Friday, August 03, 2012

Report on Syrian Issue - The Cultural Revolution

NCF daily Report on Syrian Issue – Disinformation – Report dated 3 August 2012 (early morning)

This report is the latest in our series on Syria.

The Cultural Revolution

We devote this report to the views of Mr Alastair Crooke. Alastair heads up Conflicts Forum, a conflict resolution group that works in a number of arenas. He himself is based in Beirut and takes a special interest in issues in regard to Lebanon and Syria. Formerly he was a Special Representative attached to Solana’s office for the EU. Prior to that he had a long career with British intelligence. The views expressed are those of Alastair himself, not of the NCF:

“What we are seeing right now in the Middle East is a cultural revolution, where Salafism is sweeping the western half of the region - just as twenty–five years ago, a similar cultural revolution swept the northern part of Pakistan and India - creating there a Salafist hegemony.  The Saudi and Gulf adoption of an acerbic sectarian discourse is, on its own terms, empowering the most radical end of the Sunni Islamist spectrum: the Takfiri jihadists.  This component may still be a minority, but this end of the spectrum is growing exponentially.  Takfiris feed into the Saudi rhetoric of sectarian antipathy, and can trump any one in terms of their hatred for all heterogeneity in Islam.   We see moderate Sunnis now using sectarian language that they would never have dreamt of using two years ago.  The sectarianism, the flood of money and the adoption of the objective of establishing a Kalifa (Caliphate) are shifting the centre of gravity of Sunni Islam along the curve to greater stridency and authoritarianism. Moderate voices are being silenced in this sectarian charged atmosphere. Moderate Sunnis are frightened to speak out for fear of being labelled appeasers or apostates. The Arab Spring or Awakening is shifting from its original promise of being a more liberal opening, towards now, a greater authoritarianism.  We see this in the language of the moderate Sunni groups.  I call this revolution cultural, because that represents its main manifestation, but it is now assuming a distinctly political and militant character.   Salafism is changing Lebanon, and marginalizing Levantine Sunnism, and even in Egypt, with its very different heritage, a recent opinion poll (Pew) suggests at least 61% of the population of Egypt are in favour of a Wahhabi Salafist government. This is a dramatic change.  Just one example among many of the real cultural revolution installing itself in the western half of the Middle East, in Egypt, in north Africa – and even stirring in Central Asia. 
The Saudis and Qataris are firing up radical Islam – for the second time, in the case of the Saudis – I saw them do the same 25 years ago in order to defeat Russia in Afghanistan; but its ramifications extended right up to and into Russia.  The West chose to look aside, but ultimately the consequences were continuing war in Afghanistan and bombs in European capitals.   Its consequences may not be so different this time round.  Europe will not rest untouched.  Russia cannot understand why Europe cannot grasp the consequences of this new firing up of radical Sunnism.  Russia is equally concerned by the West's propensity – when it doesn't get its way – simply to by-pass the UNSC and international law, by setting up a 'friends of' coalition who legitimizes or delegitimizes whichever  leader the US has in its sights.  Russia's drawing of a line in the sand in respect to Syria reflects this acute concern.  From their perspective the western pattern of by-passing the UNSC goes like this: first Kosovo, then Libya, Syria now, next Iran; then a former Soviet republic in Central Asia - and finally it may be the turn of Russia itself to be subjected to this treatment. Russia is not –as often suggested – simply protecting ‘interests’ in Syria.   Its concern over the western policies touch directly on Russia's own security.  It is as basic, and as existential as that.

There are three main factors in this shift in culture:
·         Firstly, in the wake of the 2006 war in Lebanon, Saudi became concerned at the prospect of the inflation of standing of Hezbollah and Iran.  The escalation in sectarian language was intended to contain and isolate Iran.  The US gave it tacit consent in hope of containing Iran.
·       Secondly, Gulf states are intent on establishing a Sunni hegemony across the western Middle East, which was formerly a Sunni stronghold, in response to Iraq coming under Shi'I influence, and in order to weaken Iran. 
·       Thirdly, they wish to co-opt or contain reformist Islamism which threatens the Gulf Monarchies' legitimacy, by installing a culture of Salafism with its obeisance to established Authority and to the Saudi king in particular.  The Saudis seek to contain and weaken the Muslim Brotherhood, but have proved content to see Doha try to co-opt the Brotherhood with cash which the MB needs.   We see the impact of this Gulf influence on the Brotherhood discourse:  Whilst they speak of social contract to westerners, they use different language implying obedience to authority, internally; The MB time-honored slogan that “Islam is the solution” has shifted to “Islamic rule is the solution”.  And they speak amongst themselves of democracy as the step towards Islamic rule.  No doubt some of this change in language owes to the Saudi and Gulf funding of these movements.
The initial popular impulse to the 'awakening' has largely been subsumed into three competitive 'power projects:

