Since the Arab Spring began, the rebellion in Syria has been the only one to evolve into full scale civil war, and still is the only conflict with the potential to shape the politics of the entire Middle East. The future stability of Iran, Lebanon, Iraq and even Turkey is now resting on the outcome – and at the level of global politics, Russia and the US are currently headed for the negotiating table, to try and find a diplomatic solution to this holy (and unholy) mess.
A war that the Assad regime seemed to be on the brink of losing a few months ago, is now far more evenly balanced. The war may not yet be winnable by the Assad forces, but events on the ground (such as the government victory in the pivotal battle for the town of Qusayr) mean that any peaceful solution now has to include the Syrian dictator within the equation. Any Assad 2.0 regime that arises from the ashes though, will not have the same secular nature as before. The regime has become too dependent on Shia fighters for the sectarian genie to be put back into the bottle.
If one believed the rebels, all of the government’s recent successes on the battlefield have been due to the infusion of Hizbollah fighters from Lebanon. Similarly, the Assad regime attributes all of the rebel successes to the infusion of foreign Sunni jihadists from Iraq and elsewhere in the region, on the payroll of Qatar (in particular) and Saudi Arabia – who are busily financing the Syrian rebellion in order to isolate and undermine the regime in Iran. In neighbouring Iraq, the Maliki government certainly sees it that way:
If Assad were to fall in Syria, some Iraqi politicians believe that Iraq’s international border would eventually lie at Abu Ghraib, on the outskirts of Baghdad. They envisage the entire western region of Iraq (currently home to large-scale anti-government protests) being lost to tribal elements, Al-Qaeda fighters, and forces sympathetic to the new post-Assad Syrian government.
This very real potential for spillover makes matters extremely difficult for the Americans, given that some of the most successful fighters among the Syrian rebels belong to radical Sunni franchises explicitly aligned with al-Qaeda.
Has it really come down to a Hizbollah vs. al Qaeda battle on the ground? No. Yet both are proxies in the struggle between the conservative Sunni regimes in the region on one side, and the radical Shi’ite regime in Tehran on the other. The advent of Hizbollah does seem to have bolstered the morale and capability of the Assad forces – but Hizbollah is only one among several Shia militias from outside Syria who have joined the conflict. Many of these fighters have got involved in order to protect Shia shrines from being damaged and despoiled by the rebels. The destruction of Shia mosques by the Sunni rebels is becoming a notable feature of the civil war.
These foreign Shia brigades include the Righteous League (Asaib al-Haq) and Mahdi Army forces from Iraq and – most importantly – a group called Abu Fadl al-Abbas, which originated in the Shia heartland of Iraq, and which is now reportedly recruiting young Shia fighters from across the region. (The name is derived from one of the young founding martyrs of Shia Islam.) The Alawite minority to which the Assad family and Army henchmen belong is a Shi’ite sect, one formerly persecuted and isolated for generations. While only relatively few Alawites have prospered significantly under the Assads, the Alawite community defends the regime – if only for fear of the collective vengeance that would surely follow if the Assad regime should fall.
Reportedly, the foreign Shia fighters are being recruited in Iraq, trained in Iran, transshipped via Beirut and dispatched by Iranian middle men to battle zones such as – for example – the defence of the Sayyid Zuneiba shrine in Damascus. As this Guardian article explains, the foreign brigades are freeing up the government forces for deployment elsewhere.
Murtadha Aqeel, 21, a college student from Baghdad, decided to join the jihadists in Syria at the end of 2011…Murthada trained with a Kalashnikov on the plains of southern Iraq; gruelling 12-hour days with a thousand other would-be jihadists…”Once you get to the capital, there is a training centre near the shrine where all volunteers have to do a quick session of military training…All of the volunteers come from abroad. We have everything to facilitate our fight. There are all kinds of weapons, no shortages at all. Three meals and hotels to host the fighters, mobiles and internet which are never cut.”
In spite of the presence of the Sayyida Zeinab shrine, the battle to control the area, which is an essential approach to Damascus, has descended into a grinding but lethal stalemate….”There is no need for the Syrian army in Sayyida Zeinab. The brigade’s fighters are protecting everything from the airport to the capital to Sweida [a Druze town near the Golan Heights], including residential areas, government buildings, police stations, schools, mosques and hospitals.”
For Hizbollah, their involvement in Syria looks like a major gamble. As some observers have noted, the significant May 25 speech by the organisation’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah didn’t seem to contain an exit strategy:
Nasrallah said that his war is with the extremists, “takfiris” as he named them… [It] was clear Nasrallah wanted to say that not all the Syrian opposition are his enemies, “We don’t accuse everyone in the opposition of having foreign ties. Some have logic, a vision, rightful demands, and they are ready to hold a dialogue. That’s their natural right.” Once again, Hezbollah’s chief explained how his party’s role in Syria evolved. “Since the beginning of Syria’s war we have said that [President Bashar al-]Assad’s regime has its merits and demerits. Reform is required and the only way to reach this is through political dialogue,” he said, adding: “I have contacted Assad and members of the opposition to reach a settlement. Assad accepted the suggestion whereas the opposition rejected it.”
