by Bernice Lipkin

Within the last couple of years the Middle East has seen dramatic popularist uprisings that deposed the ruling dictators. The hope embodied in the phrase "Arab Spring" was that democracy would blossom. Few cared to consider likely outcomes beyond the initial toppling of a hated ruler. By now we've seen how the story has ended after the early events played out. In Egypt, the dictator was deposed; the democratic idealists who started the rebellion eventually clashed with extremists who wanted a fundamentalist theocracy; a compromise was worked out. When the dust settled, the Muslim Brotherhood was in complete control. Buddies of the Brotherhood took over Morocco, Kuwait and Algeria. In Bahrain, the rulers had learned a lesson and acted first, successfully destroying the opposition. In Libya, it took foreign intervention to kill the dictator. The country is currently governed by a National Transitional Council, representing the parties involved. Democratic elections are due to take place next year.

In Syria, it was assumed the well-supplied rebels would soon unseat President Bashar Assad. Instead, the rebellion has turned into a civil war that threatens to destabilize the region, not just the country. This is in part due to the ideologies of the major players and their plans for the future of the region.

What follows is my take-home lessons on the players on both sides of the Syrian uprising. I've used information gleaned from the news we are fed by the media. I claim no special expertise except an ability to see that most of what I read is incomplete or biased or both. Through it all, some general statements seem to hold up. Feel free to rebut.

The largest split in the Muslim community is between the Shiites and the Sunnis, who parted company theologically over who should have been Muhammad's successor. The hostilities have spilled over into political and economic antagonism and given rise to different religious practices. This doesn't mean that they are inevitably on opposite sides. They have frequently joined forces when events and common interests made cooperation useful.

Some 85-90% of Muslims are Sunni; they are the majority in most of the Arab world and in the Muslim communities in South East Asia, China, South Asia and Africa. Within Sunni Islam, there are four schools interpreting Sharia law: Hanafi, Maliki, Shaf'i, and Hanbali. They gives different weight to the Hadith, a compilation of the words of the Prophet and stories about him. His actions are important because he was the perfect model for mankind. His marrying a 6-year old still makes it acceptable for a family to marry off a 10-year old girl to a 60-year old. Saudi Arabia's Wahhabism and the Muslim Brother's teaching are the most retrogressive, hence they are called revivalist, because they are reviving the original ways Muhammad's commands are to be followed.

The Shiites are a majority in Iran and Iraq and a large minority in Yemen, Syria, Lebanon (because of Hezbollah), Turkey, Azerbaijan, Kuwait and Bahrain inter alia.

Currently, Saudi Arabia and Iran are the major financiers in the Sunni-Shiite struggle. The mullahs of Iran and the royals of Saudi Arabia have somewhat different ideas on how to impose Sharia worldwide but they are both very serious about how important it is that everyone everywhere live under the rule of authentic Sharia law. They work very hard at it, using whatever comes to hand. Iran's first choice is the bomb; the Saudis prefer the bribe. They have been engaged in actual warfare-by-stand-ins, in part for a reason that is much easier to understand: each wants to be top dog in the region. They had been carrying on a proxy war in Yemen. Now Syria has become the major stage where they play out their competition. They have turned what seemed to be another destabilization of a dictatorship -- an occasional happening in what was called the Arab Spring -- into a long-term and bloody civil war.

Shiite Iran and Iraq are furnishing weaponry and fighters to the Syrian President, who is a Shiite belonging to the Alawite sect. Saudi Arabia and other Sunni countries support the rebels, who are also known as the Free Syrian Army. Seasoned Al-Qaeda people are coming in from their Iraq base to join the rebels.

Once past these players who most obviously represent the Shiite and the Sunni teams, things get murky. The changing relationships and multiple commitments of many of the players are hard to pin down. It's rather like a cat's cradle. The composition of the string doesn't change but portions can be flipped and twisted to create new configuration, new linkages and new possibilities.


SYRIA INVADED LEBANON IN 1976, taking advantage of the Lebanese civil war between the Muslims and the Christians. It didn't really leave until 2005, by which time it had most of the country under its control. Recently, there's been kidnappings of Syrians in Lebanon; these are said to be retaliation for kidnappings of Lebanese in Syria. Hezbollah, which is based in Lebanon -- indeed it is part of the Government and controls much of the Muslim areas of Lebanon -- was created by Shiite clerics and given resources by Shiite Iran. As would be expected, Hezbollah has quietly gone into Syria to the aid of the Assad regime, but the Lebanese Government itself hasn't officially endorsed a connection to Assad. However, the Lebanese city of Tripoli has offered photo opportunities to visiting newsmen as Alawite and Sunni citizens of Lebanon sporadically shoot at each other from their respective neighborhoods. (See

