Following the killings of Hezb Allah member Samir Kuntar and Salafi jihadist Zahran Alloush in Syria in December, as well as the rising tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the International Department of Republican Sinn Féin analyses the recent developments in Syria and the Middle East.
In the last days of December, amidst the ongoing carnage of the Syrian Civil War, two notable actors on opposing sides were killed by targeted air strikes close to the capital Damascus. One was Samir Kuntar, a Lebanese Druze and long time prisoner of Israel. The other was Zahran Alloush, one of the most prominent leaders of the Salafi jihadist insurgency in Syria.
Samir Kuntar died on December 19 when a presumably Israeli airstrike destroyed a residential building in the majority Christian-Druze town of Jaramana south of Damascus. Zahran Alloush was killed on December 25 in a Syrian air force strike on a village in the Ghouta agricultural area east of Damascus.
Media reporting of the deaths mostly followed the established narrative of a religious war between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslim power blocs. This common picture was fuelled by the execution of 47 people, including the prominent Shi’ite Muslim cleric Nimr al-Nimr, by the Saudi Arabian authorities, sparking diplomatic crises between the two major powers in the region, the Wahhabis’ Saudi Arabia and the Shi’ite Iran. Among those executed were also one Egyptian and one Chadian, the Interior ministry reportedly stated. However, the vast majority of those charged and executed are members of Saudi’s Shi’ite minority. The absolutist Sunni Muslim monarchy carried out at least 158 executions in 2015, with beheadings reaching their highest level in two decades, according to human rights groups.
Tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran are steadily increasing since the Shi’ite uprising against the Sunni Monarchy in neighbouring Bahrain, reaching its heights since the Saudi intervention against the Shi’ite Houthi tribesmen in Northern Yemen. On Thursday, January 7, Iran reported that Saudi Arabia attacked its Yemeni embassy with airstrikes.
Following the executions in Saudi Arabia, an angry crowed stormed the Saudi embassy in Teheran, setting the building on fire. Although the Saudi monarchy continued its executions and oppression of the democratic opposition, the Western media focused on the violent scenes in Teheran, forecasting a further radicalisation in Iran that could threaten the interests of the close US ally, the Saudi government. Contrary to these one-sided media reports, political activists of the Irish Republican Movement were reminded by these scenes in Teheran of the burning of the British Embassy in Dublin only days after the Bloody Sunday shooting in Derry in 1971, and ten years later, the burning of the British Embassy in Teheran in protest to the death of hunger striker Bobby Sands.
Following the storming of the embassy in Teheran, Saudi Arabia cut off all diplomatic ties with Iran. The Sunni monarchy was swiftly followed by various Gulf monarchies. Indeed, these developments only further deepen the tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia with direct consequences for the on-going wars in Iraq and Syria.
While it cannot be denied that the war in Syria und indeed the region is strongly fuelled by this sectarianism, the idea that is the root cause of the conflict is as untrue as it was – and is – in Ireland. While sectarianism was always present in the Irish conflict, carefully fostered and used by both the British forces of occupation as well as the two partitionist governments north and south of the British-imposed border, it was never the cause. Instead, Republicanism and revolutionary progressive Irish nationalism always aimed to provide an alternative to and eventually overcome the evils of sectarianism and racism.
In Syria, too, the root cause of the conflict is not sectarianism. It is not about sectarian hatred the “primitive tribes” of the Middle East cannot overcome. Sunni and Shi’ite take the place of Catholic and Protestant in this narrative of religious hate as a force of nature that always was and always will be.
In reality, the conflict pits the forces of reaction and sectarianism against anti-imperialist forces that aim to overcome those very evils.
Alloush represented the former. Viewed by some as a possible ruler of a post-Assad Syria and enjoyed the backing of Turkey and Saudi-Arabia as well as at least the tacit backing of the USA, he publicly vowed to exterminate the Shia and Alawite religious communities in Syria, people he referred to as “filth. ” Most of the other powerful insurgent groups are no different. Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham and their like engage in sectarian killing, forced conversions and other forms of persecution of ethnic and religious minorities.
