My Twitter feed has been bleeding news and commentary about the conflict in Syria recently, and I see tweets from both camps: in support of the armed opposition and in support of Assad’s regime. But for every ounce of valuable insight about the conflict I read, I endure a pound of ignorance and idiocy.
Contributing To Conflict
I wouldn’t accuse any Twitter users I’m following of having ill-intentions, but they are often contributing to the conflict, rather than promoting peace.
I don’t expect people to sit on the sidelines without taking an active part in conflict situations. But the key is to resolve the conflict or prevent it from escalating.
What I find especially troubling are the sectarian sentiments underlying the conflict, which risk causing the conflict in Syria to spill over to other countries in the region. Kuwait is already experiencing social and political tensions along sectarian lines, and framing the conflict in Syria as being a sectarian one is partly wrong, but mostly dangerous.
It is true that the vast majority of Sunnis are opposed to Assad’s regime, while Shia are generally in favor of it. A superficial explanation for this is that Assad is from the Alawite (Shia) sect. However, many Sunnis are either oblivious to this fact or consider it irrelevant. Their opposition to Bashar Al-Assad stems from his crimes against his people and the mass murders his army has committed. Many Shia do not support Assad because of his sect, but his political stance against Israel and his alliance with Iran.
I have seen several tweets (and retweets) calling Shia “rafida” (a derogatory term to imply Shia are non-Muslims and a threat to Islam) or Magi (an embarrassingly ignorant reference to the Zoroastrian religion, from the mistaken belief that Shia Islam originates from Persia). These expressions encourage people to think in sectarian terms, while overlooking the humanitarian crimes being committed.
I see the conflict over Syria centered around two axes:
- Fear of “The Shia Crescent”
- Fear of “The Great Satan”
In the following sections I will explain why “The Shia Crescent” is a myth, and fighting “The Great Satan” doesn’t justify supporting Bashar Al-Assad.
In 1979, when Ayatollah Khomeini established the Islamic Republic of Iran, his ultimate goal was not to spread Shi’ism around the globe and force people to embrace it. He took pride in his faith and based the country’s legislation on it. But the “revolution” he sought to export around the globe was the revival of Islamic theocracy and – more importantly – opposition to Western imperialism.
Having been a supporter of Iran at one point in my life, I do believe that Iran’s calls for Muslim unity are genuine and that it bears no sectarian animosity towards Sunni countries. Its benchmark is political, not sectarian: Are you a supporter of the United States and – by extension – Israel? That’s how Iran assesses political supporters and opponents.
This explains why Ahmadinejad, Iran’s current president, was a strong supporter of the socialist Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez, even though their ideological views don’t overlap. It was Chavez’s anti-US stance that Ahmadinejad admired, not his beliefs.
The fear that Iran posed a Persian/Shia threat against the Arab/Sunni world was popularized during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, when the dictator Saddam Hussain was hailed as “The Sword of the Arabs” by King Fahd Al Saud, of Saudi Arabia, for seemingly taming the Iranian advance towards the Arab world. This fear has lingered ever since and was reignited when King Abdullah II of Jordan coined the term “The Shia Crescent” to refer to the potential threat of a Shia alliance that spans Iran-Iraq-Syria-Lebanon in a “crescent” shape.
The idea that Iran continues to plot overthrows in the gulf (namely from the Shia populations of Bahrain and the Eastern region of Saudi Arabia) is circulated widely. It is also used to justify a heavy-handed response to peaceful protests. There is no evidence to suggest that Iran is behind an armed overthrow of these gulf monarchies, but it is plausible enough as an excuse to confirm the impression that Iran poses a Shia threat.
To best understand Iran’s perspective, it’s essential to see the world through its lens. “The Great Satan” is a term Ayatollah Khomeini used to refer to the United States, and indicates Iran’s political priorities: Anything that is to the United State’s advantage or earns its support should be opposed, as that would indicate the greater of two evils. There are no Iranian ambitions to spread Shi’ism and Iran poses no threat to Sunni Muslims for ideological reasons.
