In our news item of last week, “What Every Christian Should Know about Islamic Jihad”, we attempted to enlighten our readers to the implications of a world-wide Islamic revolution that has been materializing over the last three to four decades. In the article we surmised that the driving force behind this religious revival was the great spiritual challenge between Sunni and Shiite national leaders for political domination of the faith via a return of the Islamic caliphate. Central to the dispute was the rival claims of high protector of the faith by Shia Iran and the Sunni regime in Saudi Arabia. We are now seeing the manifestation of that dispute being played out with regularity by the daily military and political developments in the Syrian civil war.
Make no mistake about it; the violent fight for political control over Syria has much more at stake than the simple overthrow of the despotic, Bashar al-Assad regime in Damascus. It is also looking more and more likely that the conclusion to this tragic affair will ultimately be decided by participants not already engaged in the vicious fighting inside of Syria’s borders. That’s because the international stakes for control over Syria far outweigh the domestic implications of a change of regime in the Syrian capital. The balance of power equation in both the Arabic and Islamic worlds, as well as the strategic ascendency in the Mideast are all now very much in play by the increasing interventions of ulterior parties to the Syrian conflict.
What started out more than two years ago ostensibly as an extension of the Arab Spring revolution has very quickly deteriorated in the last five to six months as a distinctly regional affair with pointedly global implications? More importantly, these implications can no longer be contained within the framework of a purely political settlement between the opposing domestic factions involved in the dispute, since it is virtually impossible to equate one of the fighting parties as representative of a majority of the Syrian people. With the influx of foreign interest groups rushing to intervene in the Syrian affair, the civil war has quickly devolved into a bitter and confusing quagmire with devoutly spiritual and political overtones wafting far beyond the Syrian frontier.
The Combatants and their Patrons
Bashar al-Assad is the incumbent leader of the Baathist regime in Damascus. He has run the country for more than a dozen years after taking over from his father, Hafez al-Assad in 2000. Before his death the elder Assad held nearly dictatorial powers over Syria for thirty years. In that interval, Hafez al-Assad attracted strong popular support for his reign by surging to the forefront of the Arab world’s staunch opposition to the Jewish state of Israel and then he vigorously directed his minority-led, Alawite regime firmly into the Soviet camp for the duration of the Cold War. The Alawites are a mystical offshoot of the Shia sect of Islam and suffered through generations of Syrian government persecution from the majority Sunni regimes that held sway over the nation before the Baathists took power in 1963.
Hafez al-Assad was one of the key Arab leaders who embraced Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution in Iran and then teamed up with his Shia Iranian allies in fomenting religious unrest in the neighboring state of Lebanon, while that nation was in the grips of its own sectarian, civil war. When Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, Syria took on a more direct approach in intervening in Lebanese affairs by secretly aiding and arming Lebanese Moslem militias fighting the Israelis’ and their Lebanese Christian allies. The Syrian military began infiltrating regular army units into Eastern Lebanon in the 1980’s in order to check the advance of the Israelis’ and to safeguard their military supply lines to the Hezbollah militia, from strongpoints in the Bekaa Valley. From this point on, the Syrians have cultivated strong religious, political and military bonds with their Hezbollah allies and their chief financial patrons in Teheran.
On the other end of the ideological spectrum is the majority Sunni opposition to the Baathist regime in Damascus. The Sunni opposition groups began to foment open rebellion against the Assad regime as a direct consequence of the Arab Spring revolt that was then materializing in Tunisia, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen and Egypt. But the Sunni majority in Syria was ideologically splintered along tribal lines and over their embrace of armed rebellion to promote regime change in Damascus. When the opposition Free Syrian Army was formed in July of 2011, it openly declared a non-sectarian enrollment and pledged that its only goal was the unconditional removal of the Assad regime from power. Under these principles the Free Syrian Army took volunteers from all walks of Syrian life including: disgruntled Alawites; minority Kurds, Turkmen and Druze, as well as defectors from the Syrian Armed Forces.
In addition to the non-sectarian, political resistance, the fervent, Sunni fundamentalist groups began to gravitate toward the radical Jabhat al-Nusra militia, or al-Nusra Front, as it is popularly known. Jabhat al-Nusra is a radical, Salafi jihadist group that infiltrated across the Syrian border from Iraq, where it once was engaged in battle against US troops as part of the Islamic State of Iraq, militant faction. This group has or had close ties to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi; two of the most radical, anti-western terrorist leaders in the world and close affiliates of the Al Qaeda organization. The al-Nusra front ostensibly committed itself to battle in Syria not as much to instigate the downfall of the Assad regime but to rid the Syrian government of its Shia domination and to replace the minority Alawite regime with a fundamentalist, Salafist government based on Sharia Law.
At first, the Free Syrian Army enjoyed adequate financial support from many of the rich, Persian Gulf Arab states but soon saw that aid cut in half when the Salafist donations from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey were redirected to the Islamic al-Nusra Front. The more experienced Salafi fighters soon began to take on a more prominent role in the Civil War because of their more effective resistance to Assad’s forces. Over the last year the FSA and their al-Nusra allies were able to secure wide swaths of the Syrian countryside and in the northern cities of Homs and Aleppo. But recently Assad’s forces have regained the initiative on the battlefield because of extensive foreign aid filtering in from Iran and Russia, as well as direct military intervention from the Lebanese Hezbollah.
