There are clear signs that the strengthening of the sectarian dynamic in Syria is destabilising the region, argues Chris Nineham
A sectarian unravelling is not and was never an inevitable outcome of the Syrian uprising that began as a genuine multi-confessional democracy movement, with at least the majority leadership keenly aware of the trap of sectarianism. It is however the logic that flows from the growing hold of outside powers on the politics in the country and specifically the West’s backing for a Sunni axis that it is using in the hope of containing the Arab Spring and re-establishing its hegemony in the region.
On Thursday the Gulf State governments urged their mainly Sunni citizens to leave Lebanon immediately as it was no longer safe for them. This followed the kidnapping of nearly 30 Syrians in Lebanon accused of being members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and mass demonstrations that closed Beirut airport for a day - both responses to disappearances in Syria blamed on the FSA. But the civil war many now fear in Lebanon would only be part of a deadly, regional conflict.
Outside forces are deliberately promoting the sectarian agenda in the region. A series of reports this week suggest that the West’s allies Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the main suppliers of weapons to the opposition, have been ensuring that most the sectarian Salafi groups are the best armed. In the words of one opposition backer: "The most organised systems are run by extreme Islamist groups and they have the highest income. The more extreme brutality tends to come from that direction, but they have the most ammunition and guns.”
Recent defections from the government, while increasing the isolation of the regime, point to an increasingly communal dynamic. While President’s Assad power structure has always been anchored in the Alawite minority in Syria, almost all of the senior defectors, including Prime Minister Riad Hijab, come from among the few non-Alawites at the top of Syria’s military and political elites. Of course many in Syria are resisting this process, but once underway it is extremely difficult to contain. As one Alawite oppositionist explained on BBC World Service last Friday, though up to 20 percent of the Alawites supported the uprising at the beginning, their position is becoming extremely difficult now, as they fear many are waiting to punish the Alawite community as a whole for the crimes of President Assad.
Even UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, usually loyal to Washington, acknowledged ten days ago that the Syrian conflict has become a “proxy war.” No one who has followed the history of Afghanistan or Iraq will be surprised at a Western policy that strengthens the hand of Jihadis and sectarians. But this time around the consequences could be even more devastating than in the past. As if to illustrate how high the stakes are, a week ago Iran’s most senior security chief Saeed Jalili visited President Bashar al-Assad to assure him that Iran considered Syria an essential part of an ‘axis of resistance’ that they would not allow to be broken.
The West’s response has been to inch further toward open intervention in Syria. During her official visit to Turkey last weekend, Hilary Clinton and other Western officials showed frustration with the weakness and divisions revealed by the Turkish-based Syrian National Council, which up to now the West has been treating as a kind of government in waiting. This time round Clinton snubbed them, and Western powers are apparently trying to find other figureheads for the post-Assad government. Meantime Clinton made it clear that the US is stepping up preparations for more direct intervention in Syria in alliance with Turkey. She reported, "very intensive operational planning" by military and intelligence officials. "We have been closely co-ordinating over the course of this conflict, but now we need to get into the real details."
Equally worrying, the crisis in Syria has emboldened those Israeli hawks that want an attack on Iran. There is a tendency on the left to think that the relative weakening of the US power in the Middle East and worldwide has reduced the chances of significant intervention or more wars. Think again. The strengthening of Iran’s hand in Iraq after the occupation and the emergence of the reactionary Gulf bloc as a response to the Arab Spring, all coinciding with a US election campaign, have created the conditions for a renewed drive to war against Iran. Israel maybe leading it but the US is deeply implicated.
Last weekend there was a flurry of reports and analysis in Israeli media suggesting that a Israeli attack on Iran is only weeks away. This followed visits to Tel Aviv by Mitt Romney and later current Defence Secretary Leon Panetta going out of their way to prove the US’s willingness to deal with Iran "in any way necessary." Nothing they said appears to have been good enough. Last Tuesday an article in Israel’s Ma'ariv newspaper suggested that Netanyahu and Barak have set a deadline of 25 September for Obama to clearly state that the US itself will take military action. The next day the same paper quoted ex-Israeli defence chief Matan Vilnai saying official assessments are for a war between Israel and Iran lasting 30 days "on a number of fronts." Almost all experts agree, if Israel were to launch an attack Iran, the US would have no choice but to get on board.
There remain big divisions within Israel on the issue. Military Chiefs of Staff are apparently sceptical, warning the politicians of potentially dire consequences of an attack, especially a unilateral one. The main aim of all this hoopla may still be to force the debate around the US election to the right. But when the speculation reaches this kind of pitch, the anti-war movement needs to start preparing for action. Whatever the immediate prospects, there is little doubt that Israel and the US are now on a collision course with Iran.
Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.
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