Sunni rebels are united in their opposition to the Assad regime, but there are deep divisions among militias sponsored by rivals Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
Watching the Syrians kill each other, one can get the impression from the media that there are two sides—the Assad regime and “the opposition.” The latter would be comprised of Arabic-speaking Sunnis who want to overthrow the Alawi-controlled regime, giving the subtle impression that there is a united Sunni opposition. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Arabic-speaking Sunnis may loathe Assad, but they also hate each other.
Much—maybe even most—of the Syrian opposition is made up of Sunni Islamists who hate not only the Alawi-run regime, but also others such as Christians and Shi’ite Muslims, of which the Alawis are supposedly an offshoot. But even more important, the Sunnis hate each other. There are many divisions among the Sunni Islamists and they are spending a lot of effort, not only killing the regime’s forces, but also killing fellow Sunnis. It would be prudent if we took advantage of the differences among the Sunni fundamentalist, who in the long run pose much more of a danger to the non-Muslim world than does the Assad regime.
The Saudi-Qatari Rivalry
Qatar and Saudi Arabia, both fantastically wealthy, fanatical Sunni Muslim countries, passionately hate each other and support different groups within the Islamic opposition groups in Syria. Roughly speaking, the Qataris, along with the now only nominally secular Turkish Republic, support the Muslim Brotherhood. The Saudis support Salafi, i.e., other radically anti-Western fanatical Sunni fundamentalist groups. They disagree on the nature and theological principles of the future Muslim Caliphate that they believe will rule the entire world.
And to be very clear, all of these Sunni fundamentalist groups, whether supported by Qatar, Saudi Arabia, or Turkey, are passionately and aggressively anti-Western, anti-Russian, anti-Chinese, and anti-Israel. All of the non-Sunni world has a huge stake in their defeat and might even consider ways to help them fight each other.
Regarding Syria, not every Arabic-speaking Sunni is an Islamic fundamentalist. Many, especially a significant portion of Syria’s business elite and the tribal sheikhs, have as much to fear from the Sunni fundamentalists as do the non-Sunni groups. Nevertheless, it appears that the vast majority of these non-fundamentalists still believe in noblesse oblige, i.e., Islam must rule and Sunni Islam is the only correct form. Others must know their place, which is politically and socially inferior to the Sunnis. That does not leave much breathing room for Syria’s non-Sunnis, who view the fundamentalist opposition as an existential threat, but at the same time realize that the regime has created a situation which could destroy them.
The Qataris and Saudis, whose ruling families are distantly related, hate each other, even though they are both Wahhabi fundamentalists. Qatar continually looks for ways to poke the Saudis in the eye; for example, establishing the wildly popular al-Jazeera. It chose the name because in Arabic it means the entire Arabian Peninsula, which the Saudis, because of their size, clearly dominate. Qatar is a relative pinpoint in size, but the name of its international TV station subtly tells the Arab world it is more important than the Saudis. Saudia Arabia, in unending battle, established its own TV station which broadcasts out of Dubai—al-‘Arabiya—meaning the Arab, or Arabness—which is meant to counter al-Jazeera. [Author’s Note: There are two TV stations named al-Jazeera, one broadcasting in Arabic and the other in English. Both owned and operated by the Qatari government, they have completely separate staffs and editorial policies. Al-Jazeera in English is not particularly anti-Western and has interesting content. Al-Jazeera in Arabic is viciously anti-American, anti-Semitic, anti-Christian, and incites its viewers to fight the West. Al-Jazeera English was created to pacify Western governments, who are lulled into believing that since both stations have the same name, they must air the same material.]
The Qatari-Saudi animosity plays itself out in many ways, most interestingly in Egypt, Syria, and Turkey. In general, Qatar supports the Muslim Brotherhood, having announced a $3 billion loan/grant to Egypt, which is now ruled by the Brotherhood. The Saudis oppose the Brotherhood, and support the Salafists in Egypt, who received the second largest number of votes in the previous election there. These Salafists are theologically much closer to the Saudi view of the world. Both, remember, are inimical to Western interests.
