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Shadows of Afghanistan loom over Syria

English | العربية

Mohammad Fadhel Al Obaidly

Advisor, Public Opinion Research Center

Tag: Middle East
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During the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s, the fighting between Afghan Mujahideen and the Russian troops reached its turning point when the United States supplied the Mujahideen with short-range anti-aircraft missiles. After a long time of Russian air superiority, the Stinger missiles paralysed Russian war helicopters and jet fighters and the Mujahideen gained a tactical advantage in the battlefield. Can we expect the same scenario in Syria now after the US decision to arm Syrian opposition fighters?
It is not only the arming of Syrian opposition that reminds us of Afghanistan, but the prevailing atmosphere in the area after Syrian government forces captured the town of Al Qusayr from the hands of opposition fighters with the help of Hezbollah fighters.
Soon after the battle of Al Qusayr, the calls by Sunni clerics for jihad in Syria resounded vociferously all over the Arab world reminding us of the alarm bells of jihad in Afghanistan in the early 1980s.
Furthermore, reports of military build-ups in and pointed at Syria are increasing. According to Londons The Independent (June 16), Iran decided to send 4,000 fighters from the Revolutionary Guards to Syria, adding that around 3,000 US military experts were in Jordan in what seemed to be a prelude to establishing a no-fly zone south of Syria. Reports also said that Britain was planning to send 350 Royal Navy personnel to Jordan. And in Egypt, the ruling Muslim Brotherhood joined these moves by declaring, through President Mohammad Mursi, the suspension of diplomatic ties with Syria. Meanwhile, rumours are spreading on social networks about tens of thousands of volunteers from various Arab countries ready to go to Syria for jihad. 
Weeks before these moves, and only to justify their involvement alongside the Syrian regime, Shiite leaders in Lebanon and Iraq told fellow Shiites that they were forming a brigade to defend the Shiite shrines in Syria from the Wahhabis--though the town of Al Qusayr apparently has no Shiite shrines.  Both sides in this conflict are exciting sectarian emotion to inflame this war. It is becoming a pure sectarian war and nobody in the modern Arab history has ever witnessed this amount of unrestrained hate speech and incitement for murder between Sunnis and Shiites.
So, amid this rising tension, is an arms game being played out to maintain the balance of power before heading to the Geneva 2 conference, due within a few weeks? Some will say maybe.  But for many this sounds like wishful thinking. Obviously, the battle of Al Qusayr was an effort to gain a strategic point for the regime and its allies, but for the US and its western and Arab allies and the Sunni world, it was an escalation and it may have crossed a red line.
Without doubt the worst in this war is gradually unfolding. And since governments deeply involved have a margin of manoeuvre, diplomacy, and secret channels of communication with the ability to force compromises, then fears of the breakout of a full-scale regional war come from somewhere else perhaps from unexpected quarters.
Perhaps compromise or a deal can be reached through the G8 summit though Barack Obamas administration still hesitates about greater involvement in the complicated sectarian conflict. Maybe an Iranian gesture could alter the direction of events. For the Iranians this may be the right time to seek a break after eight years of unceasing confrontation with the West and its Arab neighbours. The newly-elected Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani, tagged as a moderate, has sent some signals of a willingness to ease the tension between his country and its opponents. The heavy burden of sanctions favors this change in stance. A shift in Iranian policy could aim at derailing the growing Sunni dash in the Arab world to help the Syrian opposition and its allies recoup from recent military losses. However, as long as the sectarian war has its own dictionary, redressing a balance of forces has no meaning beyond retaliation.
At this point, we also have the other players who are out in the open the jihadists: whether the young, Sunni, Lebanese jihadists steadily growing in number in the north or those who are already in the field in Syria or those who are heading toward the siege.  In that way Syria is fast becoming another Afghanistan for the Sunni fighters and a last frontier for Shiite fighters so long as the Syrian regime is merely fighting for its survival.
The situation in Syria resembles the situation in Afghanistan during the resistance against Russian occupation that had hundreds of fighting battalions in the field. Syrian opposition fighters are reminiscent of the Afghan Mujahideen in the 1980s in terms of their fragmented state. However, while the Afghan Mujahideen were very independent, the Syrian opposition (as well as the Shiite fighters) are victims in a game in which a peaceful civilian uprising has been hijacked by sectarianism and regional interests and turned into a dirty sectarian war.

Originally published in Gulf News,  19 June 2013

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