Much has been written by so-called experts in the West about the Syrian catastrophe, and what it tells us about Islam and the Arab world:
Do Arab countries need a strongman dictator to hold them together? Is the Syrian civil war the ultimate reckoning of sectarian divisions within Islam? Are Muslim states really ready for democracy?
While we love to contemplate these questions from a comfortable distance, the Syrian war and the subsequent refugee crisis might actually tell us more about “Christian” nations like Russia and the America.
We tend to think of sectarianism as a problem unique to the Middle East. But make no mistake, the actions of major powers like Russia and America are largely driven by sectarian agendas, and these have a huge role in fueling confrontations in the region.
The Arab Spring was an Uprising Against Sectarianism
The Arab Spring is often framed as the catalyst for the sectarian disasters that followed.
But in reality the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Syria and Yemen were driven by modernity, the rejection of the sectarian status quo, and the desire to overthrow the tyrants who for decades had played into the major powers’ agendas.
In Western democracies we take freedom of dissent as a given, so social media didn’t rock our countries, (if anything it was a distraction). But in Egypt, where nothing resembling a free press existed, twitter was like the discovery of fire. Governments built on lies, conspiracy theories and disgust for their own people were suddenly at risk.
Indeed these early rebellions defied the sectarian narratives with such vibrance that America came out looking like a country caught in the past, obsessed with maintaining sectarian balance and alliances in a new era of free information.
Both Shia and many Sunni stood up for democracy in Bahrain, only to be betrayed by an American government that prized its naval base above human progress, and saw the potential of a non-sectarian Shia/Sunni democracy as a threat from Iran. Yemen also saw a cross-sectarian revolution that has devolved into a proxy war for major powers.
In Syria, Russia has consistently supported Assad because it wants to preserve its base in Tartous and it sees a Sunni rebellion against him as a threat from America.
If you believe the fundamentalists, Putin is now the “champion of the Shia,” and Saudi Arabia and even America are the “champions of the Sunni.” In a bizarre side effect the Sunni/Shia sectarian divide is causing many fundamentalists to take sides on the Russian/Ukraine conflict, which has almost nothing to do with Islam. It would seem that only the Arab Spring revolutionaries are genuine champions for non-sectarianism.
We all remember the pictures of Christian demonstrators in Tahrir Square locking arms to protect Muslims as they prayed. Yet both Russia and America have helped Egypt’s new dictatorship crush the Egyptian revolt in the name of maintaining “secularism.”
Over and over we’ve seen amazing movements against the sectarianism of the Middle East. But without fail America and the other superpowers fall back on sectarianism as a rule, often with disastrous results.
Western Sectarianism in Syria
There are many competing conspiracy theories about the agenda behind the Syrian war, but the fact remains that no one is siting in some secret room snickering about how everything is going according to plan. This is a war that no outside power truly wants to commit to. They’re not sure what they are doing in Syria, and they’re not being honest about their largely sectarian agendas.
Russia’s stated goal in Syria is to fight ISIS, but the real target is obviously the Western psyche. The Russian leadership looks at the situation in Syria and sees a threat to their national pride, and an opportunity to hurt America’s.
Russia’s actions in Syria are pouring fuel on the fire, and despite any rhetoric to the contrary, the motivations are not related to radical Islam. Indeed Russian forces in Syria seem more concerned with testing cruise missiles, killing American allies, and buzzing American drones than fighting ISIS. Meanwhile Putin is presenting himself as the savior of marginalized Christians throughout the world and has been trying to reinvigorate christian identity politics in Russia.
And a not-so-simple breakdown of the factions fighting in Syria shows how badly the status quo of American policy has harmed its ability to act rationally. Years of shady alliances and double standards have come home to roost and American effectiveness has become the latest victim.
Consider how ridiculous this web of alliances have become: ISIS is the main target of U.S. strikes, but it is also the main target of Hizbollah and Iran, both of which are blacklisted by the U.S. Among the most effective forces fighting against ISIS are the Kurdish YPG and the various Islamist Arab factions in northern Syria. The YPG is loosely linked to the PKK, which the U.S. State Department considers a terrorist organization, in a nod to our alliance with Turkey.
