Syria’s a mess. ISIS controls a big chunk of the country. Various other rebel groups, including al-Qaida affiliates like the al-Nusrah Front, control other areas. Government forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, bulked up by reinforcements from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah’s stateless guerrilla army, hold the rest.
With the situation being so complicated, it’s maybe no surprise that the western response has been so confused as well. America and Europe want to contain and defeat ISIS, who should be pretty much Global Public Enemy #1 at this point. But they also want to support the moderate anti-government rebels, help the Kurds, assist NATO ally Turkey (which is bombing the Kurds), protect Syrian civilians and overthrow Assad.
One of the problems is that there aren’t really any moderate rebels. The Syrian civil war started out as part of the Arab Spring but it quickly morphed into an Islamist uprising aimed at turning Syria into a Sunni theocracy. The opposition forces, originally a loose coalition of pro-democracy protesters and students, became dominated by al-Qaida affiliates and later by ISIS. Opposition groups spend at least as much time fighting each other as they do the government, and most of them seem to want to get rid of Assad’s regime just to replace it with an even more brutal one. Feel sorry for everyone who’s persecuted by ISIS? Be careful with that, because even al-Qaida is in Islamic State’s crosshairs for not being devout enough.
Millions of innocent Syrians are having their lives torn apart, but when it comes to the factions doing the fighting there really aren’t any good guys – and, despite the west’s obsession with getting rid of Assad, he’s better than any of the realistic alternatives.
Assad is a member of the minority Alawite sect, a small and slightly eccentric branch of Shia Islam that includes elements of Christianity and Greek philosophy. The Alawites consider themselves to be Muslims and the Shia generally accept them, but mainstream Sunnis see them as pagans and have persecuted them for centuries. That’s made Alawites pretty secretive about their exact beliefs, as they try to hide their more visible and “offensive” differences – like celebrating Christmas, for example, a custom the Sunni see as anti-Islamic. Assad, and his father before him, has deliberately played down the differences between the various varieties of Islam – very much like how US politicians talk about a common Christian heritage, and don’t focus on the differences between denominations. That’s one reason the Assads have held power for so long.
Most Middle Eastern countries are, to some extent, theocracies dominated by one form of religion. Jewish Israel and Shia Iran officially recognize the status of religious minorities and give them a degree of political power, but most of the Sunni regimes are just outright bigots. If you’re a Christian or Shia in Saudi Arabia, you’ll be left in no doubt that you’re a second-class citizen at best; if you’re a freethinker or Jew, it’s best you just don’t go there at all. Assad’s Syria, before the civil war broke out, was different. It’s significant that while most of Syria’s Sunni now support one or the other of the rebel factions, practically everyone else – Sunni, Alawites, Christians and the handful of remaining Jews – are all solidly behind the government.
If there’s going to be a secular, relatively tolerant Syria in the near future, it’s going to be run by Bashar al-Assad. Any of the alternatives will impose a sectarian theocratic regime and, given the demographics, any elected government will be a Sunni one. Does the region really need yet another backwards, intolerant Sunni state? I don’t think so. The big question is whether our political leaders on both sides of the Atlantic can manage to see the big picture for once. They need to forget the usual Middle East dog whistles – Iran, Ba’athism, Russia – and recognize that none of the alternatives to Assad would make things any better and most would make them worse. At the turn of the century there were three relatively secular, religiously tolerant Arab nations. Two of them – Iraq and Libya – are gone. Syria is the last; do we want to send it down the same road as the other two, or is it time to stop messing around with regime change in a region none of our leaders really understand?
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