Looking at Syria through different eyes The Times 11 Dec 2012

Looking at Syria through different eyes The Times 11 Dec 2012

It is always illuminating to look at things through different eyes.


An intelligent and worldly-wise Muslim friend said to me of Iraq recently, “the chief effect of the removal of Saddam Hussein was to advance the frontier of Iran 400 miles to the west”. With the current Shia dominated Baghdad Government doing more and more of Tehran’s bidding, he could easily have been talking politics. But I suspect he was also talking religion.


The dominant struggle in the Middle East is not for control of Syria; it is the wider confrontation of which Syria should be seen as a part — the contest between the Sunni and Shia visions of Islam in the Middle East.


The history of Western policy in the Islamic world is rich in examples where we act on what we hope is happening, rather than what actually is.


In the 1980s we hoped we were throwing the Soviet invaders out of Afghanistan, but ended up unwittingly funding and arming a deadly Islamic global insurgency. In Iraq we first helped secular Saddam Hussein against the Shia mullahs of Iran — then we removed him as a brutal dictator – now we discover that we have enabled the expansion of Tehran’s influence in ways we didn’t envisage and wouldn’t have wanted. We hoped that the Arab Spring would lead to a new secular Islamic enlightenment — but what we are seeing instead is the rapid growth of Sunni Salafism, spreading extremist Islam from Mali in Africa, through Libya and Egypt to the increasingly radicalised and factionalised rebel groups fighting in Syria. And this extremist counter- revolution which we hate, is being funded and promoted by wealthy private donors in Arab states we regard as friends in the struggle against President Assad, like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Gulf state monarchies.


Are we being played again? Probably.


Something curious and potentially very menacing is going on in the world of Sunni Islam. At first the Arab Spring looked as though it might lead to a broadly heterogeneous, democratic “secular” Islam, best epitomised by Turkey. Governments elected in the early plebiscites of the Arab Spring — even that of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt — seemed in their first flushes, to support this. Islamic pragmatists by nature, broadly pluralist and tolerant in their approach and above all democratic, these were the West’s greatest hope.


But they are — for exactly the same reasons — regarded by some in the Saudi and Gulf monarchies as the greatest threat. And so, quietly, largely unremarked and almost totally unreported, a counter-revolution is now underway. In war-torn northern Mali, always until now the home of the quiet, gentle doctrine of the Sufi, the Salafists are increasingly the dominant force. In Libya they run many of the armed gangs beyond the Government’s control. In Egypt the widening ripples of Salafist influence are dramatically revealed in a recent poll that showed 61 per cent of Egyptians now supporting a Saudi style (monarchist) government. In Syria, the rise of radical jihadism among the rebels is already bleeding instability in to neighbouring Turkey. In Jordan there is a substantial and growing Salafist opposition to a king seen as far too Western in his outlook and allegiances.


But it would be a mistake to see the motivation behind this as simply anti-Western. Where it appears so, it is a secondary, not primary consequence. For the days when Wahabist Sunnis defined themselves by their attitude to the West are largely over. After Iraq and Afghanistan exposed the myth of Western omnipotence, we are just not that important in the Middle East any longer.


Nowadays this Sunni world does not define itself, as Osama bin Laden did, in relation to the “Great Satan” in the United States, but rather in relation to the “Great Heresy” of Shia. That is the conflict they are now preparing for. And we again are helping them, albeit again, unwittingly.


To us in the West the struggle in Syria is the struggle in which we can never resist intervening – the compelling simple contest between freedom and tyranny. In reality it is much, much more complex than that.


To the growing Salafist counter-revolution in Sunni Islam it is predominantly, something completely different which has nothing to do with democracy and little to do with tyranny. It is the cockpit from which to control the worldwide Sunni community and prosecute the wider struggle against the Shia enemy.


Last weekend The Sunday Times reported the US providing covert arms and funds to the rebels. Probably they are. Probably the French are too. Probably, so far, Britain is not. But London is providing encouragement to the fighters and tacit support for their funders. We need to be much more clear-eyed about the dangers of a regional conflict here and much more active in persuading our friends in the Arab monarchies that the best reaction to the Arab Spring is to reform to meet it and not allow some in their states to seek to undermine it.


We hope for a peace in Syria. But even if Assad were to fall soon, as some suggest, there is one very big reason why a wider peace is unlikely. Syria itself is not the conflict, it is only the front line in something much bigger; a widening, long term struggle between Sunni and Shia to define the future Middle East.


The Russians understand this very well. Their support for Assad rests not just on the fact that he is “their man” and the only one they have left in the Middle East. It is far more about their fear of the Salafist contagion — now also sweeping up into their own Islamic republics of Dagestan and Chechnya. The Chinese too worry about the radicalisation of their Sunni Uighurs.


If, as seems more than possible, the turmoils of the Maghreb and the Eastern Mediterranean dissolve into a wider Sunni/Shia conflict, then, unless we are much more cautious about who we back and why, the scene will be set for the West to be suckered into supporting one side, while the Russians are drawn into the other.


Mao Tse Tung used to call the First and Second World Wars, “the European civil wars”. It is always illuminating to look at things through different eyes — especially if this reminds us that, as in Europe in the last century, so in the Middle East today, a regional war can have global consequences.