Sectarianism: A Tool of Counterrevolution in Syria

Pt 2. Political solution Necessary To End Cycle of Violence in Syria

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JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.

We now bring you part two of our discussion with our guest Omar Dahi. He’s an assistant professor of economics at Hampshire College in Massachusetts. He’s an editor at The Middle East Report. And he’s of Syrian descent.

Robert Fisk of The Independent of London reports that Iran has decided to send 4,000 members of its Revolutionary Guard to Syria. Talk about this latest news in the context of the already expanding sectarian conflict in Syria.

OMAR DAHI, ASSOC. PROF. ECONOMICS, HAMPSHIRE COLLEGE: Well, sectarianism since the start of the Arab uprising in my view has been the primary tool of counterrevolutionary forces.

As soon as the uprisings developed, starting in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Syria, and elsewhere, the Gulf Arab states initially employed sectarianisms for several reasons. The first reason is to try and turn the uprisings demanding social justice, demanding economic equality, demanding freedom into a means of furthering their own influence in these countries and supporting the Sunni Islamist forces. For example, in the case of Egypt, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood has been supported by Qatar directly.

The second reason they initiated this is to stave off insurrection in their own countries and to suppress the fear–or, sorry, to suppress what they feared would be democratic movements growing in the Gulf Arab region. And we have seen in fact a mass movement in Bahrain that this brutally suppressed by invoking this sectarian discourse, and in that the Bahraini freedom movement was simply a tool by Iran to further its interest.

So, essentially, we need to understand sectarianism is a counterrevolutionary force, unleashed by the U.S. allies primarily. And in the case of Syria it has been the most obvious, because you’ve seen news stations like Al Jazeera, which was in many ways a very professional and great news station, despite its minor faults, up until the start of the Arab uprisings, but increasingly and in the case of Syria completely employ a very sectarian discourse, anti-Shiite, anti-Alawite discourse in its coverage.

And so, on the other hand, we’ve seen a reaction by the Syrian regime and its allies. And partly also the Syrian regime itself has invoked the fear and invoked the sectarian discourse, not directly, but invoking the fear of a sectarian takeover to scare its social base into supporting it.

So we’ve seen this vicious dynamic of increasing sectarianism is a way of suppressing the revolutionary movement employed by both the Syrian regime and also forces from inside Syria, some of them, and some of them from outside, to basically divert the uprising.

Now, the involvement of Iran and Hezbollah, as we saw, was, if you think about the political support that they’ve given the Syrian regime, an extension of this.

It’s important to backtrack a little bit and to talk honestly about the fact that Hezbollah has been under attack since before the Syrian uprising. A lot of the Gulf allies of the U.S., as well as the U.S. itself, was really displeased, and so was Israel, with the existence of a strong, powerful resistance force in southern Lebanon. So there’s been a sectarian agitation against Hezbollah which preceded the uprising. And Iran itself, as you know, is under siege. It’s under sanctions. It’s constantly under threat as a result of its so-called nuclear enrichment program.

And so the increasing geopolitical nature of this has allowed the sectarian conflict to increasingly become at the fore and to drown out the mass movement towards social justice, towards a pluralistic transition. And, unfortunately, that’s what we see as the largest voices today.

NOOR: What has happened to the movement?

DAHI: Well, initially the movement withstood several months of brutal repression by the Syrian regime. Thousands of people were tortured, disappeared. We don’t even know the number of people in prison today aside from the number of dead and aside from the number of wounded who are outside of prison. There may be tens of thousands of prisoners. So initially and continuously it suffered the wrath of the Syrian regime, which responded really with lunatic force.

Increasingly towards the end of 2011 and throughout 2012 we saw the rise of militarism. And even in the first few months of the uprising, the uprising was overwhelmingly nonviolent but not exclusively. But the proportion of militarization increased over time. And some of it was indigenous defectors, some of it was people picking up weapons to defend themselves, which was called as the Free Syrian Army. That continued, I would say, until early 2012, when most of the military opposition became increasingly Salafi groups, who were much better equipped, much better funded, and much more skilled and determined fighters who were ideologically motivated, and they became more effective at fighting the Syrian regime. But it became at the expense of completely marginalizing the nonviolent movement.

Now, there are people who still heroically go out on demonstrations. In the territories that are outside regime control, we see people coming out to demonstrate against the Salafi groups like Jabhat al-Nusra. We see them demonstrating against some Free Syrian Army groups because of the corruption of some of the Free Syrian Army units.