In Syria the same is true. Qatar and the Saudis support different groups, because neither wants the other to have sway over a future fundamentalist Sunni-ruled Syria. Qatar by and large supports the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, while the Saudis support other Salafist-Wahhabi-oriented groups.
Sadly, that leaves out two of the most important local Sunni factors in Syria—the traditional tribal sheikhs and the Sunni-dominated business community. This situation is somewhat similar to what happened in Sunni-dominated Western Iraq before the American Surge in 2006. Before the Surge, foreign Sunni fundamentalists associated with groups like al-Qaeda came in and imposed their rule on that area, disrupting the local social structure that was dominated by tribal and notable family rulers. Among other things, the outsiders demanded that the locals give their daughters in marriage to the al-Qaeda types, infuriating the Iraqi leaders. When the Americans demonstrated that they were serious and prepared to do whatever necessary to remove or destroy al-Qaeda in Western Iraq, the locals rejoiced and joined the American side. Locals began referring to the American Marines as “the strongest tribe.” Middle Easterners gravitate toward “the strong horse” (see Lee Smith’s excellent book of the same name), which is the major reason the Surge succeeded.
Just as the outsiders were then imposing their will on the Iraqi Sunnis, outsiders are doing the same in Syria today. The local Syrian tribal leadership bitterly opposes these foreign Sunni fundamentalists, but is helpless to do much about it. Elder Saudis, for example, are taking young Syrian Sunni brides, some as young as 12 years old, whom they “import” or “buy” from the Syrian refugee camps in Jordan and elsewhere. Just as in Iraq, Syrian non-fundamentalist Sunni fighters who oppose the Assad regime see the handwriting on the wall and want to be on the winning side. They are therefore abandoning the Free Syrian Army—which roughly includes many Syrian anti-regime groups, and joining the Wahhabis and Muslim Brotherhood fundamentalists. These fighters sense that their traditional leadership is helpless. Interestingly, early in the Syrian civil war, this could have provided the West with an opportunity to help these non-fundamentalist locals, as we did in Iraq, but we chose not to, and it seems to be too late to do so now.
The Turkish Connection
Turkey is also deeply involved in Syria, supporting, along with its Qatari allies, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. Until Prime Minister Erdogan and his AKP fundamentalist party took over Turkey in 2002, Turkey had largely stayed out of the Middle Eastern political quagmire. But since Erdogan came to power, Turkey has involved itself more and more in Middle Eastern politics, clearly hoping that as the strongest Sunni power in the area, it could resume the dominating role played by its predecessor, the Ottoman Empire. Turkey at first allied itself with the Saudis, who poured money into both business investments and funded religious instruction and new mosque construction throughout Turkey. The Turkish government—with Saudi funding—began constructing new mosques in Alevi towns and villages. This amounted to Sunni imperialism because Alevis are not Sunnis and do not pray in mosques; they do not want or need the Sunni Wahhabi religious texts that preach a faith unlike theirs and contradict basic Alevi religious principles.
Moreover, when Abdullah Gul, a stalwart of the AKP, became Turkey’s President, Saudi King Abdullah paid a visit to Ankara. Very shortly after his arrival, Gul went to visit King Abdullah at his hotel. Turks and other Middle Easterners understood this as Turkish groveling at the feet of the Saudis. Moreover, Middle Easterners understood this visit as signaling that the Turks agreed with Saudi Arabia’s goals regarding the Islamic world and the non-Muslim world.
At some point, however, the Turks changed sides. They now work more closely with the Qataris, who are heavily invested in a Muslim Brotherhood victory in Syria. The current Turkish leadership has long had strong ties with the Arab Muslim Brotherhood, but why Turkey appears to have abandoned its close partnership with Saudi Arabia remains unclear. What is clear is that the Turks and the Qataris are now on the side of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, and the Saudis support Salafi or Wahhabi groups which oppose the Muslim Brotherhood.
