Alex Ray 05.02.2016
In the media war for Syria, half-truths and redacted explanations are par for the course. While most common narratives romanticize the trajectory of the war into pre-assumed moulds, others such as “sectarian war” or “baddies versus baddies” shift blame from outside powers and their part in the conflict and largely onto the people caught up in it.
Such labels subtly but firmly press the message “those people are a mess and it isn’t really our fault.” – or as a Sydney-sider said to me recently “They’re all mad, they just want to kill each other.”
The Australian’s report on the issue of Syria’s partition featured a prime example of these erroneous blame-shifting explanations – “Mr [Bob] Carr said the carnage being wrought in the Middle East underscored the “immaturity’’ of the region’s political cultures.”
Such simplistic narratives are occasionally spoiled by small details though. Take this recent report by The Australian. It concerns ISIS’ January massacres of hundreds of civilians and pro-government fighters in Deir ez-Zor province. Quoting the pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights The Australian reported:
The monitor said yesterday that Islamic State had also kidnapped more than 400 civilians from captured territory. Those abducted, all of whom are Sunnis, include “women, children and family members of pro-regime fighters,” Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said.
The detail “…all of whom are Sunnis,” flies in the face of many of the divisions that are supposed to characterise the Syrian conflict. Deir ez-Zor is a rural town, on the eastern fringes of regime influence that has been under siege for years from ISIS. Yet its majority Sunni population is still supporting the regime and Syrian soldiers embedded there have suffered heavy casualties. This brings into question a few over-simplifications common to the conflict:
(1) that the Syrian government has done little to fight ISIS – just ask the families of Syrian Army soldiers killed and executed at Tabqa Airbase or Deir ez-Zor, many of whom receive goading photos of their sons decapitated heads.
(2) that rural areas are opposed to the government – this fails to explain why rural areas such as Suweida (Druze) and Deir ez-Zor are either neutral or pro-government.
(3) that the conflict is divided between Sunni opposition and non-Sunni government supporters.
Like previous forays in the Middle East, Western propaganda concerning our involvement in the Syrian conflict also seeks to paint the Syrian conflict as a moral problem. Initially between a tyrant and brave revolutionaries, then between a tyrant and Islamist militia– with the accompanying image of Western powers standing around wringing their hands about what to do. Yet little coverage informs us of the Western geo-political interests directly fueling the crisis which have little to do with morality, human rights and international law.
Anyone with a semblance of morality should condemn and be horrified by all conflicts – but shouldn’t for a minute think that this is why governments care. Regime change in Syria and the ripple effects it promises for status quo powers such as Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia, the US and other NATO allies is still the number one game. The plan is just now being reworked – under the guise of ending the conflict.
Incapacitating the Syrian state – the goal of regime change from the outset – would benefit every major power in the region except Iran, who despite the nuclear deal is seen as a disruptive force in global hydrocarbon politics and regional dominance. That is why the partition of Syria is again being floated as an option, as was confirmed in Prime Minister Turnbull’s discussions with President Obama.
For status quo powers involved, partition is the next best option to regime change via proxies. Syria’s partition was backed by former Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr, whose track record of bright ideas includes publicly advocating the assassination of President Assad.
In some regards the partition option could be more expedient for the powers opposed to Syria’s regional role as it means they do not even need to arrange the removal of Bashar al-Assad as head of state. Rather a division of the State administration and the factions vying for power would create entities so small they have no choice but to cooperate or are too weak to cause trouble.
In a surprising remark from the usually ill-informed Australian Labor Party, Carr was contradicted by deputy Labour leader Tanya Plibersek (paywall) who rightly asserted: “There are generations of people who have grown up with an identity as a Syrian or an Iraqi … Recent polls confirm many people feel a sense of national identity and feel the conflict is soluble.’’
In summary Plibersek rightly said that partition ignores the strong national identity and sentiment that has dominated the lives of nearly every Syrian alive today. She could have added further reasons why partition is a hasty, self-serving and reckless solution to the conflict:
(1) Partition along sectarian lines – because that is likely all that the Islamist opposition will accept – plays into ISIS and al-Qaeda’s hands – they would love an official Sunni state that re-enforces sectarian divisions. Sunnis who do not agree with their vision would then have little choice but to live under their control.
(2) Ideologically, partition along ethnic and religious lines is a white flag of surrender to the extremist belief that societies and communities cannot co-exist and except difference amongst one another – in stark contrast to modern Syrian history. This intolerant falsehood is founded on the claim that “At its root, the Syrian imbroglio is a sectarian one, produced by a mix of age-old conflict between Sunnis and Shias, and an old imperialist policy of divide-and-rule” – Dilip Hiro, Yale Global Online
(3) There is no reason why this partition would be any more ‘accurate’ at drawing ethno-religious boundaries than the original Sykes-Picot agreement. Syria’s ethnic and religious landscape is unique in that while there are broad sections of the country that can be predominantly identified as Sunni or ‘Alawite, Armenian, Kurd or Druze etc, nearly all of these areas are dotted with other groupings. Also inter-religious marriage has been relatively common. Any attempt to redraw its boundaries likely to be based on territory now controlled by various militia rather than its pre-war demography
For more information on Syria’s ethnic and religious breakdown see here.