Understanding Syria's religious war

Understanding Syria's religious war

Fr Paul Stenhouse

The conflict in Syria is daily in the news; it is the news. Myriad articles in newspapers and journals, TV and radio news items or "in-depth" analyses on Syria appear on millions of networks, blogs and social communications media around the globe.

Most of these reveal more about bias and unchallenged assumptions on the part of their authors and their networks than about the unpalatable truth behind the bloody and internecine war that has systematically been devastating Syria for almost two-and-a-half years.

Especially troubling is the Western media's apparent mastery of doublethink when discussing any of the key players involving Syria in her nightmarish dance macabre.

Western media would have us believe that this bloodbath is Syria's long-awaited Arab Spring that will put an end to the rule of Bashar al-Assad and his Alawite clan in this Sunni-majority country.

According to George Orwell who coined the term, doublethink is an ability to claim to be truthful while telling or repeating carefully constructed lies, to hold two opinions, and believe both of them even though they contradict one another.

Such naivety or ingenuousness is inexcusable when modern media have arrogated to themselves powers that dictators and despots would envy. It is also, I suggest, tantamount to criminal complicity on the part of the media, in the disaster that is over-whelming Syria and her immediate neighbours.

The bloody sectarian war that this doubletalk has unleashed aims at ending Syria's secular status which was unique in the Middle East.

In the process, her very existence as an independent and viable state has been jeopardised, and a hair trigger provided for a much wider and bloodier conflict on a global scale.

Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Israel, the UK, the US and France stubbornly persist in leading, financing, arming or encouraging this ghoulish dance. Some of the "reasons" for their doing so have been discussed at length in previous editions of Annals and elsewhere.

Turkey, al-Qaeda, Jabhat an-Nusra, the Muslim Brothers, the Salifiyun and assorted other Islamist sub-groups (for the rebels) and Iran and now Hizballah (for the government) have joined in.

China, with her Islamist and separatist Uyghur on her north-west border, and Russia with her own Islamist headaches in Chechnya and throughout her former Central Asiatic Soviet empire, are, for the present, sitting out this dance.

Syria is the venue. Bashar al-Assad, his fellow Alawites and the moderate Syrian Sunnis and most of Syria's ethnic and religious minorities – Armenians, Assyrians, Circassians, Kurds, Turks and Druze, Ishmailis, Orthodox (Chalcedonian, Syrian, Armenian), Catholic (Melkite, Assyrian, Armenian, Syriac, Maronite, Chaldaean and Latin) – who are their allies, are in the cross-hairs.

Propaganda

From the war's outset informed critics made the point that one did not need to support the regime of President Bashar al-Assad to be sceptical of the motivation behind the relentless anti-Assad/Alawite/Iranian propaganda emanating from the US, UK, French and Western media generally.

Some may attempt to explain this prejudicial media coverage in terms of a jaundiced Western reaction to Assad's championing of militant Arab causes and allying himself with Hamas in Gaza, Hizballah in Lebanon, and Iran, and subsequently being perceived as hostile to Israel, the US and the West. This explanation is, I suggest, simplistic.

It takes no account of realpolitik in the region. It ignores the persistent unwillingness of many Western media to confront the highly politicised nature of Islam, and the deeply entrenched anti-Western and, indeed, anti-Christian bias of much of the so-called "Western" media.

It also seems oblivious of the power exerted in the US and the West by Wahhabi-dominated Saudi Arabia and most of the other Sunni Gulf States – bloated with money, weapons and fair-weather friends; chafing over the "loss" of Sunni-dominated Iraq to the majority Iraqi Shi'a population (and, de facto, to Iran) in the wake of the ill-advised US invasion in 2003 and subsequent destabilising of the region; and watching with disbelief and trepidation as the American Administration – ignoring pleas for help – abandoned one of its closest friends in the Middle East, President Hosni Mubarak, to those baying for his blood.

The calls for democracy, electoral reform, liberty of conscience, and equality for minorities and women resounding through Tahrir Square in those heady days – and being repeated in Taksim Square Istanbul as I write – would, with good reason, have sent shivers down the spines of all six member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Some of these states, and others in the region, have been described as "sitting on foundations of sticks, bound to fail us, bound to collapse", by Robert Baer, former CIA operative and author of Sleeping with the Devil, about the Saudi royal family and its relationship with the US.

His candid assessment of some of these regional powers is as follows: "Pakistan is on its way to collapsing, Saudi Arabia teeters on the edge, Emirates are little more than a giant, high-end shopping mall, Qatar has the population of a large hotel, Algeria is still in the middle of a vicious, no-quarter-given civil war – yet another failed Sunni state. Iran is the only stable, enduring state in the Gulf."

One doubts that any of the six Sunni Gulf states suspected, as they watched Egypt unravel, that the fall of Mubarek was already a done deal between the US and the Muslim Brothers.

Mubarak's eventual fall and imprisonment set alarm bells ringing throughout and beyond the Middle East, and the GCC states closed ranks. When Bahrain's turn came for the tumbrils to roll, the Saudis sent troops to the king of Bahrain to stifle the winds of change before they swept through the Gulf, as they had swept through the Maghreb, Egypt, Yemen and Libya.

Most of the tens of thousands of Bahraini demonstrators were Shia who represent 90 per cent of the island country's citizens. The repression of them and their demands by the combined Bahrain/Saudi security forces was brutal. Thirty-two of their places of worship, including 16 mosques, were demolished on the grounds that they had been erected without permits.