Several years back, Jordan seems to have anticipated that the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood would grow in strength; King Abdullah of Jordan became deferential to them and conferred honors on two of their leaders. Now the Brotherhood controls Egypt and is unequivocally committed to the Syrian rebels, If we had to check where Jordon stood, we'd put Jordan nominally on the Rebel side. Jordon has in fact become involved, like it or not, because Jordan borders Syria, as do Lebanon and Turkey. Some 200,000 Syrians have fled the war zones to Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey as of mid 2012. Some 3000 refugees were in Jordan in early February 2012, and 4-5 times that number in Turkey. The number increased markedly in the next few months, often doubling and tripling in days when fighting intensified and slacking off during calmer periods. But Jordan's connection is not military. It works with the U.N. to house and feed the refugees. Like Lebanon, Jordan is near the action but not officially in it. It shares with Lebanon the fear that the fighting will seriously spread outside of Syria, beyond border incidents and stray bullets from Syria.
A Syrian refugee camp in northern Jordan. Za'atari refugee camp in northern Jordan, about six miles from the Syrian border, currently hosts over 20,000 Syrian refugees. UNICEF predicts 70,000 people will be living there by the end of the year. (CNN, August 29, 2012)

These refugees are under UNHCR care, so unlike the Palestinian Arabs, they will be settled as soon as possible and, no matter how the war turns out, they will not be given permanent refugee status, which their children and grandchildren can inherit. The Gulf States automatically do as Saudi Arabia does and have, like Saudi Arabia, contributed weaponry and money to the Rebels' war effort, but Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon have to deal with the refugee fallout. And in the Middle East, Arab refugees don't contribute to a country's stability, harmony or productivity.

Saudi Arabia, Egypt (run by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood) and Turkey are helping the heterogeneous Syrian rebel movement. Turkey has contributed to the war effort by declaring its air space off limits to Syria or by forcing Syrian air traffic to land and be searched. She has become religious and conservative more like the Muslim Brotherhood since the change in her government, but she is unlikely to let herself be pulled around by the Saudis. She has ambitions of her own and has two unique cards: She is Prez Obama's chosen friend in the region; and she is a member of NATO and might possibly persuade them to cooperate, although Turkey's request for enforcing a no-fly zone over Syria has been rejected to date. With what isn't inconsistency in the Middle East, Turkey has occasionally taken on the role of statesman, even suggesting involving Iran in defusing the war. She sees herself as contender for control of the region, in the same class as Iran and Saudi Arabia.

The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood -- like al-Qaeda, Saudi Arabia and present-day Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood -- is motivated by ideology to work for a Syria that is free of minorities such as the Druze, Alawites (both considered to stem from Shiite Islam), Kurds and Christians. Their presence would compromise the purity of a Syria whose compliance to Sharia finally came up to Brotherhood standards. Non-Muslim minorities might not like Assad any more than they liked Hosni Mubarak, but they have been treated with less hatred under these dictators than they are likely to be treated by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, should it come into control. The Shiites may have just as much to fear. Unless they win, of course.

Notice I haven't described the composition of the rebels. President Bashar Assad's regime is evil, so in the Western 2-teams-duking-it-out paradigm, the rebels must be good. Actually, the Syrian rebels seen to be a composite of very different kinds of people, from idealist believers in democracy to every kind of terrorist group, each wanting to impose its own version of a proper Muslim state. Many of these are foreign, so arguably, Civil War may not be the most accurate way to describe the war. Nor do the terror groups divide nicely along sectarian lines. The Shiite Iranians supported the Sunni Hamas, at least until Hamas sided with their creator, the Muslim Brotherhood, who sided with the Syrian rebels. At the same time, Hamas has bad feeling about some of the terrorist groups, even those that have similar ideologies, because it views them as competitors for power and foreign funding.

Though not actually involved in the action, the Kurds have introduced another factor. The Kurds are Sunni Muslim -- and unlike the Palestinians, they are a real people -- and occupy stretches of contiguous land in Iraq, Iran, Syrian in Turkey. Their pleas to have the area where they live be declared their state have been ignored by the host countries, the U.N. and the humanitarians who find it appalling that the Palestinian Arabs have no State of their own. Almost half of them live in Turkey. Iraq and Turkey are on opposite sides but both have a similar interest in preventing the Kurds from obtaining a state of their own. The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood doesn't want an independent Kurdistan any more than the Syrian regime does. On this the warring elements agree. The Kurds, however, have their own ideas and as the fighting has come to Kurdish communities, they have appropriated areas in Northern Syria near the Turkish border laid open by the rebel forces or cleaned out by regime forces.

Israel's presence on the Golan is a de facto operation against Syria, blocking off one border. Turkey, which became hostile to Israel when the fundamentalist Recep Tayyip Erdogan became Prime Minister, openly fights Syria, making Israel and Turkey effectively players on the same side. On the other hand, Turkey will certainly not cooperate with Israel's need to subdue Iran, which has declared itself Israel's implacable foe.