Russian and Chinese Support for the Assad Regime
Russia has many reasons for making sure that the Assad regime remains in power. The one most often cited, but not necessarily the most important, is that the Russians have access to only one port in the Mediterranean Sea, Tartus, along the Syrian coast. But Russia reportedly has access to just two piers there that serve its aging fleet. As noted by the BBC, “The base is just a point on the map to replenish food and water and carry out some occasional repairs.” There are also many Russians living in Syria, and these Russians have a lot of money invested in the country.
But there is a much more important, long-term reason for Russia to support Bashar Assad. Russia sees Assad’s Alawi (i.e., non-Sunni) regime as a bulwark against its own restless Sunni Muslim population. Russia’s population is shrinking. Life expectancy for males is 59 years and declining. Slavic (i.e., non-Muslim) women are having very few children and a great many abortions. Russia’s Muslims—almost exclusively Sunni—on the other hand, are having many more children. That means that if present trends continue—and there is now no reason to believe that they won’t—Russia might end up having a Muslim majority long before the end of this century. A Sunni victory in Syria would embolden Russia’s Muslims. Russian President Vladimir Putin needs to avoid this at all costs.
That is why, when Putin visited Israel and the Palestinians in 2012, he went out of his way to be photographed with Christian leaders in Bethlehem. He was making the point, “I am a Russian Orthodox Christian, and Russia is and will remain Russian Orthodox Christian.”
Russia, of course, is locked in a battle with the Sunni fundamentalist Turkish government over AKP support of Sunni fundamentalists opposing Assad. But in addition, Turkey is by far the most ethnically and religiously similar to Russia’s Muslims, as most of Russia’s Muslims are Sunni Turkic peoples or Caucasians who have relatives in Turkey and/or have some feeling for Turkey. At some deep level, do Russia’s Muslims see Turkey as a model of a modern Islamic state? The last thing Russia needs is a Sunni victory in Syria, which will strengthen Turkey’s Islamist agenda and encourage Muslim dissent and terrorism inside Russia.
All of the above makes Russia a natural ally of all of the non-Sunni forces in the Middle East. It explains Russia’s support for Assad, Iran, and, for that matter, it explains Putin’s relationship with Israel. Even though he shares common goals with the Shi’ite countries, Russia does not support the destruction of Israel by Iran, nor does Putin support an attack by the Assad regime on Israel.
As for the Chinese, they prize stability above all and follow a pragmatic foreign policy. They are almost completely uninterested in whether a regime is dictatorial or kills its own citizens. The Arab Spring frightened the Chinese, who saw how brittle Middle Eastern countries were, with the exception of Israel. China had worked easily with Mu’ammar Qaddafi in Libya and lost investments there with his overthrow. Since then, China has engaged in much soul-searching about lessons it must learn from the disaster.
Though China prizes stability, it prefers a divided Middle East where it can play various countries off against one another.
But China also has an additional very serious reason to back Assad; the same reason the Russians have. China’s northwestern Province—Xinjiang—is populated by a restive Sunni Turkic Muslim group—the Uyghurs—at least some if not most of whom want independence from China. The Chinese have been very concerned about the population in that province, which borders on the Uyghurs’ fellow Turkic Muslim Republics of Central Asia. Given how easily information travels today, a Sunni victory over non-Sunnis could, from the Chinese point of view, embolden the Uyghurs and threaten the stability of China.
Sunni fundamentalism, in the end, is much more dangerous than Shi’ite fundamentalism, because about 85% of the world’s approximately 1.4 billion Muslims are Sunni. Any Sunni fundamentalist victory would give its cohorts throughout the world a strong shot in the arm. Shi’ite fundamentalism, though a more immediate danger because of Iran’s terrorist regime, can much more easily be handled should we in the West decide to confront the Iranian government. With that immediate danger out of the way, we could focus our attention on the Sunni fundamentalist threat, which in the long run is much more dangerous to the West, China, Israel, and Russia.
Clearly the Chinese, Israelis, and Russians understand what is at stake. Does the United States?
Harold Rhode, Ph.D., served from 1982-2010 as an Advisor on Islamic Affairs in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He is now a distinguished Senior Fellow at the Gatestone Institute.