A friend forwarded me an email from a friend of his in the USA. The email asks questions about the decision of the USA to start arming the rebels. I think the email reflects a lot of the questions and misconceptions that people have about what is happening in Syria and the reasons why. So below I show my response to the email and answer each question in turn. The questions are in bold, my answer is underneath. Maybe it will help answer some of your questions too!
That is an interesting email. There are some points I want to go through individually in order to answer the questions.
Obama / Syria:
I was appalled and frustrated to hear that America now suddenly joins the war (albeit at a low level), when President Assad and his party are pushing back the Sunni rebels (funded by Turkey and Saudi Arabia). It seems a strange timing, now that the rebels have been pushed back from their strongest positions and that a chance to end the war seems to be in sight.
The reason for the US to get involved now is precisely because the regime looks as if it is winning. If the regime were to win then the entire balance of power in the middle east would change. Iran would have even more influence in Syria than it did before. In fact, Iran is now basically running this war. They have their top Generals on the ground, they are sending ever more troops to the country via Iraq. Iraq, with its Shia majority is also essentially controlled by Iran now. If the rebels are beaten, Iran’s sphere of influence will form a line that runs all the way to the Mediterranean; Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. The Assad regime would become little more than a figurehead, biding the will of its masters in Tehran in exchange for the help it received to stay in place. Even before the war began, Iran already had an enormous amount of influence in Syria thanks to Bashar al Assad who let them in much more than his father Hafez ever did.
So the reason to step in now and help the rebels is to keep this war going, make them stronger so they can fight back. In this way Iran will have to commit ever more resources and be made to bleed in Syria. It will be an effective tool for weakening Iran and its hegemonic ambitions. However the US will not help the rebels win this war, this is not the intention, merely to use Syria as a way of making Iran use up its resources in a long drawn out war, to try and re-balance the Suuni and Shia spheres of influence.
As an aside, the new President elect Rouhani will change very little in Iran. In the end it is the Ayatollahs and the Republican Guard who hold the real power.
It’s even stranger because in the last months it has become very clear that most of the Sunni rebels are Muslim fundamentalists and Al Qaeda groups, and that the so-called ‘democratic opposition’ is both a very small fraction among the Sunnis and has no power to influence the rebels. Of course the West likes to romanticize the rebels into brave crypto democrats and such, but the fact is that they mostly are Islamists (and the few ‘democrats’ living in the exile have no power or credibility among the insurgents).
For the Christians in Syria the more desirable outcome is clearly that Assad and his Alawites/Shiites win.
This is incorrect. The vast majority of the Sunni rebels are moderate. There are approximately 180,000 rebel fighters in Syria at the moment. The vast majority of these are Syrians, foreign fighters are a very small minority at the moment. Also we have to be clear about the definition of ‘Islamist’, you have to remember that I was in the county and I met a lot of the rebel commanders and fighters on the ground, who we in the West are calling Islamist. It is incorrect to lump all these into a single group.
Let’s start with Jabhat al Nusra, these are considered to be the most extreme fundamentalists of the rebels and are certainly the largest of the Islamist groups. I have met them and I also spoke to many Syrians who talk to them on a daily basis. Yes, they want to establish a Theocracy in Syria but one thing was made very clear to me and that was Christians in the country have nothing to fear. They are considered to be neighbours and even under the version of Islam they follow it would be a sin in the eyes of God to kill Syrian Christians or stop them worshiping in public.
Also al Nusra only make up about 12% of all the rebel fighters, as I said before, the vast majority of the rebels are moderates. Al Nusra are however very well organized and equipped. Many moderates are joining them purely so they can have access to weapons. If this war ever ends then all the moderates who have joined them will leave them after.
Another important point is that al Nusra have nothing to do with al Qaeda, they hate them and don’t want them in Syria. This is the same for all Syrians. They fear that war will open up on another front, with the regime and with al Qaeda. At the moment there are not so many of them in the country but the longer this war goes on the more this will change.
As for the charge that al Nusra are terrorists, this is incorrect. Even the secular rebels will tell you that this isn’t true. The reason they have been declared a terrorist organization is because they want nothing to do with the USA and if they ever came to power then the US would have absolutely no influence in the geographically most important country in the middle east.
With regard to other ‘Islamist’ groups of rebels the majority want a government based on the Koran but one that is also democratic. I had quite a lot of time with Bashar al Zoubi and Yasser Aboud, 2 of the biggest generals of the FSA in the south of Syria, between them they command thousands of rebel fighters.. They are religious, and want Islam to guide the running of any new government but they certainly are not the sort of fundamentalists they are made out to be. As they said to me, Islam is about educating people, not forcing people to live a certain way. God is the ultimate judge not man. I met the wife of Bashar al Zoubi, she was a Christian before she became a Muslim and she made very clear to me that she would never have converted or married Bashar if she thought for one minute he was a bug-eyed fundamentalist.
But the role of the Christians doesn’t seem to be an important factor in the American’s decision. It’s ironic that the oh-so-Christian President Bush helped destroying the Christian community in Iraq. Maybe the ‚secret agent of Islam’ (as the cliché goes) Barack ‘Obambi’ will now help destroying the Christians in Syria.
