The Tinderbox of the Middle East

Stephanie Surface analyses and links the historical roots and current scenarios for the conflict in Syria.

Some of the seeds of the current tinderbox situation in the Middle East seemed to have been planted already at the end of World War I. The old Ottoman Empire was partitioned by the victorious Allies and promises were given to Arabs, who had helped defeat the Ottomans, that they would receive land in a future peace settlement.

Syria became a French protectorate, Christian areas at the coast formed the precursor of modern Lebanon. Iraq and Palestine were turned into British mandated territories and Faisal was installed as King of Iraq. Kurds, Assyrians and Turkmens, were incorporated into the Kingdom although they were promised their own independent states. Palestine was split in half and the Eastern part became the Kingdom of Transjordan. Most of the Arabian peninsula was given to another British ally, Ibn Saud, who later created the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

lawrenceBut many Arabs, who fought alongside T.E.Lawrence, soon felt betrayed, as the British had already promised via the Balfour Declaration in 1917 to support the International Zionist movement to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

After World War II the struggle between Jews and Arabs in Palestine finally was settled by dividing the country into a narrow Jewish state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Despite the United Nations deciding on the partition plan in 1947, many Muslims never accepted a Jewish State. Also after World War II, the Arabian countries finally became independent from their former colonial administrators.

Since this time the world has seen never-ending conflicts, not only between Arabs and Jews, but also between different Muslim branches, the Shias and Sunnis, who seemed to have lived side by side in relative peace for 500 years under Ottoman rule. The tense situation in most of these artificially configured countries seemed to be ultimately ‘resolved’ by strong dictators, who were governing by an iron rule, suppressing any internal conflicts.

Many of these dictatorships have ended with the beginning of the Arab Spring, as people have started to fight their own rulers, encouraged by Western countries. But not only young secularised Muslims tried to rid themselves of dictators: radical Islamic groups also took advantage of a new political vacuum, causing problems to establish true democratic countries.

The latest uprising in Syria is one of the most dangerous civil wars to emerge from the Arab Spring, because the old faith-based affiliations not only divide the country, but are also pulling her neighbours into the conflict. The countries who give support to the “Rebels” have all Sunni majorities and are trying to help their suppressed Sunni brothers, as Syria was ruled for over forty years by the Alawite Assad family, part of the minority Shia religion.

The two warring factions in Syria are now supported along Muslim affiliations. On one side are the Sunni countries of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, shipping weapons to the opposition, and Turkey, with a 70% Sunni population, training a new “Free Syrian Army” who consists mostly of defectors from the old Syrian military. But part of the “Rebels” are also shady battle hardened jihadists, consisting of terrorist groups like the Al-Nusra Front, Al-Queda and Fatah-Islam.


On the other side is Assad, being assisted in his struggle by the Shia-dominated countries of Iran and Iraq. Iraq has opened roads and airspace to Iranian Revolutionary Guards, now freely passing through her country and delivering weapons to their close ally, Hezbollah. Russia, who was always keeping a friendly relationship with the Assad regime and is in possession of a military base at the Syrian port of Tartus, recently promised advanced S-300 anti-aircraft batteries to help with the country’s war-torn air defence system.

Israel finds herself in the middle of the conflict, worrying that these sophisticated missiles will eventually fall into the hands of the Lebanese based Hezbollah, and will try anything to prevent these shipments reaching Syria. Russia’s foreign deputy minister recently claimed that the S-300 missiles will be a deterrent against any foreign intervention. It seems Israel is in a no-win situation, fearing that Syria will be eventually ruled by either a regime of  Muslim Brothers with associations to jihadists, or by Assad and Hezbollah, possessing a powerful air defence system and keen on her destruction.

Last week US Senator John McCain slipped via Turkey into Syria to talk to the “Rebels” and assuring the US public that “we can help theSyrian President Bashar al-Assad attends the depar right people”. William Hague and the French government seemed to have persuaded the European Union to drop the weapons embargo for Syria. They hope that threats of weapons’ shipment will persuade Assad to soften his stance at next month’s negotiations in Geneva. As the Syrian opposition is deeply fragmented, some groups already balked at any peace deal with the Assad regime. Also Iran is supposedly not to be included in the peace conference.

The conflict in Syria seems to become more deadly by the hour and developing into a confrontation between the West and Russia. Over 80,000 people were already killed so far and millions of refugees are in camps around neighbouring countries.

In April Assad’s forces began to reverse the course of the civil war, regaining grounds in many of the Syrian regions. German intelligence warned last week that the Syrian army is gaining ground in the conflict every day.

As Prime Minister Erdogan of Turkey recently assured President Obama that the Syrian air force defence was in shambles, he underestimated Russian determination to arm Syria with new S-300 missiles. Will the West actively arm Syrian opposition after a failed peace conference, or are both Russia and the West bluffing to force the other side to accept an agreement on their terms? Certainly the Syrian conflict has entered an explosive new phase.


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