The various anti-ISIS militant brigades in Aleppo and Idlib province coordinate closely with Jabat Nosra, also listed as a terrorist organization by the U.S. which has even targeted some of its members with airstrikes.
In Damascus one of the most significant Palestinian faction resisting the ISIS takeover of the Yarmouk refugee camp, Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis is affiliated with Hamas, listed as a terror group by America and many other nations.
Turkey is the most important U.S. ally in the fight against ISIS and Jabat Nosra cells because it has given American forces access to its Incirlik airbase. This is a major problem because Turkey actually supports Jabat Nosra, shares intelligence with them on American assets, and is currently carrying out air strikes on anti-ISIS PKK positions from the same airbase. The U.S. consistently demands that Assad step down after destroying his own country, but refuses to effectively help rebels fight the government as well as ISIS en masse.
America’s need to please Saudi Arabia and Israel has also severely damaged the ability to make rational non-sectarian decisions. There is constant obsession about the “potential threat” to Israel or the “potential threat” to the Gulf countries that guides American policy in Syria. These theoretical scenarios haven’t materialized, yet the potential of a small incident in Saudi or Israel continues to be of greater concern to the American government than the total cataclysm actually happening in Syria.
Even worse, America lets sectarianism destroy its credibility on Syria, by staying completely silent when our sectarian ally Saudi Arabia behaves exactly like Assad, killing civilians by the thousands with airstrikes in Yemen.
“Christian” Superpowers in the “Muslim” World
The religious zeal of those driving this fight in the “Christian world” is barely concealed. Obama’s messianic critics at home are are pushing a purely rhetorical and sectarian agenda. Senator Ted Cruz has been insisting that Obama use the words “radical Islam” when describing America’s enemies. The American right wants to turn this geopolitical issue into the perfect Holy War.
Of course, the idea that ISIS will somehow be weakened by changing the way we label them is ridiculous. There are no real- world strategic ideas coming from the American right. But their sectarian arguments have been a major factor pressuring Obama into taking military actions without clear objectives, just to calm his critics.
ISIS is treated as the great threat from the East by most conservatives in America. Yet it probably has the highest percentage of European fighters of any militant group in Syria. ISIS fighters can often be identified by their U.S. military gear stolen from Iraq, and their light completions. An American or European passport is seen as a sign of a potential jihadi by anti-ISIS rebels inside Syria. Nativists from Marine Le Pen to Donald Trump treat Syrian refugees as a potential ISIS threat, when in fact the flow of fighters is in the opposite direction, from Europe and America to Syria.
On the Russian side we have seen the head of the Russian Orthodox church declare Putin’s intervention in Syria to be a “Holy War” and we are seeing increasing rhetoric about Russia saving christian civilization.
Russia will “defend traditional values that have made up the spiritual foundation of civilization in every nation for thousands of years,” said Putin in an apparent attack on Europe’s liberal attitude towards the LGBT community. Putin is known for shocking intolerance, frequently comparing LGBT people to pedophiles even saying “Policies are pursued that put large families and same-sex partnerships in the same category, belief in God and belief in Satan. Excesses of political correctness reach the point where there are serious discussions on the registration of parties that have propaganda of pedophilia as their objective.”
This Christianist rhetoric is coming from Moscow, but also from Putin’s far-right allies in Western Europe who have unanimously sided against refugees while declaring allegiance to the regime that is causing them to become refugees in the first place. It’s downright bizarre to see European nations that pride themselves on being superior for their secular governance suddenly raising the banner of “Christian civilization.”
In sum, western involvement in Middle East turmoil is a parody of itself.
People who would prefer not to risk having a closer look will say that this was inevitable. That the Arab Spring was some smokescreen for Islamists all along. That Arab people are too ignorant or backwards to think for themselves. That we should have let all these democratic aspirations be crushed, and just split up the world however big, powerful countries see fit.
All you have to do is examine our own actions to know this is bogus. The major economic powers like to pretend they are above sectarianism, yet the actions of countries like America and Russia can usually be predicted along sectarian lines.
Am I psychic? Or are the superpowers petty sectarians themselves?