The Alawites fought with their back to the wall a few months ago, knowing what would happen to them if the Sunni majority won.
Now they have the upper hand, backed by the Russians (who have been faithful to their allies of many decades) and their arms shipments, the very well trained Lebanese Hizb’allah militia (an archenemy of Israel) and Iranian Revolutionary Guards (‘Pasdaran’). While Iranians mainly served as advisers a few months ago, now bigger numbers of these elite troops also seem to participate in battles. (Syrian rebels reported intercepting radio messages in Persian).
It’s not quite clear why another Sunni dominated fundamentalist state would be better than a multi-denominational state ruled by the tyrant Assad. I don’t know what the Israelis prefer. I realize that it’s also about the Americans keeping their word (“use of Sarin gas = crossing the red line”) and coming over as strong, but in spite of all this I’m not happy at all.
As I said before, of all the people I met and spoke to when I was in Syria, nobody, from Islamist to secularist said that Christians in Syria have anything to worry about and are considered to be brothers.
The situation with the Alawites is interesting, there are those who are close to the regime, who have the power and wealth but the majority are still very poor and uneducated. The regime is very clever, it made the Alawites fear the Sunni and the reason why many fight against the Sunni rebels is because over the decades they have been made to believe by the regime that they will be slaughtered if the Sunni control the country. This was explained to me when I met defected General Zaid Tlass who was very close to Bashar al Assad and he knows intimately the workings of the regime. The regime encouraged sectarianism as a tool for control. Make the different religious groups fear each other. It is incorrect to say that all Alawites are on the side of the regime, many are but not all. The Sunni rebels realize that many Alawites are just as down-trodden as they are and have no desire to wipe them out. Yes, they target those who are actively supporting the regime but for the rest there is no problem. Before the regime came to power, all these different groups had been living together without problem, the history of Syria is one of tolerance and moderation, the nature of the people is not warlike at all, they just want to go back to being able to live together in peace as they were before the regime came to power.
The Russians support the Assad regime purely for economic reasons. They sell a lot of weapons and it generates a lot of money. Also the Russians have a port in Tartus, it is their only sea port in the Mediterranean and so is strategically very important to them. However even the Russians are hedging their bets. There has been a deal brokered that will give the Russians a port in Algeria if the regime has to relocate from Damascus to the Latakia region in the event of the Sunni taking control of the rest of the country. This came directly from the US State Department and I was told about this by the Syrian who has the contact.
Iran and Hezbollah have been on the ground in Syria from day one. Of course Iran are acting as advisers, they are running the war, but they have had troops inside since the beginning, as have Hezbollah. Now they are dramatically increasing the number of troops to bolster the fight and tighten their own control over both the country and the regime. The first major massacre in Daraa, the one that really started the revolution was carried out by hundreds of Iranian and Hezbollah fighters. Even the regime knew at that point it would not be able to get enough of its own army to turn weapons on its own unarmed people, who at that point were demonstrating peacefully.
As for the assertion that Syria would become a Sunni fundamentalist state. I honestly don’t see that happening. Would the government be religious, yes it would. But it would also be a democracy. The Islamist groups who want a Theocracy are small compared to the population of more than 25 million people. Even in Aleppo where the Islamists have the greatest control, the people don’t want a fundamentalist government and the Islamists know that they are not strong enough to enforce one. The people see a role for Islam in the government in the sense of guiding principles but not in the sense of forcing people to live a certain way.
For Israel, they now see that Iran and Hezbollah are getting closer to their border. If the Sunni win, the war will be carried over to Lebanon where groups such as al Nusra would take the fight to Hezbollah. Before, Israel had no problem with the Assad regime but now that Iran is gaining more power in Syria they won’t be happy about that. In fact the Israelis supplied the Free Syria Army with weapons when they were fighting against Hezbollah close to the Israeli border. As soon as they were pushed back then Israel stopped the supply of weapons. This comes back to the point that the US and others will only arm the rebels to a level that will enable them to continue fighting but never enough to allow them to win the war.
This way Syria will be brought into a state of perpetual war, weakening Iran in the process and removing the threat to Israel. It will also encourage terrorists from all over to go to Syria to use it as their base, it will be easy for them to do this in a country which now has no effective rule of law.
If the regime wins this war it will literally slaughter millions of people. Everyone in the liberated areas will be a target. Back in the 80’s it killed thousands of its own countrymen in Hama when they dared to speak against the regime. It will do the same but on a country-wide scale if it wins this war.
My guess is that pressure from the mighty Sunni nations Egypt and Saudi Arabia pushed the US into action.
Certainly Saudi and Egypt want the US to help but the US has its own reasons for doing so and will not help the Sunni to win, it wants to perpetuate this war for a long time.
Watch out for Egypt and Iran. Iran is making quite successful efforts to buddy up to them. It needs access to the Suez canal so that it can supply the regime from the sea. The Egyptians are open to warmer relations with Iran but this is another story entirely.