So it’s not fair to say that the nonviolent movement has been completely silenced. It continues, and in the minds of many Syrians on the ground, it does continue. But really it’s become very minimal compared to the overwhelming violence and the multiple layers of conflict and war that is happening. There are millions of people who now just have to worry about daily survival–food, shelter, and clothing. And it’s hard to see that these people lacking the basic food and nourishment security can carry out basic survival, let alone carrying out demonstrations against the Syrian regime, which is why a political settlement, a truce, some sort of way to end the violence or minimize the violence as quickly as possible is a prerequisite for a meaningful type of transition.

NOOR: Now, the U.S. has vowed to only fund and arm secular forces in Syria, secular parts of the opposition. Is that possible to do considering how factional the opposition is?

DAHI: Well, I believe the term they use is moderate. I don’t think they really are using the word secular, for many reasons, not least of which is that most, 95 to 100 percent of the fighting forces, even if they were not explicitly Salafi, they don’t identify with the word secular.

I think it’s an illusion to say that you can pick and choose who you can fund and you can control who you fund. It’s basically–time and time again we’ve seen that that’s not possible, which is not to say that we should cast nonsecular forces all in the same light, nor is it to say that all the Islamist fighting forces are extremists who will basically attack U.S. interests and so forth. But really the idea that you can control the dynamics of arming and funding armed groups is just silly.

NOOR: And, finally, can you talk a little more about just who the U.S. has allied itself with around the region? Yeah. So talk more about who the U.S. has allied itself in the Middle East.

DAHI: Well, I think looking at U.S. alliances in the Middle East helps shed better light on what the U.S. is doing in Syria. And I think it’s safe to say that the U.S. knows a lot more what it doesn’t want in the case of Syria than what it does want. The biggest alliance, of course, is with the state of Israel. For many years, the Syrian regime, even though it allied itself with forces opposed to Israel, such as Iran and Hezbollah, was the perfect enemy for Israel. In a sense, it was the enemy that was stable, predictable, kept the northern front of Israel basically quiet. There was no resistance based in Syria for the last 30, 40 years. Syria never retaliated directly to any attack, including the most recent attacks by Israel during the uprising, before the uprising. So the primary interests of the U.S. and Israel are preventing regime collapse in Syria. They don’t mind bleeding the regime, they don’t mind the bloodshed, really, as long as it becomes contained. That’s the primary ally of Israel. And in many ways it’s basically a cynical a type of policy, because their goal is really neither pro-regime or pro-opposition; it’s whatever maintains stability.

The other main allies, of course, are the Gulf Arab states Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Of course, nondemocratic regime Saudi Arabia is one of the most repressive, undemocratic regimes in the world, a very conservative, reactionary ideology that has been spreading throughout the region and throughout the Muslim world, really, funding the Wahhabi type of ideology. So those are really the U.S. allies in the region.

Now, there’s a slight discrepancy between what the Gulf allies have done and wanted in Syria and what the U.S. and Israel has wanted. That’s why you see Syria–excuse me. That’s why you see the U.S. increasingly marginalize Qatar, which they saw as funding too many groups which might cause a problem to Israel, and that’s why you’ve seen the U.S. and Israel, mainly the U.S., vetoing the kind of weapons that the rebels can use. The flow of weapons has been calibrated such that the rebels are not completely vanquished, but neither do they have the ability to one day really pose a threat to Israel. And that’s why you see part of this dynamic as a sort of an endless civil war rather than all-out victory for one side or the other.

NOOR: Should people be concerned that this arming of Syrian rebels will or may possibly lead to further and greater U.S. involvement and intervention in this conflict?

DAHI: Well, I think the U.S. is increasingly going to get drawn one way or another. I think people should be opposed of increasing the armaments. I think people should be concerned about the humanitarian catastrophe that is happening to Syrians primarily. If the U.S. increases its involvement in terms of humanitarian aid, in terms of helping the refugees and internally displaced, I think that’s fine. The question is: what kind of involvement do we want? Do we want an involvement that increases assistance for the Syrians and all the people affected by the tragedy to recuperate their lives? What we don’t want is further militarization that increases the cycle of violence.

NOOR: Thank you so much for joining us.

DAHI: Thank you so much for having me.

NOOR: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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