Friday, 4 January 2013

Syria the Heart of a New Great Game

Although I have focused much of my time over the past few years on Central Asia, Syria has always been a country to fascinate me mainly because of how the Alawite minority managed to maintain its power.  Recently, Syria has emerged again for all the wrong reasons. Here is my take on the latest crisis.

The Middle Eastern Version of the Great Game
By Dr. Victoria Kelly-Clark

Last week it was estimated by opposition groups that 60 000 people have now died as a result of the ongoing violence in Syria. After nearly two years of the civil uprisings it is clear that unlike Libya, Tunisia and Egypt, this will not be an easy victory for either side.  Rather, it is shaping into a region-wide protracted battle which threatens to engulf the entire region in a ‘game of shadows’.

The Great Game is afoot
In recent weeks the countries around Syria have began to involve themselves more in the ongoing struggle between the ruling government and the opposition forces.  Turkey, most significantly, bombed Syrian targets for five days, and Israel made targeted strikes on Syrian mobile artillery after mortars were fired into the Golan Heights.  While Israel is concerned with the integrity of their border, it appears the other countries within the region are playing a very different game.

Saudi Arabia, for example, is reported to have been supporting the rebel forces by boosting the ranks with jihadists or religious warriors who see the Shia Assad clan’s rule as heretical. Other sources claim that the United States and Turkey are supporting the opposition forces by feeding weapons into Syria via Turkey. Reuters reported back in February 2012 that British and Qatari troops were also coordinating the delivery of these weapons into locations such as Homs.

If these rumours are true then it appears that this is not just a simple regime transition. Quite possibly this is an international manoeuvre to try and stem Iran’s growing dominance over the northern areas of the Middle East. 

The Rise of Shia

At present, Shiite backed minorities are in power in Iraq, Iran, and to a lesser extent in Lebanon thanks to Hezbollah. The growing Shia power and influence throughout the Middle East is alarming to many of the Sunni governments in the region. Saudi Arabia, for example, is afraid of the Iranian government stirring up its Shia population which resides in the oil rich east of the country. Bahrain is also under threat from a Shia uprising, as is Yemen, all of which threatens to cause instability in these countries.  Meanwhile Turkey and Iran are jockeying for a regional leadership position.

Assad’s Strength

Despite the international and domestic pressure on Bashar al-Assad, he has remained firmly at the apex of the Syrian state. However, like any pyramid, the point is only strong thanks to the wealth of supporting blocks that lie underneath. Al-Assad’s unwavering support comes from both his clan control over the top position of state power and the fact that his minority group, the Alawites and their tribal patronage networks, strategically control the military, security and intelligence forces within Syria. Al-Assad also dominates the political process through the monopoly of the Ba’ath Party.

 Originally known as the Nosayris, the Alawites are a small minority group based in the mountain region of Latakia near the Mediterranean Sea.   The Alawites belong to an obscure branch of Shia Islam that rejects common practices like Shariah, the call to prayer, attending the mosque for worship, and the ban on alcohol. They also are believed to celebrate Christian holidays and this placed them in a vulnerable position in a predominantly Sunni state.

Estimated to be 11% of the Syrian Population the Alawites were not treated well by Syria’s mainly Sunni Muslim population thanks to their status as heretics.  This has caused the Alawites to become increasingly dependent on clan ties and more exclusive of other sectarian groups within the state.

The Alawites received some relief during the French occupation of the region. The French believed that the Alawites were a necessary component to controlling Syria thanks to the Alawite’s homeland’s crucial access to the Mediterranean Sea. They encouraged the Alawites to join the military, utilising them as a buffer against the Sunni majority. The Alawites then consolidated their position in the armed forces through the creation of the Ba’ath Party.

We All Come Tumbling Down

It is these three pillars that are allowing al-Assad to remain in power despite this rigorous opposition and it is their strength that could cause another protracted conflict in the Middle East. Certainly the Alawite minority is right behind Bashar al-Assad, with the BBC reporting that at the regular Alawite funerals held, pictures of Bashar adorn houses and funeral goers chant “ Martyr after Martyr we only want Bashar.”

If this conflict does continue it begs the question “how far are the Shia alliance of powers and the Sunni Crescent (Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, Yemen etc) willing to go to in this Great Game to control the region?”.  If it is an all-in game then we could be looking at a region-wide conflict that involves all Shia forces around the Middle East and could last for generations.  This is a result that could have world-wide ramifications from oil shortages to financial meltdowns.
Written with Sources from Reuters, Stratfor and BBC.

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