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The Stakes In ‘The Syrian Civil War’

Written by Col. Tom Snodgrass (Ret.)

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It’s a struggle for the religious sectarian dominance of Islam: Consequently, it’s a ‘no win’ situation for the U.S.

By Col. Tom Snodgrass (Ret.), Right Side News

Historical Background

Civilization in Syria is one of the most ancient on earth, dating to approximately 10,000 B.C. in Neolithic times. Furthermore, Damascus is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world.

Syria-mapSome of the past peoples controlling this geographic region over the centuries included Canaanites, Phoenicians, Sumerians, Assyrians, and Hittites. Later, this area, also known as the “Levant,” was conquered and ruled by Egyptians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, and Byzantines. In 634 A.D., the city of Damascus, which was a major urban center of the Christian Byzantine Empire, was captured by a Muslim army dispatched on an imperialistic, jihadist conquest from Arabia by the Rashidun Caliph Abu Bakr, Muhammad’s political and religious successor. By 640 A.D., the Muslim army under their very capable general, Khalid ibn al-Walid, had totally subdued Syria and expelled the Byzantine Christian rulers, thus establishing exclusive Islamic rule. Thereafter, Syria was governed by the Islamic Caliphates of Rashidun, Umayyads, Abbasid, and Ottomans for almost thirteen centuries from 640-1922 A.D.

Following the First World War and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire-Caliphate in the early 1920’s, the League of Nations gave France a mandate to govern Syria and Lebanon. France exercised that authority until the Great Syrian Revolt forced an end to the mandate and caused the establishment of the Syrian Republic in1930, but with the French retaining a great deal of political influence and a military presence in Syria. This accommodation of French colonialism continued until Syria finally gained complete independence in 1946 following the Second World War. The political history of Syria from the post-World War II independence until 1971 was marred by a series of military coups and chronic political instability.

395px-Hafez_al-Assad_1993This instability ended when Syrian Air Force general Hafez al-Assad (left) seized control and became “president” (or a more apt description of the position would be “dictator”). Assad brutally suppressed domestic dissent, while developing a state-sponsored cult of personality. This combination of a ruthless secret police force and Assad’s Hitler-esque personal reputation were enough to enforce political stability and end the constant coups in Syria that plagued other Middle Eastern countries. As an example, when the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood mounted an armed insurgency against the Alawite government in 1982, Assad’s forces crushed the revolt by leveling parts of the city of Hama with artillery fire that killed an estimated 10-20,000 people. Hafez al-Assad himself died a natural death of heart attack in 2000 at age 70. He was replaced immediately by Bashar al-Assad, his 34 year-old son, who was tragically unprepared for his national leadership role. The preferred Assad family heir-apparent for Hafez was Bashar’s older brother, Bassel, who was killed in an auto accident.

361px-Bashar_al-Assad_croppedWhen Bashar al-Assad took power, many Western liberals like U.S. congressional Democrats, had a totally unfounded, Pollyannaish belief that Bashar would be a “reformer” who would end the abysmal human rights abuses which were and are the norm in Syria. Fatuous U.S. politicians like Hillary Clinton said foolish things about Bashar like, “There's a different leader in Syria now . . . Many of the members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe he is a reformer.” Or there is Nancy Pelosi, Bashar’s congressional sycophant, who made the astonishingly ludicrous pronouncement, “ . . . the road to Damascus is a road to peace.” And not to be forgotten is John Kerry, Democrat Party foreign policy savant and secretary of state in-waiting who enthused that Bashar has been, “very generous with me.” Kerry added that under Assad, "Syria will move; Syria will change as it embraces a legitimate relationship with the United States." Needless to say that Bashar’s “reform,” which has resulted in a civil war and an estimated 36,000 dead Syrians, calls into question Clinton’s, Pelosi’s, and Kerry’s credibility as foreign policy professionals. Obviously these U.S. politicians are clueless about the politics of the Middle East regarding what would be entailed in “reform.” The real causes of human rights abuses and violence in the Muslim world are Islam and Islamic sectarianism. Reform of Islam would be like reforming a tiger’s eating habits while he is consuming his dinner, with the same results for the ill-advised reformers in both cases.

