By Chinmaya R. Gharekhan
21, Sep 2012
The Syrian crisis appears to be headed for a long stalemate: the regime cannot crush the rebels and the rebels cannot topple the regime.
SYRIA has become the battlefield for four separate but simultaneous wars – civil war, proxy war, regional war and sectarian war.
It all started a year and a half ago with demonstrations for reform in a place called Dara’a in the south of the country. It is not possible at this stage to make a definitive judgment whether it was a purely local affair or it was engineered by external elements, especially the Muslim Brotherhood or some other conservative Islamist groups. It was undoubtedly inspired by the phenomenon that has come to be known as the Arab Spring but was soon taken over by forces determined to overthrow the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Apart from certain sections of Syrian society, there were any number of external players who, for different motivations, were keen to exploit the opportunity offered by the Arab Spring to get rid of the Assad regime; they were hoping either for, at best, an Egyptian type of “revolution” or, at worst, a Libyan type of solution. The Egyptian model did not succeed because the Assad regime enjoyed genuine support among the majority of the Syrian population, and the Libyan example could not be replicated because, quite simply, Syria is not Libya politically or geopolitically.
Unquestionably, Assad cannot escape his share of responsibility for the crisis. He has utterly failed to implement his promises to carry out political and economic reforms. He has had enough time to do so. A decade is a long enough period to at least begin implementing reforms. It is said that he himself was sincere in his promises but was not allowed to carry out reforms by the coterie surrounding him; that is no excuse for his failure. By now, it is too late for him to talk about reforms. The rebel groups, which number over 100, will not, or will not be allowed to by their political, financial and military backers, compromise on their demand for regime change. As happens in such situations, the leaders of many of these groups have acquired a large enough vested interest in the militancy not to agree to any compromise.
The government in Damascus still enjoys a reasonable amount of support – popularity might not be the correct expression at this stage – among sections of society, particularly the different minorities, who, according to estimates, account for close to 40 per cent of the population. More importantly, it has enough firepower to more than match the attacks by the rebels. The rebels for their part are much better equipped, financed and led than before. They are, in addition, receiving guidance in terms of training and intelligence and advice on military and political tactics but are not, and will not be, strong enough to bring the regime down through the use of violence. Of course, if external powers such as the United States decide to intervene more directly through imposing no-fly zones and putting boots on the ground – highly unlikely in this election year – the equation can change dramatically.
Two proxy wars
But the Western powers are reluctant to intervene, for electoral and other reasons. The public in these countries is not ready to get involved given the euro zone crisis, and so on. The departure of Nicolas Sarkozy from the scene has deprived the intellectual eminence grise of France, Bernard Henry Levy, who had a crucial part in propelling the then President into the Libyan venture, of an influential partner to carry out his ideological agenda. Thus, the civil war is headed for a long stalemate: the regime cannot crush the opposition and the rebels cannot topple the regime. Syrians will, tragically, continue to die for quite some time to come. Of course, one cannot rule out matters suddenly coming to a head by not-unexpected events such as political assassinations.
There are two proxy wars being fought. The more serious one is against Iran. This writer has been convinced from the beginning of the conflict that the real target of those behind the Syrian crisis has always been Iran. The Iranian regime is a big thorn in Israel’s side. Israel would like nothing better than a regime change in Iran, but that seems not attainable at present, so the next best thing is to weaken Iran’s regional clout by breaking the Teheran-Damascus axis.
The Americans have made many attempts in the past decade, including by offering attractive financial inducements, to persuade Assad to sever his ties with the regime in Teheran, but he has refused to buy into them. One reason for his loyalty to the Iranian regime, according to some observers, is a fatwa issued by the clergy in Iran recognising Alawites as Shias. Just as orthodox Sunni doctrine does not recognise Shias as Muslims, orthodox Shias do not accept Alawites as Shias. This recognition is very important for Assad and his fellow Alawites. Whatever the reason, Assad has steadfastly refused to break his links with Iran. For Iran, loss of Syria would be a severe blow; it would be deprived of its most important and influential ally. Syria is the principal conduit for reaching supplies to Hizbollah, which is, given the fact that it has thousands of missiles that can strike deep inside Israel, perhaps the most important deterrent for Iran against an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear installations.
The other proxy war is political in nature and is being played out between Russia – and China – and the U.S. One could be forgiven for thinking that one may be witnessing the onset of another Cold War. Indeed, some people may be hoping for such an outcome. Russia is trying to regain lost ground in the Mediterranean using the Syrian crisis. Eleven of its warships have arrived in the Syrian port of Tartous. However, one must be cautious. The members of the last remaining most exclusive club in the world, namely the P5, are quite capable of striking deals among themselves at the expense of those who might be banking on Russia-U.S. tensions continuing.