In the last several months the western world has faced a dilemma in intervening in the Syrian Civil War. Although the USA and her NATO allies energetically moved to politically unify the various, Syrian factions under the umbrella of an internationally recognized, political opposition group, the Syrian National Council and later Syrian National Coalition; they have still not wholeheartedly committed themselves to actively arming the Syrian resistance armies. Part of the reason for this is their suspicions that military assistance will eventually find its way into the coffers of the jihadist, al-Nusra front and somehow be used against them in the form of international terrorism; a prospect that can never be ruled out considering al-Nusra’s fundamental ties to Al Qaeda and the Salafi jihadist movement. In the interim, the west risks the likelihood that their continued intransigence in arming the more moderate rebels will effectively marginalize the Free Syrian Army to the point where al-Nusra will be cast into the leading role as Assad’s main opposition.
|bombed out Syrian Army vehicles in Aleppo|
In the meantime, other forces are already in motion that can only discernably spell a more lengthy and violent struggle for the Syrian people. It is now quite obvious because of the active participation of Hezbollah soldiers fighting alongside Assad’s forces that Iran has committed itself to taking on a far more prominent role in the arbitrating of political power in the Mideast. In all probability, the Iranians see the preservation of a strongly allied regime in Damascus as being a necessary precondition for their increasingly confrontational stance against Israel. Teheran also needs a friendly regime in Damascus to insulate their political operations in Lebanon, Iraq and the Palestinian territories. Those four entities are paramount to the sustaining of Iranian spiritual influence in the Islamic heartland by establishing a formidable barrier to the proliferation of Sunni Salafist doctrine in the diversified enclaves of the Arab Levant.
Central to Iran’s struggle for political dominance over the Islamic revival is their aggressive posturing toward the state of Israel. So far it has been able to distance itself from direct confrontation with her Jewish nemesis by maintaining a subversive influence over its client armies and paramilitary insurgent groups. These groups keep a majority of Israel’s military establishment preoccupied with defending their frontier against cross-border missile strikes and other pseudo-terrorist, hostile activity. Thus Teheran is able to keep the flames of hostility to the Jewish state burning brightly and by the same token, is able to portray itself as the great protector of the Islamic faith by requisitioning its Arab clients to do their dirty work while never having to sacrifice its ruefully, untested military forces in a direct confrontation with the IDF.
One of the dangers of this new Iranian posturing is that it could be meant to drag Israel into a draining and untimely, regional conflict in either Lebanon or the Golan Heights, in order to expedite its nuclear enrichment process, free from the threat of Israeli intervention. Time is about to reach the critical phase in Iran’s covert development of a nuclear weapon and the Israeli’s have made no bones about their commitment to deter the Iranian scientists from bringing their plans to fruition. Consequently, Iran has a crucial incentive to defer Israeli preparations by diverting their military attention away from the Iranian nuclear research facilities at Isfahan, Natanz, Arak, Parchin, Fordu and Chalus. All these facilities are crucial to Iran’s development of nuclear weapons thus could all be potential targets in an Israeli preemptive strike.
We are already beginning to see the initial stages of a possible protracted effort by the regime of Bashar al-Assad to distract the Islamic resistance away from the inter-religious, fratricidal fighting in Syria onto more celebrated Israeli targets on the Golan Heights. Recently Assad went on record in stating his desire to give the Free Syrian Army a free hand in executing offensive operations on the strategic Golan to check the encroachment of Israeli reconnaissance teams maneuvering on the disputed heights. Israel is also closely monitoring military movement in the disputed border regions of Southern Lebanon, always a hotbed of Hezbollah activity and an area that has attracted particular Israeli scrutiny for its operating of Hezbollah drone vehicles. All these flashpoints are ripe for Iranian exploitation as long as tempers remain so volatile.
Another puzzling development in the Syrian Civil War and one that has certain selfish, political connotations is the reemergence of Russia in a familiar, provocative role as a potential spoiler against American and Israeli interests. The Kremlin’s recent decision to supply the Assad regime with highly advanced, S-300 anti-aircraft missile batteries can only be construed as an aggressive affront to Israeli and/or western-based air forces, which might be harboring plans to implement a no-fly zone over Syrian airspace to neutralize the advantage of Assad’s air power over the rebel armies. Since the rebels have no air power to speak of, the delivery of such an advanced weapons system to the Assad regime must solely be meant to forestall the enactment of a distinctly western formulated peace plan for the region and one that would preclude the presence of NATO aircraft flying out of Turkey or the Mediterranean, in order to police a potential UN-sanctioned settlement.
Yet it should come as no surprise to the west that Russia has a vested, financial interest in Iran’s nuclear development program. They also remain firmly devoted to their former Cold War client regime in Damascus, which has also been enriched by the profitable contribution of Soviet and now Russian, arms technology. Thus the Kremlin has no desire to see Bashar al-Assad be overthrown by a group of Salafist agitators, especially with its own restless, Moslem populations clamoring for a more inclusive role in the worldwide Islamic revival. The same could also be said of Moscow’s reluctance to approve a western-sanctioned plan that obliges Assad to voluntarily relinquish control over the Damascus government. In that scenario, Moscow will never commit itself to kowtowing to the interests of its historic enemies in Turkey and Israel, unless of course the west is prepared to kowtow to the Kremlin’s interests.
Repercussions for the West
So while Assad sustains his grip on power through the valuable assistance of his generous patrons in Teheran, Moscow, Beirut and Baghdad; the Syrian resistance is beginning to show the signs of a potentially fatal, ideological rift along political and spiritual lines. While a vacillating western world contemplates jumping headlong into the fray by throwing all of their military weight behind the secular Syrian National Coalition; its military arm, the Free Syrian Army, is slowly losing popular sentiment to its more fearsome but controversial sidekick, the Salafi, al-Nusra Front. The fate of the Syrian National Coalition is now in the hands of Washington and her reluctant allies in London, Paris and Berlin. Should they commit themselves to providing their secular clients with the necessary weapons of war to turn the tables in the Syrian Civil War than it is quite plausible that the whole dynamics of Mideast politics might suddenly take on the benevolent manifestation of the Arab Spring after all?
Plausible but not probable! More than likely the western world’s reluctance to fully commit to the arming of the Free Syrian Army has already cost the rebels immense political credibility in the eyes of the Syrian public. We are beginning to see the causative effects of that damage in the increasing numbers of disillusioned refugees that have bolted across the border into Turkey and Jordan and in some cases, Lebanon or Iraq. Many of these émigrés’ have lost faith in the Free Syrian Army’s ability to bring about the desired regime change that once seemed so promising and within their grasp. Many of them fear the rigid theocracy promised by the Salafist rebels even more than the despotic Baathist regime still in control. Millions of Syrians have yielded to the inevitability that their ultimate fate now rests in the hands of discretely foreign, political and spiritual interests.
Even if the west commits itself to arming the Free Syrian Army, the military future of the Syrian resistance looks bleak at best. One can even see a general breakdown of the movement on roughly sectarian lines, just as it did in Iraq less than a decade earlier. In all likelihood, al-Nusra and the Salafi jihadists are in Syria to stay. The main difference from the debacle in Iraq is that the Salafist groups were vastly outnumbered by the predominantly Shia, Iraqi population. Thus the Americans were able to effectively isolate the jihadist groups and bring their overwhelming firepower to bear in the Salafi stronghold of Anbar Province. This won’t be the case in Syria, where the Sunni Salafists enjoy a large majority and will be able to exploit their spiritual differences with the dreaded Alawite oppressors much more prevalently than they could in Iraq.
Under these circumstances and intrinsic in the deftly humanitarian ethos ingrained in the western world, it is quite probable that the west will feel the need to push for a distinctly political settlement to the Syrian Civil War, especially after it quickly realizes the futility of banking on a military decision to conclude the conflict. But as honorable and humane as that might sound, the prospects of any long-term success, politically-speaking, are negligible. That’s because the doctrinal showdown between Sunni and Shia are already locked in mortal combat and these forces far outweigh the preponderance of any western-brokered, political settlement. It is because of this that the Syrian Civil War has now reached the critical point of no return, where the clearly political solutions have yielded to the inviolability of purely spiritual momentum.
In the course of this long expected conflict, you will see the Iranians contemptuously provoke their Israeli archenemies, in a shameless attempt to curry favor from the Arabic world. We will see the Salafi jihadists bring their disgraceful suicide bombings into the secular enclaves of Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, as they race to exact their abominable religious creed on the people with the least tolerance for it. And sadly, we will watch the west once again be drawn into an ever-widening conflict with an indigenous population that will never reconcile with the apostasy of an alien faith. Today the Syrian Civil War is a tragic, national affair that is threatening to bring down a regime that has far outlived its utility and worth. But tomorrow or next month or next year, the Syrian Civil War will begin to spill far beyond its ancient borders and the whole world will quickly forget that the Syrians were once the only victims of this calamity.
The Syrian civil war can no longer be looked at as a distinctly Syrian affair; not with the influx of foreign antagonists purged to force their will upon the unsuspecting citizens that have built and shaped that ancient, cultured society. Today there are Lebanese Hezbollah and other Shia groups from across the Levant storming into the country to assist the Baathist Assad regime. Radical, Salafi jihadists, fresh from their despicable performance in fomenting the secular violence that engulfed post-Saddam Iraq, keep surging across the Syrian-Iraq border looking to end the minority-led Shia regime in Damascus. Iranian agents and their Saudi and Gulf Arab counterparts have fanned out across the country, fueling the deep hatreds that drive the conflict. Soon there will be other nationalities and religious sects that will be drawn into the great spiritual and political feuds that have infested Syria’s soul. They too will snatch a piece of the Syrian corpse in the name of Islam or some wayward political creed that has virtually no bearing on the plight of the Syrian people. But they won’t stop the hemorrhaging and they won’t stop the death.