NO issue has more horrified, confused and divided the community than the Syrian crisis – in many ways a re-visiting of the dirty tricks era of the 1970’s Cold War due to US, Russian, Saudi Arabian, Chinese and Iranian interference.
It has horrified with its ferocity and violence. Assaults on non-combatants have been its most abhorrent hallmark, the chemical weapon attack in Ghouta, Damascus, (which killed just over a thousand people) the latest example.
And whilst the US pins blame on Bashar al-Asad – described as a “murderer and oppressor” by the non-ikhwan scholar Shaikh Muhammad Yaqoubi – doubts do ring as to who exactly perpetrated the atrocity.
A Syrian media source told me that Maher al-Asad, brother of Bashar, had ordered the strike as retaliation to Alawite villages being hit by the Free Syrian Army. There was much disgruntlement in the Asad camp, he said.
On the other hand, an AP story claimed that rebels had “mishandled” Saudi-supplied chemical weapons. However, media reports on Syria are often diluted with propaganda, so the proverbial jury is still out – especially with the UN chemical weapons inspectors having to sift through a forensically contaminated site in Ghouta.
In Russia, President Vladimir Putin told the Channel 1 network that he had “plans” if the US struck at Damascus. Other reports had him allegedly saying that he would send missiles against Saudi Arabia, this after Saudi Arabia’s intelligence minister, Prince Bandar Sultan, had tried to wheel-and-deal with him on standing by when the US intervened.
Later Putin was reported as saying that whilst he cautioned about a “one-sided” attack on Syria, he did not rule out supporting a UN resolution on air strikes if Asad was found guilty of the chemical weapons attack.
What is reliable, though, is that since March 2011 over 100, 000 Syrians have died, 2 million have fled, 5 million have been displaced internally and the country now lies in ruins – the UNCHR and international NGO’s warning of the Middle East’s worst humanitarian disaster in modern history.
On the political stage it has confused because it has become a toxic scrum of confusing agendas: Gulf States throwing money at Wahhabi brigands to curb the “Shi’ah-Alawite crescent”; the Iranians desperately protecting the Tehran-Damascus-Lebanon corridor; Russia hanging on to its last Mediterranean naval base; China sticking it to the US and the US being the ignored policeman.
In fact, the Syrian conflict has become so convoluted that The Independent’s Robert Fisk has drily observed that if President Obama does press his missile button, it will see the US fighting on the same side as Al-Qaeda.
In between all of this, disparate elements of the Free Syrian Army – consisting of armed civilians with little or no military training – try to hold their shattered lives together. And, meanwhile, the jets fly from Damascus.
Back home in South Africa, the Syrian crisis has divided the community on sectarian lines, and kindled the embers of a Shi’ah-Sunni conflict, a conflict embodied in whether you support Asad, Iran or the FSA. No middle ground here: those attempting to traverse it have been shot at from all sides.
Indeed, no modern crisis has struck as deep into Muslim psyche as the Syrian one. ‘Ulama, academics and the man in the street have all felt the pain, no matter what side, and there has been much public comment on the matter.
Mostly, organisations have confined themselves to relief work based on scouting missions to refugee camps and sorties over the Syrian border from Turkey or Jordan.
The Jami’at ul-‘Ulama in KZN, one of the local organisations involved in Syrian relief work, described the Syrian situation as an “intractable divide”. The Cape-based Muslim Judicial Council, which sent a delegation of specialists to Syria, issued an extensive report, as did the humanitarian organisation, Gift of the Givers.
The detractors have operated mostly in the social media space. One individual levelling the charge of “hypocrisy”, due to the Al-Qaeda-sympathetic Jabhat an-Nusra fighting on the side of the FSA, has demanded almost daily condemnations from organisations such as the MJC and Gift of the Givers of alleged FSA atrocities.
However, on the issue of military intervention, there is universal consensus – Syria should not be attacked by the US.
MJC president Maulana Igshan Hendricks said he supported government’s statement that further war in Syria would only worsen the situation. Stating that “violence does not beget peace”, he called on the UN to be allowed to perform its mandate in protecting all Syrian citizens.
Ebrahim Vawda of the Media Review Network said that whilst the chemical weapons attack had to be condemned unequivocally, one could not forget the greater geo-political game being played out in Syria .
Naeem Jeenah of the Gauteng-based Afro Middle East Centre told the media that Syria had put the global powers on a “knife edge”.
A representative of Cape Town’s Shi’ah community, who did not want to be named, said that if Obama attacked Syria it would unleash “dark forces” and great instability in the region from which only Israel and the IMF would benefit.