Syria, Lebanon and Iraq: The dangers of sectarian conflict
Was it a coincidence that the Syrian regime, the Iraqi prime minister and Hezbollah’s chief all went on the offensive this week simultaneously? Were their actions choreographed by some master player, acting out some scripted roles in Iran? Or were the three acting independently based on local calculations?
Were their synchronized attacks, both lethal and verbal, based on some understanding of international attitudes toward the conflicts in Syria and Iraq? Were they undertaken on a belief that the outside world has abandoned Syrian and Iraqi civilians to their fates? Are they accurately reading between the lines in the United States and European Union’s failure to lift the ban on arming the fighters?
Should the new hardening positions of the three key players of be blamed on electoral politics? Or are they part of a long-term strategy? Did the US and EU unwittingly encourage them to step up the violence?
Iran, the main force behind all three players, is going to the polls on June 14, 2013 to choose a new president. It has been clear for some time that Iran’s hard-liners are behind much of the mayhem in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere in the region. Those hard-liners are of course keen to project success to Iranian voters. Reformers highlight Iran’s foreign failures while hard-liners try to demonstrate that their policies have produced some desired outcome, or at least averted disaster.
Similarly, the beleaguered Iraqi prime minister is trying to improve his chances in parliamentary elections, which are scheduled for 2014, but there are calls in Iraq for early elections in light of a continuing political gridlock. He is keen to postpone the poll until he is sure that he could win, which would depend on his ability to revive his sapped popularity by taking a tough line against Sunni protests.
Hezbollah is of course largely a derivative player, but Lebanon too is forming a new government, expected to curb the group’s control of the Cabinet. It may calculate that a tougher line would strengthen its hand in the political maneuverings around the formation of the new government.
How was the situation on the ground this week?
In Syria, there were credible reports that the regime and allied militias have perpetrated two massacres in the village of Al-Baidha on Thursday (May 2) and in nearby town of Banias on the Mediterranean coast on Friday (May 3). A total of 149 civilians were butchered in the two massacres. Activists posted videos on the Internet showing killed, mutilated and burned bodies of the victims.
The Syrian regime has admitted taking action in the same area, but has strictly banned independent journalists and outside observers from the area, lending credibility to the massacre reports. The regime’s actions appear to be part of an attempt to force non-Alawite residents to flee, to make it possible to establish a sectarian-based entity on the coast.
Hezbollah this week increased its involvement in the Syrian conflict. It had already increased its activities against the fighters along the Syrian-Lebanese border. After months of denials, its secretary-general admitted last Tuesday (April 30) that his forces had been involved inside Syria as well, in what he described as “defensive” action around holy places. However, in a long speech last week, he threatened to unleash the full force of his group if the Syrian regime’s survival ever became threatened. In his ominous warnings of a sectarian war that Hezbollah would reluctantly wage, he all but abandoned his earlier posture as a non-sectarian player.
In Iraq, for several days during the last week of April, about four thousand peaceful demonstrators in the town of Al-Hawija were surrounded by government forces and denied access to food, water and medical aid. On Tuesday (April 23), troops attacked protesters with live ammunition, tanks and helicopters. About 50 demonstrators were killed and (150) injured in the attack.
The Iraqi forces’ attack in Al-Hawija was part of a larger plan to end protests in predominantly Sunni areas. Ironically, however, after unleashing his troops against Al-Hawija protesters, the prime minister accused them of sparking sectarian warfare. In a rambling speech similar to that by Hezbollah’s leader, he warned of an endless sectarian war that no one would survive.
While short-term electoral politics may explain the surge in violence this week in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, it should be clear that the Syrian regime and its allies have long-term plans to crush the opposition by any means necessary, and to advance the Iran-inspired plan for the region.
The Syrian regime and its allies may have taken comfort from the US and EU hesitation about allowing the Syrian fighters to arm themselves against the superior arsenal of the regime. Such hesitation is buying the regime precious time to try to reverse the gains made by the fighters and terrorize the civilian population.
In Iraq, in particular, the United States bears special responsibility. It is the main supplier of arms to the Iraqi government, the use of which is governed by special rules. The US and Iraq have committed to a “strategic partnership,” signed a “Strategic Framework Agreement” and “Status of Forces Agreement,” among other things, making it possible for the US to counsel its partner to use restraint in dealing with protests.
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