One of these mosques was 400 years old, built long before the Sunni "royal family" came from Qatar and took over Shi'a territory in 1797. Al-Jazeera (the Qatari TV network) and al-Arabiyya (the Saudi network) were both criticised for their less than enthusiastic or adequate coverage of the short-lived Bahraini Spring.

Syria is burning, and this time, al-Jazeera and al-Arabiyya are most enthusiastically covering every blaze and reporting every rumour.

But nothing is as it appears.

Bashar al-Assad and his government have long given up hope of fair reporting by Western media, because the media war being waged in and against Syria and the Alawites, is actually aimed at somewhere else.

Intervention

In his article, "The Emerging Doctrine of the United States" published late last year, George Friedman, founder and chair of the geopolitical weekly, Stratfor, revealed what everybody knows and nobody wanted to be said: "The United States wanted Iran blocked and that meant the displacement of the Assad regime."

Friedman's frank admission was followed by a statutory disclaimer that this "did not mean Washington wanted to intervene militarily, except possibly through aid and training, potentially delivered by US special operations forces – a lighter intervention than others advocated."

"A lighter intervention"? And who are these unnamed "others" advocating heavier "intervention"? How much heavier can the intervention get?

Estimates of numbers killed since 15 March 2013 in this "phoney" war, in an effort to "displace" Assad and his Alawite regime, range from 60,000 to 120,000. As I write, a UN estimate puts the numbers of killed at 93,000. and much of resource-poor but historically and culturally-rich Syria, lies in ruins.

Is this deplorable loss of human life, wholesale destruction of homes and businesses, places of worship, vital infrastructure and irreplaceable historical treasures, a fair price to be paid for "displacing Assad" in order to "block" Iran?

And in any case, why do the US and its allies want to "block" Iran at so high a cost in human life?

If it is because Iran allegedly wants to build a nuclear bomb, then where's the evidence for that? The answer seems to be that "we just don't know enough to say definitively". In fact, Israeli officials and US intelligence agree, according to Reuters, that "Tehran does not have a bomb, has not decided to build one, and is probably years away from having a deliverable nuclear warhead."

If it's because of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinajad's emotional rantings against Israel, then:

1. He was never the real ruler of Iran; the Ayatollah Khamenei is; and Khamenei is on record as denouncing nuclear weapons. And Ahmadinajad has now been replaced as President by 64-year-old reform candidate Hasan Rouhani, a former nuclear negotiator, and a moderate who received more than 50 per cent of the votes in the 15 June election in which 72 per cent of the electorate voted.

2. Ahmadinajad did not speak for all Iranians, or even for many of them. He was unpopular with Iranians and his main weapons – bombast and populist rhetoric – seem to have impressed only the West and Israel. He also denies the Holocaust. If threats by North Korea's Kim Jung Un to hit US cities, and his neighbours' cities, with ballistic missiles and nuclear strikes are dismissed airily as rhetoric by President Obama, what logic lies behind destroying Syria because of Ahmadinajad's mad rhetoric?

If Iran is accused of being the eminence grise behind Syria's support of Hizballah and Hamas, and Syria of being Iran's proxy in the region, then irrefutable evidence of this should be produced. And all the circumstances leading to the formation of Hizballah and Hamas should be made public.

As the US still has not restored diplomatic relations with Iran since the seizure of its embassy in 1979, it should reserve judgement on where the truth lies in all of the above; and until the air is cleared and diplomatic relations have been restored. It is to the advantage of all for the world's greatest superpower, and the Persian Gulf's "only stable, enduring state", to be on speaking terms.

All totals of Syrian killed supposedly include armed insurgents, Syrian government forces and civilians. However, many of the civilian deaths reported by anti-government forces were, in fact, armed insurgents. Civilians who carried weapons are also described by the rebels as "civilians". And rebel fighters who were not deserters are routinely called "civilians" by the British-based anti-government Syrian Observatory of Human Rights.

Mercenaries

The euphemism "armed insurgents" is code for the proxy Islamist mujahidun or jihadi mercenaries financed and armed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar respectively.

The kingdom of Saudi Arabia, unlike neighbouring Bahrain, has a minority Shi'a population of around 15 per cent. The Saudi Shi'a are mainly centred on the oases of al-Hasa and Qatif in the oilfields of the Eastern Province. Since Wahhabi domination of the region in the early 1920s, these Shi'a have faced religious and economic persecution.

They have been denounced as "non-Muslims" by Saudi Arabia's leading Imam, Abdul Aziz ibn Baz. Sheikh Abdullah ibn Abdul Rahman ibn Jibrin, a member of the Saudi Higher Council of the Ulama, has sanctioned their being killed. This latter fatwa was repeated in Saudi Wahhabi religious literature as recently as 2002.

Qatar's emir, like the Saudi king, is an absolute monarch, and there are, allegedly, no Shi'a in his emirate. With fewer than 230,000 citizens, Qatar was nonetheless per capita the richest country in the world in 2011, according to Forbes Magazine.

It may have the population "of a large hotel", but its size belies its immense wealth, though it also highlights its insecurity and fear, underscored by the deference Qatar has to pay to its big-brother and protector, Saudi Arabia.

Most of the West's media and governments are equally deferential, and will be held equally responsible for the outcome of the Syrian/Iranian adventure upon which they are embarked.

Reprinted with permission from Annals, June 2013.

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