By now, the Syrian situation has morphed into a full-fledged regional conflict. Practically every country in the region is involved – all the Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Iraq; Turkey; Iran; and Jordan. The only state not involved militarily is Yemen, for obvious reasons, but it will not remain immune from the sectarian war.
Saudis and Qataris are openly supplying arms to the rebels, as are other Gulf States to varying degrees. Iran is determined to do everything in its power to ensure the survival of the Assad regime, including supplying oil, munitions and advisers and dispatching fighters, in however small numbers. The Iranian supplies are being routed through Iraq, whose Shia-led government is sympathetic to the Alawites in Damascus. There have been reports, not confirmed, of the Sunnis and Shias of Iraq preparing to go to the help of their fellow religionists in Syria. Lebanon has been drawn into the conflict on account of the flow of refugees into its territory from Syria, the ever-present sectarian tensions within its society, and Hizbollah’s declared determination to support the Assad regime and its threats to Israel.
Turkey has become the fulcrum of support for the rebels. It hosts the most important elements of the rebel political and military leaderships, it is the transit route for assistance for the rebels, and it is from where foreign fighters, including reportedly Al Qaeda elements from Libya, smuggle themselves into Syria. Turkey is also among the most vocal in demanding Assad’s removal. The Western powers, especially the U.S., are involved in various ways, including through Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operatives providing intelligence inputs to Jordan and vetting the armed groups to decide to whom arms, and so on, should be given; this is a feeble and futile attempt to prevent extremist groups, such as Al Qaeda, from accessing military supplies.
Israel has been associated with the conflict from the beginning for the reasons mentioned earlier. This has now been borne out by public statements coming from responsible American and Israeli office-holders that the U.S. and Israel are engaged in discussing possible scenarios for a post-Assad situation. Israel should have a huge interest in ensuring a moderate regime in Syria following the eventual fall of Assad. It knows better than any other country that a post-Assad establishment in Syria will be dominated by radical Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafists and Al Qaeda.
Israel has good reason to regard the Iranian government as extremely hostile. The Iranian President has repeatedly called for the elimination of Israel from the world map. The lack of transparency of Iran’s nuclear programme is another factor, and an important one, for Israel and others to be suspicious about Iran’s nuclear ambitions in weapons-related programmes. (Conveniently for Israel, no one talks about its considerable nuclear arsenal.) Hence, even the emergence of a radical regime in Syria, however undesirable, is worth the risk as long as Iran is weakened to the extent of no longer posing any threat to Israel. In other words, Israel is willing to live alongside a radical Islamist Syria if this results in cutting the Iran-Syria axis. Among other things, it would greatly debilitate Hizbollah.
There is also the Kurdish issue. Kurds number between 30 and 35 million worldwide. They are principally concentrated in four countries: Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq. They demanded a separate nation state during the negotiations in Versailles in 1919 following the end of the Great War, but their request was rejected by the victors, who had their own plans for dividing the region among themselves.
Kurds account for 7-10 per cent of the population in Syria and 18-20 per cent in Turkey. It would not be a difficult task for Iran, Iraq and Syria, who are on the same side of the Syrian conflict, to instigate their respective Kurdish populations to rally support for their fellow Kurds in Turkey. Turkey already has a severe headache in the form of the PKK, the Kurdish party that has been waging a decades-long struggle for independence, which has lately been reduced to a demand for autonomy. Turkey has issued warnings at the highest levels to Syria and others against yielding to this temptation and asserted its right to take all and any measures to deal with it. Assad would appear to have already started playing the Kurdish card, as witnessed by increased incidents in Turkey of Kurdish violence, resulting in the death of Turkish security personnel.
There is one more issue for Turkey to be concerned about. There is a significant Alawite minority in Turkey, perhaps as many as 15-20 million people, who, for the most part, are Assad’s supporters. Resentment among the Sunnis of the Alawites has increased in recent years. Will the Alawites be a potential fifth column for Assad?
The last, and perhaps the most significant, war is that between the two denominations of the Muslim faith: Sunnis and Shias. It is being waged, on the one side, by a coalition of Sunni states led by Saudi Arabia and, on the other, by Iran. Indeed, on the Shia side, there is no other country that can face the Sunni campaign. There are only four Shia-majority countries in the world: Iran, Iraq, Bahrain and Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan is not in this deadly game at all, and Bahrain has so far been in the firm grip of the Sunni ruling class. The leadership on the Shia side is thus obvious.
When Saddam Hussein ruled in Baghdad, Iraq was the bulwark against Shia Iran. One of the consequences of the second Gulf war, which started in the spring of 2003, is that the ever present, but long quiescent, tensions between Shia and Sunni Muslims broke out into the open. Some observers believe, perhaps uncharitably, that the Americans intended this outcome. Even if unintended, sections of American society would not be unhappy about it.