There are clear ethnic, religious and political differences between Iran and Syria: the former is a Persian, Twelver Shia theocracy, whereas the latter is an Arab, Alawite secular (Ba’athist) nation.
But these differences are irrelevant when it comes to what they have in common: their opposition to the United States and Israel.
Syria has been the strongest nation to support the armed struggle against Israel, second only to Iran.
The opposition to Assad’s regime is founded on several reasons: Assad is a secular Alawite, which makes him an extremely unfavorable candidate to rule a Muslim nation, according to the Salaf and many Islamists. He is also a brutal dictator, as recent massacres have demonstrated. To Israel and the United States he is a formidable foe, and seeing him go is a step in the right direction (or so it is assumed).
What the United States and Israel seem to be overlooking are the unsettling parallels between the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the Taliban: both rose to prominence and power through US support, and both share a deep-seated hostility towards the United States and Israel (for the same ideological reasons). Sheikh Nabeel Al-Awadhi, a prominent Sunni scholar in Kuwait and one of the strongest supporters of the armed fight against Assad’s regime (and raising funds to arm the combatants), mourned the death of Osama Bin Laden and said on Twitter that the Muslims who celebrated his death are not true believers, because they are sharing the joys of the disbelievers.
The reason why Arab nations are arming the FSA doesn’t stem from a concern over humanitarian losses, but the desire to limit Iran’s influence in the region by getting rid of its strongest ally. It’s the fear of “The Shia Crescent” that’s fueling their support, whereas those who are supporting Assad do so to combat the influence of the United States (a.k.a. “The Great Satan”) in the region.
This explains Hezbollah’s stance in the conflict.
Sayed Hasan Nasrallah, the Secretary General of Hezbollah, has said that the battle to free Palestine is being waged in Syria. Some have mocked this statement because they failed to see the connection he’s making: Assad’s regime is a vital asset for the Palestinian cause.
Nasrallah has been consistent in his fight against the United States, and his intentions aren’t fueled by the desire to spread his Shia faith. In the build up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the United States and its allies, Nasrallah called on the people of Iraq (including the Shia, who were oppressed under Saddam’s regime) to side with Saddam against the United States!
To accuse Nasrallah of being sectarian overlooks his previous stances and the reasons for his current support of Assad. They are deeply rooted in the fear of “The Great Satan” and, unfortunately, this fear has made him overlook the many crimes Bashar Al-Assad has committed against his people to date. And the crimes continue, with Hezbollah supporting Assad’s forces in Syria.
I have repeatedly heard Hezbollah supporters blaming the media for portraying Hezbollah in a negative light, but the media’s role is extremely limited. The fact that Nasrallah failed to even acknowledge that some crimes are being committed by Assad’s forces or that supporting Assad is the lesser of two evils has made him lose the support of many, including Sunnis who used to look to him as a champion of the Palestinian cause, but now question whether he is simply doing Iran’s bidding in Syria.
It is important to spell out the two primary fears fueling the conflict in Syria: fear of “The Shia Crescent” and fear of “The Great Satan.”
The Shia Crescent is a myth with no basis in the present conflict, apart from cultivating fear and hate towards Shia.
And while I acknowledge that the United States has many, many faults, especially in its foreign policies, it does not justify supporting a dictator such as Bashar Al-Assad in an attempt to fight the expansion of the United State’s influence in the Middle East. The Arab-Israeli conflict is too broad a topic to address in this article, but one thing is certain: we must oppose any form of injustice, regardless of who it is committed by, without narrowing the definition to fit only our enemies.
The ideal solution in Syria is for Bashar Al-Assad to step down and allow a new government to form that respects the rights of all Syrians, without discriminating based on sect or religion.
We should also discuss the conflict on humanitarian terms, rather than throw unfounded accusations against an entire sect, which would only intensify the conflict rather than help resolve it.
Before you tweet or retweet anything, ask yourself: Am I being part of the solution, or part of the problem?