tehran that the two countries’ relations are going to continue to stumble along unless the latter changes its stance on the situation in Syria.

It has long been understood that Iran has been worried that the Syrian civil war is having a negative effect on its alliances in the area. The government of Bashar al-Assad, which has been responsible for the worst bloody episodes of the conflict so far, has been one of Iran’s friends for a long time. The admission that the elite Iranian Quds Forces are also out and about in Lebanon is not a great surprise either, seeing as Hezbollah are based in that country.

All three parties – the Iranian state, the Hezbollah movement and the Syrian leadership – are linked by the Shia branch of Islam. They all have a mutual aim and a clear desire (as any political entity anywhere in the world would have) to continue to exist and to exert power where they can. At the moment, the civil war in Syria is stirring up all sorts of regional power and influence struggles and the Islamic religious dividing lines are one of the most obvious battle areas.

Saudi Arabia, the massive Sunni Muslim strongman, is none too happy about Iran getting involved and Riyadh is licking its lips at the prospect of kicking out the Assad Alawites (an offshoot is Shia Islam) and installing a new Sunni government in Damascus. Saudi Arabia has been flexing its muscles by arming the rebel fighters in Syria and while it is undeniable that the regime has acted in an unjustifiable manner in suppressing opposition to its rule in such a brutal way, you cannot simply characterise the rowdy rebels as ‘the good guys’ and thus, by default, laud Saudi Arabia for its actions. Paulo Pinheiro’s words on Monday condemning the violence from either side prove this.

The sheer abundance and complexities of the ethnic links, political unions, religious divides and linguistic differences in the Middle East illustrate how the situation in Syria is much more of a dizzying whirlpool than the less intricate conflict in Libya last year.

Here is a basic outline of which country thinks what and why they have made made the Syrian civil war so regionally significant:

Syria: 74% Sunni Muslim; 16% Shia, Alawite, Druze Islam; 10% Christianity (via CIA World Factbook – as are all religious percentages below). Kurdish community in north-east. Friends with Iran and Hezbollah. Loosely tied to Russia.

Turkey: 99% Muslim (mostly Sunni). Western-allied. Member of NATO. Wants Assad regime out. Has taken in up to 60,00 Syrian refugees, according to the UN. Large Kurdish community in north with which it is conducting an internecine war.

Iran: The major Shia powerhouse. 89% Shia Muslim; 9% Sunni Muslim. Friends with Syrian government and Hezbollah. Distrusts Saudi Arabia. Detests Israel and the West. Large Kurdish community in north. Quds special forces active in Syria and Lebanon.

Iraq: 60-65% Shia Muslim; 32-37% Sunni Muslim. Large Kurdish community in north. Fighting ongoing insurgency since end of war in 2009.

Qatar: Majority Sunni Muslim. Active in both Syria and Libya in arming the rebel fighters.

Saudi Arabia: The major Sunni powerhouse. Active in Syria in arming the rebel fighters.

Jordan: 92% Sunni Muslim. Expanding Zaatari refugee camp in north of country to allow it handle up to 80,000 refugees from Syria. Has welcomed Syrian fighter pilots and politicians defecting from regime.

Egypt: 90% mostly Sunni Muslim; 10% mostly Coptic Christians. Supports uprising against regime.

Israel: 76% Jewish; 17% Muslim. Friends with the West. Detests Iran and is highly suspicious of its nuclear programme.

Palestinian Territories: Mostly Muslim and at centre of Middle East peace process over territorial disputes with Israel.

Lebanon: 60% Muslim; 40% Christian. Hezbollah group is Shia Muslim and supports Assad regime and Iran. More than 60,000 Syrian refugees are in the country. Nation not wholly in favour of one particular side or grouping in the conflict. Risk of sectarian strife spilling over from Syria.

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