The Syrian Civil War, Islam, and Islamic Sectarianism

Simply put, the causes of the Syrian civil war are Islam and the inherently murderous sectarianism of Islam. The lethal sectarian violence that dominates the practice of Islam has roots in the political turmoil that arose out of differences over succession to the leadership of Islam upon the death of Muhammad in the year 632. Because Muhammad died without publically appointing a successor, a dispute ensued within the Islamic community about how Muhammad’s replacement should be chosen. The majority of Muhammad’s followers believed that the Muslim community (“umma”) should select the Prophet’s successor (“caliph”) by communal consensus from the best qualified among them who would continue in Muhammad’s ways. The first caliph selected by this method was Abu Bakr, a long-time companion of Muhammad and his father-in-law. The Muslim believers in a communal consensus selection of the caliph are designated “Sunni” (meaning followers of the “sunna,” Arabic for the “Prophet’s customs”). Today Sunnis are approximately a 85% majority of the estimated 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide.

The Muslims who disagreed with the Sunni consensus method were convinced that Muhammad had privately selected as his successor his cousin and son-in-law, Ali ibn Abi Talib, who was married to the Prophet’s daughter Fatima. Those in the Muslim umma, opposing the Sunnis and supporting Ali for caliph, believed passionately that Islamic leadership succession should be based on bloodline to the Prophet. Ali did eventually become the fourth caliph, but he was assassinated in 661 after five years of leading the Muslim umma. Nevertheless, his followers continued to advocate bloodline succession for the Muslim leadership role of caliph; however, never again would a blood relative of Muhammad occupy the position.

The supporters of Ali later became known as “Shi’a,” a word derived from the Arabic term “shi’at Ali,” meaning “supporters” or “helpers of Ali.” Shi’ites comprise about 10% of the world Muslim population. The sub-group “Imami Shi’a Islam” or "Twelvers" is by far the largest sub-sect of the Shi’a sect, while the “Ismailites” or “Seveners” are the second largest Shi’ite sub-sect. Within Shi'a Islam the various sub-sects like the Twelvers and Seveners came into being because there were disputes over the leadership successions of their religious chieftains (“imams”), just as the basic Shi'a-Sunni split occurred over the bitter dispute arising from the leadership succession of the Prophet Muhammad.

Some other minor Islamic sects and sub-sects that make up the other 5% of the Muslim world population are the Alawi, Druze, Zaydiyya, Alevi, Sufi, Kharijite, and Ahmadiyya. The Alawi, Druze, Zaydiyya, and Alevi sub-sects all trace their origins back to some type of relationship with Shi’a Islam. As a general rule, Sunni Muslims consider non-Sunni Muslims like the Shi’a sect to be heretics, although the Islamic sects’ theological differences are usually put aside temporarily when the situation calls for Sunni and other Muslims to unite against non-Muslims and apostate Muslims, both of whom are condemned as ‘infidels” (“kafirs”). These infidel kafirs, be they native apostates or foreigners, are mandated death according to the Qur’an and Shari’a by virtue of their non-Islamic religious preferences. When facing such non-Muslim enemies, solidarity confronting and fighting religious infidels and foreigners is inherent in Middle East tribalism, upon which the unifying identity concept of Islam is constructed. The tribal identity concept means that Islam cannot exist without an enemy because Muhammad built tribalism’s opposition to, and fear of, “the other” into the Qur’an. By casting non-Muslims as “evil enemies of Allah,” opposition to these wicked non-Muslims provides the religion’s unifying reason. The hatred contained in the Qur’an and Shari’a is focused on foreign infidels or on other Muslim sects or sub-sects deemed heretics or infidels. For example, when there are no foreign infidels to fight, other Muslim sects may be declared infidel apostates from Islam in order to carry on the perpetual religious war that is the core organizing principle of Islam. The following two important Qur’anic suras indisputably demonstrate the Islamic hatred of foreigners and apostates.

Qur’an 5:51

O ye who believe! Take not the Jews and the Christians for your friends and protectors: They are but friends and protectors to each other. And he amongst you that turns to them (for friendship) is of them. Verily Allah guideth not a people unjust.

Qur’an 9:5

But when the forbidden months are past [agreed Arabian tribal armistice periods], then fight and slay the Pagans [non-Muslims and Muslim apostates] wherever ye find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war); but if they repent, and establish regular prayers and practise regular charity, then open the way for them: for Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful.

