Syrian Kurds cross the border between Syria and Turkey at the southeastern town of Suruc in Sanliurfa province, on September 24, 2014. The numbers of Kurdish refugees fleeing into Turkey to escape the advance of Islamic State jihadists in northern Syria has slowed considerably over the last few days, Turkish officials said on Wednesday. AFP
President Barack Obama has taken his war on terror to another Arab country. Syria is the seventh Muslim country that has been bombed by the US since Obama became president. The other six countries where he ordered bombings are: Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and Libya.
Of course, in his defence, the Nobel peace laureate says he is committed to his policy of not putting boots on the ground and is acting in self defence. In this instance, US officials say they are fighting against a terror group that has killed two American citizens and therefore such a war has legitimacy in international law, but others insist UN approval is necessary as the US action is an affront to Syria’s sovereignty.
Syria has extended a cautious welcome to US attacks on terrorist positions within its territory.
But the absence of an assurance from the Obama administration that the US war on the terror group Islamic State – also known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria/Levant (ISIS/ISIL) – will not become a war on Syria is conspicuous and has stoked fears about a long war in the Middle East.
Even President Obama has acknowledged that the war on IS targets in Iraq and Syria is not a hit-and-run affair. It will be a long war. Well one more war won’t be too much for a region which has not seen peace since Arab leaders betrayed the Ottoman Caliph and fought on the side of the British forces in World War I.
Ever since then, the US and the West have been in one way or another getting involved in wars, military coups and counter-revolutions in the Middle East, not to mention many an intrigue that has plagued the region.
The US war on terror that began in October 2001 in the wake of a terrorist attack on the United States in September that year will not end with a war on IS in Iraq or Syria. It will go on and on until every country in the region is affected.
Already Yemen is in major political turmoil and it is only a matter of time before an IS-like group emerges there. Early this week, much to the chagrin of regional power Saudi Arabia, the minority Zayidi Shiites – also known as the Houthis -- captured the capital, Sana, and brought the Sunni-dominated government to its knees. The success of the Houthi rebellion, believed to be backed by Iran, has sent chills down the Saudi spine. Yemen is strategically located on major oil shipping routes and could become a new front in a region-wide tussle for influence between Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia. On Wednesday, al-Qaeda in Yemen called on the Sunnis to take up arms to fight the Zayidis, who make up 30 per cent of Yemen’s 25 million population.
With the Yemeni government and its military virtually capitulating to the Houthis, in most probability, Saudi Arabia and the US may back various Sunni groups, no matter whether they carry al-Qaeda or IS franchise.
The United States, the patron saint of Saudi Arabia, on Wednesday expressed support for Yemen’s besieged President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who, under pressure, agreed to share power with the victorious Houthis.
Reports say the Houthis are not happy with what they have got. They want more – the full control of the government. This is why many fear that the crisis in Yemen may explode into a sectarian war with the Saudis likely to back Sunni armed groups.
In yet another dangerous development which shows that the IS scourge is spreading far and wide, a French tourist was beheaded on Wednesday in Algeria by a group that has pledged allegiance to the IS. It appears that IS has beaten al-Qaeda in the race for popularity among terrorists.
Like the Yemeni crisis, the crisis in Syria also has its genesis in the rivalry between Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia.
The Syrian crisis broke out at a time when Saudi Arabia, other Gulf countries, the United States and Israel had serious worries about the rise of Iran and the power of a Shiite crescent that linked Iran, a soon-to-be nuclear power, with the Shiite-sectarian regime in Iraq, the Alawaite regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria and the powerful Shiite militant group Hezbollah in southern Lebanon.
When the 2011 Arab Spring brought down regime after regime, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries seized the opportunity and whipped up a rebellion against the Syrian regime, hoping that just as they got rid of Libya’s strongman Muammar Gaddafi, they could topple the Assad regime. This they did with the aim of weakening Iran’s power and benefitting from pipelines that would take their oil and gas across Syria. The fact that such a campaign would lead to the deaths of tens of thousands of innocent people and make millions homeless apparently did not occur to the orchestrators of the Syrian war.