….Nasrallah’s speech was Hezbollah’s declaration of war on al-Qaeda directly. Nasrallah mentioned the “Islamic state of Iraq” and linked it to the radical groups in Syria, accusing it and the Taliban of committing crimes in Syria, Iraq and Pakistan. He took time to explain the “takfiri” mentality to his supporters. “takfiri groups’ control over Syria and especially in border areas with Lebanon poses a great danger on Lebanese Muslims as well as Christians,” he said. “Syria is the resistance’s main supporter and the resistance cannot stand still and let takfiris break its backbone; we believe our action to be a defense of Lebanon, Palestine and Syria.” Nasrallah warned: “If Syria falls in the hands of the takfiris and the United States, the resistance will be trapped and Israel will enter Lebanon. If Syria falls, the Palestinian cause will be lost.”
It is against this backdrop that the US decided last week to allow a flow of small arms and munitions to the Syrian rebels, a policy change announced before the US Secretary of State John Kerry is due to sit down with his Russian counterpart to discuss what a diplomatic solution in Syria might look like. The US hopes it can arm only those rebel fighters that seem to be its friends, and not those that belong to al-Qaeda. This will be a difficult distinction to make on the ground, given the highly effective role that the rebel fighters of the Jabhat al-Nusra group have played in the fighting.
Yet in April, Jabhat al-Nusra supposedly merged with the Iraqi franchise of al-Qaeda. However, this merger has itself been denounced (apparently on the p.r. grounds that its a really bad look) by Ayman al-Zawahiri, chief of what still claims to be al Qaeda’s central command structure. Jabhat al-Nusra suddenly doesn’t seem to be very keen on this take-over bid, either. If it wasn’t undermining the war effort in Syria, this public round of bickering inside al-Qaeda would be music to American ears:
[Iraq’s al-Qaeda franchise leader] Abu Bakr al- Baghdadi insists that a merger he announced in April with Syria’s Jabhat al-Nusra rebel group to create a cross-border movement known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant will go on. Al-Nusra is an al-Qaida affiliate that has emerged as one of the most effective rebel factions in Syria. Its head, Abu Mohammad al-Golani, has rejected the takeover attempt by al-Baghdadi.
Al-Qaida’s global leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has tried to end the squabbling and bring the group’s local affiliates back in line.
But the Iraqi section chief of al-Qaeda isn’t listening to his nominal boss, al-Zawahiri:
In a letter posted online by Qatar-based Al-Jazeera TV last Sunday, al-Zawahiri declared that the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant will be abolished and that the Iraqi and Syrian groups would remain independent with al-Baghdadi and al Golani as leaders of their respective branches. Al-Baghdadi is now defying that command. In his statement, he referred to “the letter attributed to Sheik al-Zawahiri,” suggesting he was calling into question the authenticity of the letter.
“I chose the command of God over the command that runs against it in the letter,” al-Baghdadi said. He urged his followers to rise up against Shiites, Alawites, and the “Party of Satan” — a reference to the Iran-backed Lebanese militia Hezbollah, which has been sending fighters to Syria to fight alongside President Bashar Assad’s regime.
Right. For all parties involved in the Syrian civil war, the only real consolation seems to be…if our side seems to be in brutal disarray, those guys on the other side seem to be in even worse shape.
RNZ Finds Leader, Leader Finds Port in Fairfax Storm
Talking of brutal disarray…with Fairfax in perpetual cost-cutting mode (even as it tries to expand its online presence in order to survive) it has been surprising that the interviews with RNZ’s new CEO Paul Thompson have been almost entirely devoted to his plans for RNZ and alleged long cherished dreams to lead it. Nothing much so far about the rats-leaving-sinking-ship aspect of his decision to bail from Fairfax. For Thompson at least, the move makes sense. Both jobs involve doing more with shrinking resources, but at least RNZ has a guaranteed income, no matter how static.
Fairfax’s problems and crisis response (digital paywalls, closures of suburban newspapers) are outlined here. The details of the subsequent purge at Fairfax are here. A prediction by a former editor of the Age that Fairfax will have ceased publication of the print editions of the Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne Age within two years is here.
Finally: I’m about to take a ten day vacation – the first real one since 2009 – and this column will not be back again until the first week of July. In the meantime…here’s an interview with Michael Shannon, currently visible onscreen as the villainous General Zod in the Man of Steel reboot of Superman. Shannon is a terrific actor. He owned the two Jeff Nichols films Take Shelter and Shotgun Stories, and is one of the best things about TV’s Boardwalk Empire. He also seems remarkably free of Hollywood bullshit. Some sample quotes from the AV Club encounter, leavened with touches of Shannon’s usual directness, and dry sense of humour:
AVC: Getting back to Man Of Steel, did you feel any pressure taking on the role of General Zod? Is there any danger going into a major franchise to play a villain?
MS: I don’t know what the danger would be. Sometimes we did some fighting that was kind of dangerous. I guess we could have punched the other one in the head. But that never happened. I feel a lot more threatened by things like the Keystone Pipeline and the Koch brothers and things like that, than things like being in a comic-book movie.
AVC: Have you always wanted to be in a comic-book movie, or was this just another job?
MS: There’s nothing I’ve always wanted to do. I can’t think of anything in my life that I’ve always wanted to do. I just wind up kind of doing stuff. This is just another bead on my necklace. But it certainly was thrilling to get the call…
You have an action figure now.
MS: There’s a variety of them, actually. That’s what’s weird: that there’s more than one. You have options.
Did you give one to your daughter?
MS: Well, they sent them to me, and my child saw them. I can’t say she, personally, is terribly interested in them. She’s more into the My Little Pony and Tinkerbell thing.
She’ll like them later.
MS: Yeah, maybe. Like when she’s in her 30s.