x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Sectarian forces in the region show no sign of retreat

Sectarian divides in Syria now run deep, thanks to both the Assad regime and the opposition fanning religious divisions for their own uses.

Sectarianism is one of the greatest disasters brought about by the tyranny of the Syrian regime and the rashness of the opposition. Today, a discourse reeking of exclusion and elimination prevails and tolerance and cohabitation are nowhere to be found. Sectarianism has added fuel to an already blazing fire.

Even though both the opposition and the regime try and avoid being labelled as sectarian, sectarianism is present in the spirit of their statements, with the regime urging continuing the battle until all terrorists are wiped out, and the opposition insisting on keeping up the fight until the last “Shabbih” (a reference to Alawite fighters who fight for the regime) has fallen. Victims from both sides are being ruthlessly trampled every day on social media. Instantly, the loathsome sectarian image of the terrorist and the “Shabbih” forms in our minds. Foreign Shia armed factions come to help the regime, and foreign Sunni armed factions arrive to back up the opposition.

It would be gullible to believe that the raging desire for sectarian eradication is proper to one party and not to the other. It should rather be said that everyone has the same desire for sectarian killing, reprisal and vengeance.

We should tackle the issue carefully, break the sectarian taboo, talk openly and discover the ailment before finding the cure. It is important to recognise the complexity and dangers of this issue.

I do not believe in war. It is my conviction that there is nothing glorious or honourable about taking up arms and waging wars and that fighting is a mere expression of barbarity and is just another form of the law of the jungle. However, this does not mean that the combatants are not fighting for a cause, or that they do not have their reasons for entering this spiral of death.

Iraq, Syria and Lebanon have a population of 60 million, of which over 40 per cent are Shiites. If we exclude the Kurds whose concern is nationalist rather than religious, we find that Shia make up nearly half of the population, let alone the southern Iraq extension towards Kuwait, Al Ahsaa and Bahrain and the Alawite extension into nonsectarian Turkey whose population exceeds 10 million. This means that the sectarian conflict will be devastating with no hope of victory for either party.

Some might say the situation in Syria is different, as Sunnis make up the absolute majority, and that lumping Iraqis and Lebanese with the Syrian people is not right, but events have proven the comparison is relevant. Lebanese Hizbollah and Iraqi combatants have broken the frontiers into Syria with their fighters, proving to be more adamant than the Baath party in their refusal of the Sykes-Picot agreement and its borders.

And although the doctrinal and fundamentalist dissent between Shia and Alawites is wide, and there are well-known fatwas issued by Shia authorities against the partisans of Mohammed bin Nusayr, founder of the Alawite branch, all these differences become less marked when they face common dangers. People rally around the combatant who would save them. Case in point: a few weeks into the conflict, everybody turned into Shia: Nusayris, Druze, Ismaelis.

On the other hand, there is also no hope of any division on a sectarian basis due to the overwhelming distribution of the Sunnis and Shia all over Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, and the great overlap of such distribution. Any separation on a sectarian basis would prove impossible, and any division on a majority basis would spawn warring countries and crushed minorities. In both cases, the catastrophe is imminent and hence people have no choice other than coexistence.

The regime will collapse and the tyrant will fall but sectarianism will linger. We should go back to living together as we have always done.

The sectarian scene in Syria is not a foreign matter in essence, but due to the language of elimination and exclusivity, it has become governed by foreign influences. The reality of the conflict is that there are two divided and equally numerous and powerful sects, the first of which supports Iran and its strategic weight while the second backs up the Gulf states and their financial and political capacities. Neither alliance is willing to scale back. They consider the battle in Syria and Iraq to be a matter of life and death, which should be settled to safeguard the strategic interests of each of them. But the price is paid by none other than the people who are living a war in which they have no say whatsoever.

The opposition rashly attacking Iran, at the request of some capitals that support the revolution, and considering it as an enemy of the Syrian people, has been a mistake whose price has been paid by the Syrian people and one that directly contributed to the abominable sectarian division. Iran intervened directly in the Syrian conflict, by deploying professional forces from Lebanon, Iraq and Iran.

I believe that even if the Shah himself were reigning over Iran, rather than the current mullahs, Tehran would not have remained a mere observer of the Syrian issue. It would have most likely intervened to safeguard its interests, and such an intervention would still be justified by other humanitarian reasons that are no different than the justifications provided for the opposition’s backers: protecting the people from genocide and coming to the rescue of the bereaved.

The more the pictures of torture and sieges the opposition produces in Al Maadamiya, Darya and Yarmouk Camp, the more the regime will counter them with similar pictures in Nubul, Al Zahra, Al Hawla, Tal Kalakh, Al Kassir, Riff Salma, Adra Omalia, Sadad, Maaloula.

Will the Syrians realise that the religious diversity that has marked their life is their inescapable fate? Will they understand that the elimination of a sect will be more of an eradication project, and that wagering on a particular sect will lead to the suicide of the whole community and that the diversity of sects and parties is a must?

Dr Mohammed Habash, a religious scholar, is a former member of the Syrian parliament