Puffed with hubris, they sparked a civil war in Syria. Making matters easy for the Saudis, many Islamists in Syria and other countries follow Salafism or Wahhabism, a version of Islam practised and promoted by Saudi Arabia. Some adherents of this version of Islam define Shiite Muslims as infidels. Because of this dangerous Takfiri ideology – declaring a Muslim to be a non-Muslim – the IS leadership and members see their atrocities as acts of worship and stay blind to the Qur’anic commandments with regard to love, tolerance, forgiveness, magnanimity and justice.
The Gulf rulers’ enmity for Shiite Iran and the pro-Iranian Assad regime in Syria has even made them to promote US military action against Iran’s nuclear sites. It is the same hostility that drove them to arm Sunni rebels in Syria.
When the Syrian civil war started in February 2011, there was no single command under which the opposition could unite and direct its fight against the Assad regime. The US and its Gulf allies sent in military aid and money to prop up the rebels. The rebellion grew in strength with Islamic credentials with al-Qaeda-affiliated rebels savouring battlefield successes. The US drew criticism that it was supporting al-Qaeda groups. But the Obama administration continued to arm and train the rebels on an assurance from its Gulf allies that they would be in control of the groups. However, in December 2012 the US took a bold decision and banned the Jabhat al-Nusra, which had openly declared its allegiance to al-Qaeda and which by then had become the most powerful rebel group in Syria. There was only a small IS presence in Syria then. Both al-Nusra and the IS were getting instructions from al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Another significant turn of events was when, in June 2013, the United States refused to take military action against the Syrian regime even after President Assad had crossed Obama’s red line – the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime. The US’ about turn helped the Syrian forces to gain major military victories. Angry at the US decision, Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies took matters into their hands and decided to arm the Syrian rebels, irrespective of whether they carried the terrorist label or not. Money and weapons flowed in abundance. They did not mind which group got them as long as they fought Assad. This was where the rebellion in Syria got out of hand. Among those who benefited was the Islamic State. The group is led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. As his name denotes, he is from Iraq. His popularity rose among Iraq’s Sunnis after he successfully led a jail break in 2011 in Iraq and freed some 3,000 Sunnis arrested on charges of terrorism. The freed Sunnis were moved to Syria and soon the Islamic State began to make major gains in the battlefield. The success prompted al-Baghdadi to issue a call to other rebel groups to join IS.
Drawn by the IS’s success, many small rebel groups joined hands with the IS. Al-Nusra refused to heed the call and petitioned al-Qaeda chief al-Zawahiri, complaining about Baghdadi. Al-Zawahiri ordered Baghdadi to return to Iraq. Baghdadi told him he took orders only from God.
Among those who switched allegiance to IS were thousands of misguided Muslim youths from Western countries. On Wednesday, the United Nations Security Council adopted a US-sponsored resolution compelling states to prevent their nationals from joining jihadists in Iraq and Syria. But the US and its European allies such as Britain pretended not to see when hundreds of Muslim youths left for Syria under the guise of organising refugee aid. Terrorism experts say some 3,000 western Jihadis are in the 30,000-strong IS force.
After a month of US air attacks on IS targets in Iraq and after three nights of air attacks by the US and its Gulf partners on IS targets in Syria, the group is far from being defeated. It still holds a fourth of Iraq and a third of Syria. As bombs fall on IS targets, the group captures more territory in the Kurdish region of Syria.
Reports from IS-controlled areas in Syria and Iraq say residents there have little option but to put up with the IS as they see the government forces as a bigger devil than the IS. Other reports said the US bombing has only helped rival Islamic groups to unite because the bombing is not only against the IS but also against al-Nusra and Khorashan, a little heard of al-Qaeda veteran group. The group’s name came into prominence only after the US started bombing its positions this week.
In the Arab world, there is little or no sympathy for the IS. Many in the Arab world blame the US and the Gulf regimes for the creation of the monster. As the Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar join the US military attacks on IS targets, many Arabs in the street ask where these courageous Arab leaders and their fighter jets were when the Palestinians were attacked by Israel in July and
August this year.