The forces assembled against them are far from being a purely “Shiite bloc”, although they are indeed spearheaded by Iran, Hezb Allah and Shiite groups from Iraq. They include almost all ethnic and religious groups of Syria and also supporters of various political tendencies. They include Alawite, Shiite, Sunni, Druze and Christian Syrians, Sunni Palestinians living in Syria as well as socialist, communist and Arab nationalist groups from Syria and abroad.
To be sure, there are no clean wars and abuses and atrocities have been committed by all actors in this conflict. But between these two opposing sides there is no doubt which bloc deserves the support of any progressive, anti-racist and anti-sectarian movement or individual.
Since the start of the Russian airstrikes in Syria, the pro-western opposition, as well as the various Saudi-, Qatar-, and Turkey-backed Sunni militias are losing ground. After years of expansion, Daish/ISIS is finally also losing ground; in early January, Iraqi government forces recaptured the city Ramadi from Daish/ISIS, preparing a long-term assault on the Daish/ISIS held city of Mosul in Northern Iraq. Nonetheless, Daish/ISIS is a highly centralised and disciplined organisation with a sophisticated security apparatus and capacity for delegating power as one of the Middle East’s best-informed observers, Abdel Bari Atwan writes. Lead by Sunni former Ba’athists from Iraq such as Abu Muslim al-Turkmani, Daish/ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s second-in-command, who was a member of the military intelligence under Saddam Hussein, or Baghdadi’s second deputy, Abu Ali al-Anbari, who was a major general in the Iraqi army, its military capacity cannot be underestimated. As Malise Ruthven in the New York Review of Books correctly writes:
“The only reputation achieved by these ferocious jihadists inspires such fear that government troops in Iraq and Syria have fled rather than put up a fight. Only Kurds and Shias still have the motivation to offer resistance.”
While the Russian airstrikes in Syria and the recent defeats of Daish/ISIS in Iraq might have turned the momentum in the long run, a growing number of activists of progressive and secular groups such as the PFLP or the recently legalised Syrian Social National Party have left the region in recent years. Thus, Hezb Allah and the Kurds in the North are the only politically progressive ground-forces continuously fighting Daish/ISIS in Syria. Under those circumstances, it is no surprise that the Paris terrorist attacks were foreshadowed by a similar atrocity in the Shi’ite neighbourhood of Beirut. The day before the attacks in the France capital, the health ministry of Lebanon said 43 people had died and 239 had been wounded in the twin blasts which targeted the Shia-majority district of Burj al-Barajneh; Daish/ISIS claimed responsibility.
While Europe and the Middle East are plagued by terrorist threats from Daish/ISIS, Turkey relaunched its war against the Kurdish community, laying siege to the Kurdish city of Cizre while at the same time supporting right-wing Turkmen militias is Syria. The Israel execution of Samir Kuntar in a Damascus neighbourhood just before Christmas and the Israeli bombing of South Lebanon in early January must be understood under those circumstances. The recent attacks against the Shi’ites and Kurds by Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and their allies, can only be interpreted as a direct support for Daish/ISIS in their war against their most potent military enemies, the Shi’ite and Kurdish ground forces in Syria.
The Kurds in the Syrian context constitute a separate camp from both the government and opposition that merits further consideration. In pursuit of their legitimate struggle for national liberation, political and cultural freedoms they have kept their distance from the main conflict and established a working autonomous administration in the North of Syria. A lot has been achieved by them in a short time in terms of democratic participation, gender equality and other issues.
But in the midst of their fight against the genocidal threat of Daish/ISIS, they have come in danger of depending to heavily on the USA and NATO. Coupled with the failing peace process between the PKK’s imprisoned leader Abdullah Öcalan and Turkey, the revolutionary forces among the Kurds are in danger of embracing the very forces of imperialism that push the sectarian agenda the Kurdish left is fighting against.
The Kurdish de-facto state in South Kurdistan/Northern Iraq is already firmly entrenched in an alliance with both the US and Turkey. For their own reasons Israel, too has recently come out in support of the Kurdish aspirations for nationhood. The Kurdish liberation movement and its military and political leadership, which once confronted the Israeli invasion of Lebanon shoulder to shoulder with the PLO and the Lebanese left, must remain vigilant in their dealings with the forces of imperialism. Their policies since the times of the British-French partition of the region a century ago have always been ruinous for people of all ethnicities and faiths.
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