This writer has described the Shia-Sunni war for regional dominance and for the hearts and minds of the Muslim Umma as the new great game in West Asia, or the Middle East, to give the region the name that its own inhabitants seem quite happy with. It has implications that go beyond the region. The overwhelming majority of the world’s Muslim community is Sunni. Shias account for between 10 and 15 per cent. Most Sunni states do not have significant Shia minorities. The Maghreb countries (of Africa) do not have a serious Shia-Sunni problem. But wherever there are Shia minorities, they have invariably suffered. Pakistan has been witnessing Shias and Sunnis going for each other ever since it came into existence. Hardly a fortnight passes without Shias being massacred somewhere in Pakistan.
In Saudi Arabia, Shias form about 12 per cent of the population. They live mostly in the eastern part of the kingdom. They were not even recognised as Muslims until about 20 years ago. In more recent times, they have been given some rights and have representation in the advisory Shura. If Zaidis, Ismailis and Ethnasharis are counted along with Shias, they add up to almost 39 per cent of the population. The oil assets of the kingdom are concentrated in the Shia region. Thus, Iran has a strong card that it will not be averse to playing if and when it is opportune to do so. It is believed that Ayatollah Sistani, the religious leader of the Shia community in Iraq, has a strong following among the Saudi Shias.
Nevertheless, the Sunni coalition is stronger, consisting as it does of Saudi Arabia, the other Gulf states, Turkey, Jordan and others. Egypt has a Copt problem, but not an internal Shia-Sunni problem. Egypt is busy sorting out its internal order and consolidating the gains of the revolution. But the Saudi King will surely expect Egypt, led by a Muslim Brotherhood President, to be on its side in the war against the Shias should the situation demand it.
Thus, much is riding on the Syrian crisis: the fate of the Assad regime, which has been secular in the sense that it has not used its power to persecute other communities such as Sunnis, Christians and Kurds; the fate of the minorities in Syria, who are justifiably apprehensive of their future if Islamists take over power in Damascus; the regional power balance; Iran’s position and influence in the region; the authority of Hizbollah in Lebanon and its capacity to hurt Israel; the threat to internal stability in Lebanon; the threat to regional stability; Turkey’s internal situation with the Kurdish problem once again becoming acute; the threat to Jordan posed by the inflow of a large number of refugees from Syria; the gaining of strength by radical Islamist elements such as the Brotherhood and, ominously, Al Qaeda; the vastly increased tension between Israel and Iran; the involvement of external players; the emergence of a new kind of Cold War between two members of the P5 on the one hand and three on the other; and the already escalating tensions between Shia and Sunni communities, which is likely to have global implications.
Where is India’s place in all this explosive mess? India does not have real vital concerns in Syria itself. It has appreciated Syria’s secular tradition. The Assads have been friendly by and large although they have not always been supportive of India. The Indian community in Syria is not large. India has economic interests in Syria but not on the scale it has in the Gulf countries. It has an enormous stake in the Gulf, where six million Indians are working, sending billions of dollars back home to their families.
Large quantities of energy supplies come from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, but Iran, too, is very important for energy needs and for other reasons – transit to Central Asia, and so on.
As this writer has advocated elsewhere, India will have to play non-alignment or dual alignment with Saudi Arabia and Iran. So far, it has been doing this reasonably well. It has voted for and abstained on resolutions relating to Syria in the Security Council and the General Assembly of the United Nations. This might seem as if it is not being consistent, but consistency is not necessarily a virtue in international relations. The important thing is to look after one’s national interest. India has managed to maintain good relations with all the other players though some of them would naturally want it to be wholly on their side. Saudi Arabia is extremely important to India, and this factor will weigh heavily in future decision-making. India has, at the same time, managed to maintain its independence of policy, or what some analysts refer to as strategic autonomy; bilateral visits between Iran and India have continued, the Prime Minister will attend the Non-Aligned Movement summit in Teheran, India sent a delegate to attend the meeting on Syria called by Iran in the middle of August, and so on.
The Shia-Sunni equation has been reasonably well maintained in the country thus far. If the global situation between the two groups were to deteriorate significantly, as is likely, India would have to be extremely vigilant. There are reports that the clergy, of both Iran and Saudi Arabia, has been extremely active in the country of late. Thousands of new mosques have sprung up. It is suggested by some that Wahhabism and Salafism have been gaining ground among Indian Muslims. If true, this can pose a grave threat to communal harmony in India. One would not like India to become a theatre for proxy, ideological warfare between Shias and Sunnis. India needs to guard against that situation right from now.
Chinmaya R. Gharekhan, former Indian Ambassador to the United Nations, was Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s Special Envoy for West Asia.