It is the Shi’a Twelvers, approximately 85% of all Shi’ites and mainly located in Iran, which are the main contenders against the Sunni Muslims for the leadership of the Islamic world umma. While these two Islamic sect variants are mortal enemies, they are perfectly capable of bombing each other one day and conspiring together against non-Muslims infidels the next. But such time-limited, situational cooperation aside, it is the Sunni-Shi’a power struggle that underlies the continual death and destruction that plagues the Islamic world. For instance, the bombing and retaliation that are currently producing daily mass casualties in Pakistan, Iraq, and Syria are directly attributable to Sunni-Shi’a sectarian warfare. Furthermore, these Muslim deaths have nothing at all to do with the Arab-Israeli conflict, which is regularly blamed as the central cause of Middle Eastern strife by Islam-ignorant U.S. politicians like Clinton, Pelosi, and Kerry.

While the Shi’a Twelvers are the Shi’ite sub-sect that carries on the weight of the battle against the Sunnis, on the other side of the sectarian divide it is the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan) and its affiliated jihadist groups that largely bear the warfare burden against the Shi’ites. The Sunni jihadist groups like al-Qaeda, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM), Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ), Hamas, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Lashkar-e-Taiba (LET), and Libyan Islamic Fighters Group (LIFG), which all trace their roots to the Muslim Brotherhood, are active and deadly in the Shi’a-Sunni sectarian war killing Shi’ites around the Middle East and Southwest Asia.

In Syria, the Sunni-Shi’a sectarian war is not a straightforward conflict because of the proxy role that is played by the Assad family clan of Alawites, fighting for itself and for its distant Shi’a relative sect, the Iranian Twelvers. For forty-one years the Alawites under Hafez and Bashar Assad have dominated, suppressed, and persecuted the majority Sunnis and the other minor religious sects living under their control. In the Middle Eastern tribal politics of Islam, there is no such thing as political compromise, only winner-take-all/jungle-rules-government. It is ironic that, while even Iranian Shi’a Twelvers consider the Alawites to be Islamic heretics (which the Sunni Muslims certainly agree with), the geopolitics of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Government under the Twelver sect mullahs can overlook Islamic religious theological purity in order to extend Shi’a dominance from Afghanistan to the Mediterranean Sea. This Shi’a “breakout” -- from Twelver-Iran, though Shi’a-controlled Iraq, into Shi’a/Alawite-Syria and on into Shi’a Hezbollah-dominated Lebanon -- puts the Iranian Khomeinist Shi’a Twelvers in position to challenge the dominant Sunnis of Turkey, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia for power, influence, and leadership within the Islamic umma in the Islamic Levant and beyond.

The Stakeholders In The Islamic Sectarian War In Syria

Of the roughly 26 million inhabitants in the Syrian Levant, there are approximately 74% Sunni Muslims (62% Arabs, 9% Kurds, and 3% Turks), and 16% other Muslim sects (11% Alawites, 3% Druze, 1% Shi’a Twelvers, and 1% Shi’a Seveners), while the remaining 10% of the population is Christian. Although Sunni Muslims constitute the majority of the population in Syria, they have been largely shut out of political power in the Damascus government since the ascension of Hafez al-Assad to dictatorial control of the nation in 1971. On the other hand, the non-Alawite/non-Sunni Muslims and Christians did not fare as badly as the Sunnis under Alawite government. The Kurds of northern and northeastern Syria are fiercely independent and have attacked outside forces, Sunni and Alawite, that have encroached on what they consider to be Kurdish territory. The Kurds’ stake in this war is to attain independence from any Syrian central government, Sunni or Alawite.

To cut through the media’s pro-Muslim Brotherhood spin and the U.S. Government’s “Arab Spring” obfuscation, the true issue in the Syrian bloodbath is whether Sunnis or Shi’ites (through their Alawite proxies) control a key territory in the heart of the Islamic world. Because the Sunnis are known to be harshly oppressive to religious sects that are non-Sunni, the Druze, Shi’a Twelvers and Seveners, and Christians in Syria have ranged from neutrality to siding with the Alawites in the on-going war. The Alawites fighting to preserve the Assad regime are augmented on the battlefield by Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the Iranian created Shi’a Hezbollah jihadist group in Lebanon, and Iraqi Shi’ite militias. The Alawite-IRGC-Hezbollah-Iraqi Shi’ite militia forces are proving difficult to dislodge, and there is a relative stalemate at present.