1.       The Muslim Brotherhood project,
2.       The Saudi – Salafist project which is precisely intend ended to circumscribe the political room for action of the MB, and
3.       The Jihadists (who are takfiris, who also seek a Caliphate, and a return to the Authority of the pious forefathers, but who believe that this can only be achieved by a thorough 'cleansing' of Islam: a purity of fire to burn out heresy and apostasy)
All of the above projects are to a greater or lesser degree in conflict one with the other.
The region is particularly volatile now.  There is insurgency in Syria, no one knows what will happen in respect to Israeli/western intentions toward Iran; or what the consequences will be for the region should this lead to some sort of conflict.  Saudi, contrary to the commonly held Western perspective, Saudi is more vulnerable than commonly thought, to internal unrest.  Usually it is assumed that Shi'I comprise only 11% of the population; but if you add together the Jaffaries (Twelver Shi'I), the Zaidis and Ismailis it amounts to 39% of the population. Then there is a a proportion too who are Hanafis, who are themselves closer to the Shi'I – and even the al-Saud family are not all Wahabbi: many are Hanbalis (out of which Wahabbism emerged).
Regarding the Syrian conflict and its government, there is no doubt that the West has clearly been living a virtual reality in relation to the real reality lived in the region.  The Syrian government is both much stronger and more supported by Syrians than assumed.  The recent Army offensive has been more effective than press reports suggest, and though the border areas may not be under control, the security forces are controlling most of the areas lying adjacent to the borders. There is no stronghold left for the opposition at this stage. Recent events in Aleppo indicate that the strength of the armed opposition is insufficient to topple the government.  The bombing of cabinet members created a different outcome to what some may have hoped for:  The President did not crack, the army did not fragment, and although the population were for a time unnerved, they responded with a powerful show of support for the army and for the President.  At the funeral following the recent assassination of the Defence Chief, who was himself from the Christian community, as the cortege processed there was a huge outpouring of support for the army and the President. The assassinations strengthened rather than weakened army resolve. The Russians are quite clear when they say that Assad may count on their support (as are the Iranians and Chinese of course). It is a loss that the West has entered into a political slanging match with Russia, who alone of all entities is in a position to offer guarantees to any parties to a negotiation. The West would do well to work co-operatively with Russia, rather than antagonize it.  At the moment, there are no prospects for future negotiations and there may be more attempts to assassinate the Syrian leadership. The FSA is small, and has little control over the myriad armed groups on the ground.  According to a leak from US intelligence services, intercept material indicates the supposed massacres in Houla, Qubeir, Tremseh, etc, were committed by the opposition. Just the other day, there was a question in the German parliament in response to which the German government answered that it was their assessment that 90% of the massacres were committed by the opposition. 
Internal and external opposition are split.  Many Syrians are frightened for a fragmentation of the state.  The minorities, fearful of the sectarian killing, strongly support Assad, including the Kurds. Even the Druze support Assad (and when Lebanese Druze leader Jumblat tried to express a contrary opinion he was publicly humiliated by the Druze community). The West is focused on the post-Assad era, but this is another kind of “virtual reality”.  Were Syria really to fragment, which most Syrians hope will never happen, it will not be pretty.  All the plans for the post-Assad era will amount to naught.  Asked if there is anyone who might best offer Syrians a pluralistic state with equality of citizenship, the answer is President Assad alone has this potential, if he is allowed to do it.  However the prospect is that conflict will continue for as long as the Gulf states and Turkey continue to finance and arm an insurgency.
The strategic weighting in the region is finely balanced.  At the moment the Sunni Gulf states are still on the offensive, but it is quite possible for the politics of this region to turn inside out.  The difference between it tilting one way or another is no more than a slender membrane apart."

No comments: