Note: This article was originally published on January 11th, 2013 on the blog The Lighthouse.
The Syrian civil war is often presented as being about rebels attempting to overthrow Bashar Al-Assad’s regime and skirmishes between these rebels and the Syrian army. Upon taking a closer look, we can see that that Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Islamists factions such as the mujahedeen and the Muslim brotherhood are also involved. Why are these groups involved in the war and what do they hope to gain?
Iran has been predominately a Shiite Muslim country since the Safavid Dynasty. Middle-Eastern countries such as Bahrain that are near Iran and that oppress Shiite Muslims often fear that their Shiites citizens might turn to Iran for protection. However, oppressed Shiites are not the only ones who seek an alliance with Iran: Hafez Al-Assad, the father of current Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad, formed an alliance with Iran during its war with Iraq. The Al-Assad family are Alawites, Muslims who follow a particular branch of Twelver Shiite Islam. Hafez Al-Assad was also a member of the Baath party, a secular party based on Gamal Abdel Nasser’s ideas of pan-Arabism, Arab nationalism and socialism. Because of these secular ideologies, the Baath party was fiercely opposed by the Muslim Brotherhood. The relationship between Iran and the Al-Assad family is a threat to the interests of the United-States, making Saudi Arabia inevitably involved in the Syrian civil war.
The modern Saudi state stems from two alliances: the one between Muhammad Ibn Saud, the founder of Saudi Arabia, and Muhammad ibn Abdel Wahhab, the founder of the Wahhabi movement, and the alliance between Franklin D. Roosevelt and King Abdel Aziz Ibn Saud. According to Wahhabist doctrine, Shiite Islam is heretical, hence the reason why Shiite Muslims in Saudi Arabia are oppressed by the Saudi state. The Saudis also oppress Shiites for practical reasons: they mainly live in the east of the Arabian Peninsula which is rich oil and near Iran. Since its tensions with Iran are rising, the United-States thought that burning bridges between Iran and its ally Syria would be an excellent way to weaken the Iranians: if the Al-Assad family were to be overthrown, then its alliance with Iran can be broken. The United-States and Saudi Arabia plan to do this by sending the Mujahedeen and allies of the Muslim brotherhood into Syria. After all, Saudi Arabia was a refuge for some members of the Muslim Brotherhood during the mandates of Nasser and Sadat. Having Saudi Arabia send Mujahedeen abroad to fight its enemies is nothing new to the United-States. Saudi Arabia had trained and sent Mujahedeen to aid Afghans fighting the United-States’ worst enemy of the 1980s, the Soviet Union. To both Saudi and Afghan Mujahedeen, the war against the Soviets was holy because they saw the Soviets’ atheism as a threat to Islam.
The Syrian civil war started out as the Syrian people’s struggle to overthrow the Al-Assad regime to obtain a better tomorrow. It has now turned into a game of chess between the Al-Assad family and Iran on one side, Saudi Arabia and the United-States on the other, and the Syrian people is caught in the middle.