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Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Why Syria is not Egypt

The civil war could lead to sectarian conflict across the Arab Middle East

Written by Alia Allana |
March 11, 2013 3:03:37 am

The civil war could lead to sectarian conflict across the Arab Middle East

Arabs squabble. Yet most will agree that Khalid ibn al-Walid,a companion of the Prophet,was one of the great military generals. His conquests are spoken of with pride,recalling the battle of Yarmouk in AD 636. Schools,universities and refugee camps are named after Yarmouk as it has come to symbolise hope. Last week,another namesake surfaced: a Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebel brigade called Martyrs of Yarmouk held 21 Filipino UN peacekeepers hostage in the disputed Golan Heights on the Syrian-Israeli border,marking an alarming development in the Syrian civil war. For long,President Bashar al-Assad has demanded the return of Golan,but ensured it remained demilitarised. After three tense days of negotiations,the Filipinos were released,but the rebels didn’t lay down their Kalashnikovs and continued to taunt Assad’s army. Do they grasp the implications of their actions?

Of late,the rebels have staged token “victories”,retreating as Assad’s jets advance,leaving behind scenes of devastation. Look at what happened in al-Raqqa. For a few hours,the rebels declared the provincial town “liberated” as a brigade yanked down a 20-foot bronze statue of former president Hafez al-Assad. Twenty-foot statues don’t topple easily. The dislodging of Saddam Hussein’s statue in 2003 used the might of a US Marine vehicle equipped with a crane and a metal chain. One wonders,who is aiding the rebels? The rebels’ amateur video that circulated on YouTube focused merely on the iconoclasm. There is just imagery,no context.

In Raqqa,a young rebel with a red T-shirt with “Replay” written on the back hits the fallen statue. A man with a hammer attempts to crack the skull. It merely dents it. Meanwhile,others in the crowd chant “Allah-o-Akbar”,they call Assad a “dog.” Gunshots are fired. Some cower,unsure of who is firing. People wail. Calls for freedom are legitimate and Assad has blood on his hands. Talks of taking him to the ICC aren’t absurd. But the rebels share the blame. With the arrival of al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front,suicide bombings have terrorised a country once deemed “secular.” Al-Nusra was blamed for 100 civilians deaths as a bomb ravaged central Damascus. The Sunni rebels are responsible for the destruction of Shia Hussainias and Christian churches. The city of Homs once had a population of 80,000 Christians,now fewer than 400 remain. We now know that the shadowy FSA has splintered,pitting nationalists against jihadis. Should Assad walk,will we miss his dictatorial rule?

Unseating Assad is frightening. Iraq President Nouri al-Maliki agrees: “The most dangerous thing… is that if the opposition is victorious,there will be a civil war in Lebanon,divisions in Jordan and a sectarian war in Iraq.” The largely Shia make-up of Maliki’s government has unseated the Sunnis who benefited from Saddam’s patronage. The flashpoints of the regionalisation of the conflict are in the provinces of Anbar and Nineveh. Here,the Sunni majority has been protesting against Maliki’s government. Lebanon is tense too. There are signs of sectarian violence along the Syrian side of the Assi river basin,where 30,000 Lebanese reside. Most are Shia and Alawi.

At a dinner in New Delhi last week,Bouthaina Shabaan,the Syrian special envoy,told me that the gung-ho attitude of foreign meddling in Syria lay behind the crisis: “They saw Egypt and Tunisia. They thought Syria was the same. It isn’t.” Why? Should Damascus fall,there will be turmoil across the Levant. Already too many have died and been displaced. The urgency for a political resolution is pressing as it has become difficult to differentiate between the good rebel and the bad rebel.

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