For a start, the rebels are not one big happy family all fighting for a common notion of justice.
My goodness. There has been so much internet chatter among Aussie and Western Muslims about the fall of Aleppo to Syrian regime forces aided by Iranian proxies and Russia. But it’s OK. I doubt the chatter will lead to another 0.002% of Australia’s Muslims heading off to join Islamic State.
Instead, the chatter has largely been outpourings of grief at reports of massacres by the regime. Videos from al-Jazeera English and Channel 4 UK are being shared of civilians in Aleppo recording what they believe will be their final messages to the world. One lawyer of Pakistani Muslim heritage living in the US simply posted the words to U2’s Sunday Bloody Sunday.
The group Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT) — which former PM Tony Abbott wanted to ban and which insists only the revival of some sort of caliphate will solve all our problems — is complaining that a photo of a massive march in Istanbul against the Syrian regime was misappropriated by media organisations that failed to mention that HT organised the rally. For goodness sake, guys!
Yet as with any conflict that affects people living thousands of miles away from its epicentre, much of the discussion and debate has lacked nuance. Among the simplistic notions are:
1. Everyone supports the rebels
This might make sense if the rebels were all united. Luckily for the Assad regime, and sadly for its opponents, the rebels are about as united as the Coalition. Based in Istanbul is al-Majlis al-Watani al-Suri (the Syrian National Council) formed in 2011. A year later, it formed a Syrian National Coalition with a host of other opposition groups, but subsequently left in 2004. The council/coalition includes exiled members of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, some Kurds (but not many, given what is seen as Turkey’s influence over the council/coalition), Christians and a few other blokes (lawyer Catherine al-Talli resigned in 2002).
On the military front, things haven’t been much better. There is the Free Syrian Army with numerous militias. Here are the Islamist groups we are taught to hate, often with good reason (e.g. ISIS) and those that are being sponsored (albeit indirectly) by the US.
The civilians themselves support and work with one another if for no other reason than to survive. Writing of her visit to the rebel-held part of Aleppo, one CNN journalist, Arwa Damon, speaks of her encounter with “Sama”:
In Aleppo, at a hospital run by the opposition, I met a young woman who goes by the pseudonym Sama. She was living with the hospital ‘staff’ — now made up mostly of young men and a handful of women, many of whom had no prior medical experience. Among her colleagues at the hospital are people of different backgrounds — moderate, conservative, Islamist, Salafi — and on a regular basis they debate what the future Syria should look like. In some way, the revolution has brought together individuals who otherwise would have never interacted, to trade ideas and ideologies. ‘We even shout at each other,’ Sama tells us with a wry smile. ‘I was with the revolution from the start, the revolution is one line, it’s not Islamist, it’s for all Syrians and Syrians are from all sects.
2. The battle is one between Shia and Sunni
Unfortunately, there isn’t enough space for me to explain the historical, theological and political factors that divide these two major sects, a division that goes back over 14 centuries. Suffice it to say that the predominant sect that resembles Syrian Shi’ism is the Alawi (also known as Nusayri) sect. Now if you like, you can spend the next few days reading this magnificent work by an Israeli scholar. Suffice it to say that both Syria and Lebanon have a fair few Alawis and that they have traditionally lived impoverished lives, marginalised by both Sunni and Shia.
The current government in Syria is headed by the Assad clan who happen to be Alawi. The majority of Syrians are Sunni Muslim, but there is a very strong Christian presence, including descendants of Armenians who fled the Ottoman purges, with many settling in Aleppo.
3. Syria is all about ISIS/Islam — nothing else
Then again, mainstream Australia sees this whole Syria thing as a war on Islamic State and nothing else, with the aim being to keep our streets safe, even if other people’s streets turn to rubble. Or they see it as a war within, or between, or even on, Islam. Hence the attitude in many (especially almost alt-right) circles is: yes, it’s very sad that civilians are suffering, but we don’t want any Muslim refugees (potentially carrying the IS bug) here, thanks very much.
And let no one say that “real” (i.e. white) Aussies fighting on the side of the Kurds are doing anything wrong. The Kurds are totally blameless, notwithstanding evidence that they too have been committing atrocities. Our white Christian boys wouldn’t be caught dead fighting with terrorists in Syria.
First published in Crikey on 19 December 2016