The Syrian “rebels” battling the Alawite-IRGC-Hezbollah-Iraqi Shi’ite militia forces are largely Muslim Brotherhood-associated Sunni Islamists that include al-Qaeda, the al-Nusra Front for the People of the Levant, Abdullah Azzam Brigades, al-Baraa ibn Malik Martyrdom Brigade, and Libyan Islamic Fighters Group (LIFG) to name some of the more prominent. Another major group fighting against the Alawite-IRGC-Hezbollah-Iraqi Shi’ite militia coalition is the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which is composed of about ten thousand defectors from Assad’s Syrian Army. The FSA maintains that it is non-sectarian and has no politico-religious-sectarian goal except the removal of Bashar Assad as president of Syria; however, its objective of deposing Assad coincides with that of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated groups, so it must be numbered in the Sunni anti-Shi’a forces. What the FSA’s disposition would be in a Sunni-dominated Syria after Assad is open to speculation, but there is little doubt that a disciplined, dedicated group like the Muslim Brotherhood with its politico-religious-sectarian goal of Sunni umma leadership will co-opt the FSA to its cause or demobilize it. Another prominent group in the fight against the Assad regime is the Syrian National Council (SNC), which is a coalition of Syrian opposition groups based in Istanbul, Turkey. The SNC declares that it desires political pluralism in a post-Assad Syria, but it is populated by numerous present and past Muslim Brotherhood members and may well be serving as a front to conceal a Sunni Islamist agenda from Western political leaders, misleading Islam-ignorant U.S. politicians in the process.

No U.S. Interest In The Islamic Sectarian War In Syria

President Obama and his foreign policy establishment have been criticized for not intervening in the Syrian civil war to stop the killing of Syrian civilians, as the Obama team was allegedly motivated to do to prevent a civilian massacre in the Libya. While the mass death in Syria is tragic, it should be apparent from the above description of the situation in Syria that there is no U.S. national interest to be served by intervening to facilitate the victory of either the Alawite-IRGC-Hezbollah-Iraqi Shi’ite militia coalition or the Muslim Brotherhood/al-Qaeda Sunni forces. Furthermore, there is another consideration about preventing a greater Syrian civilian bloodbath, it is that the 1400 year history of Islam indicates that the winners will murder the losers in horrific numbers. So, unless the U.S. plans to remain as a permanent military occupation force in Syria, there is no way to guarantee that Muslims won’t eventually do what they have always done.

Regarding intervening militarily to stop the killing of civilians in war for “humanitarian reasons,” U.S. politicians and the American people must understand that intervention to change the course of a war can never be done “neutrally.” When a stronger military force intervenes to change the facts on the ground in a war, it perforce works to the advantage of one side or the other because it will curtail operations that are either succeeding or failing, thus changing the outcome. Neutral military intervention is an impossibility. Consequently, unless the U.S. desires to improve the military prospects for one side or the other, intervention should be a non-starter.

But the salient point regarding the Syrian civil war is that the U.S. loses regardless whether the Alawite-IRGC-Hezbollah-Iraqi Shi’ite militia coalition or the Muslim Brotherhood/al-Qaeda Sunni coalition wins. It is an inevitable international misfortune for the U.S. and West that either the Sunnis or Shi’ites will one day be victorious in Syria, but the U.S. doesn’t have to spend blood or treasure to assist any Muslim sect to achieve its conquest goal. Neither Islamic sect, Sunni or Shi’a, has long-range, international interests that coincide with those of the U.S.  There is at least one media report that the U.S. is clandestinely aiding the Muslim Brotherhood/al-Qaeda Sunni coalition in Syria by arming them with heavy caliber weaponry, supplying more than $50 million, and recruiting Sunni jihadists for them in Libya, then shipping them into Syria via Turkey! Such aid to the Sunni jihadists is foolish in the extreme!  After squandering American lives and taxpayer money for more than three decades in Egypt, Lebanon, Bosnia, Kosovo, Kuwait, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya aiding Muslims, with no discernible reciprocity, U.S. politicians should understand that there is nothing to be gained intervening in Syria.

Tom_Snodgrass_RSNCol. Thomas Snodgrass, USAF (retired), was an Intelligence Officer and an International Politico-Military Affairs Officer serving in seven foreign countries during a thirty-year military career.

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