AS IF RELIGIOUS ANIMOSITIES WEREN'T ENOUGH, Iran and Syria have signed a pipe line deal, which includes Iraq and Lebanon making money on the deal, but this doesn't sit well with Qatar, which had a competing field of gas. A huge field of gas has recently been discovered in Israeli waters, so she will want elbow room to exploit it.

The United States has been urged to help end Assad's reign. He is certainly sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood and insists, despite the Brotherhood's own words, that the Brotherhood is secular and just interested in the non-violent promulgation of its beliefs. Just after the Egyptian election which made the Muslim Brother Mohammed Mursi president, he sent Egypt some $450 million additional funds to compensate for budgetary shortfalls. Moreover, America has protected Saudi Arabia's interests for a long time. Both these 'friendships' put the USA at least nominally on the side of the Syrian rebels. It may be that Prez Obama is considering putting a larger effort in place. Dalia Mogahed, from the Dept Of Homeland Security Council, has called for toppling Assad. To intervene for the rebels would have Americans fighting with al-Qaeda as allies, not adversaries. This happened in Libya when American troops joined the rebels against Muammar Ghaddafi. If the media chooses again not to broadcast this alliance, there should be no embarrassment for the Administration.

To judge by Barack Obama's past actions, his strategy in the region is to make weak and ineffectual gestures while Iran continues to develop nuclear capability while actively promoting the Muslim Brotherhood. He won't jump into this war unless things change radically. Or until Iran's actions take the initiative out of his hands.


THE SAUDIS AND THE MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD are big players in the Syrian civil war, but their own relationships are complex and might at some point impact the war unpredictably. The antagonistic interplay between the Saudis and the Muslim Brotherhood is relatively bloodless and less open that the exchanges between the Syrian government and the rebels, but their interactions are far more important to the stability of the region.

Saudi Arabia and Muslim Brotherhood -- ergo Egypt, now that it has elected a president who is a Muslim Brother -- are on the same side, but Saudi Arabia and the Muslim Brotherhood are often at loggerheads, each sure it has a better understanding of what that perfect man, Muhammad, commanded. They differ in control styles and life styles. But their differences are mostly tactical, not strategic. The Saudi royals control everything in Saudi Arabia but they don't have enough of their own people to stock an army or educate a country or run the facilities that produce their enormous wealth. They even fight their war with Iran by proxy. They prefer to -- and are able to -- decree strict limits on individual and group activities in their country right from the getgo, thus keeping things under stable control with minimal personal involvement and without wild swings or abrupt changes over time and space. (Yes, I know that occasionally they throw women a crumb and, around the world, their subsidized media gurgle about how noble and forward-visioned the royals are.) In contrast, the Muslim Brotherhood has made itself part of the political, educational and financial structures in many countries but doesn't have the complete control the Saudis do, so it works less overtly but very efficiently. The Saudis and the Muslim Brotherhood argue on which one has a better understanding of their holy books. They use different ways to promote Sharia in non-Muslim countries. Bribery has never failed the Saudis. The Brotherhood, more involved in the daily activities of many countries, is more creative, and has a larger repertoire of techniques. One end of their range features ideological persuasion, bribes and ownership of media outlets, generous grants to cooperative academics and multiple networks of political and religious friendships. At the other end, they use lawfare and temper tantrums. Using well-timed "fire drills", they have conditioned their foot soldiers to riot almost instantly when that's required. They are capable of strong-arm tactics, assassinations and lone-wolf attacks, when those are useful.

David Kirkpatrick in the NY Times July 13, 2012 writes about the "profound ideological enmity" between the Brothers and the Saudis and the "legal ban on [the Muslim Brotherhood's] existence [in Saudi Arabia] and deep animosity from the kingdom’s rulers." The ban is true but it is not a portentous omen. The Saudis won't let any group operating in Saudi Arabia, including the Brotherhood, work openly in the Kingdom. In the 1990's they didn't let the thousands of American soldiers, who were there to protect them from an Iraqi invasion, drink in public or openly practice non-Islamic religions. I remember a friend's son, in the American army and stationed in Saudi Arabia, writing that he'd been forced to light his Chanukah candles in a pup tent, which of course, had no windows.

The Saudis and the Brotherhood both probably dream of the day they won't need the other one. Until that day comes, they are forced to work surreptitiously against each other. But like all good Muslims, they are able to put ideological differences aside and work against a current common threat. The Saudis have funded the Brotherhood from its inception. In fact, the World Association of Muslim Youth (WAMY) was established in Saudi Arabia. It was created before the Brotherhood's Institute of Muslim Minority Affairs (IMMA) -- in which the Abedin family would figure prominently -- but both target the West. Saudi Arabia and the Muslim Brotherhood fund mosques and institutions in which clerics and academics preach fundamentalist Islamic ideology. And while the Saudis might stop the money flow intermittently, it doesn't take much time to reestablish connections and transactions.

In Egypt, the brutal terrorizing of the Copts has accelerated. There once was a stable relationship, where as long as the dhimmi minorities complied with the Muslim's insistence that all religions were inferior to Islam and paid their dues, they lived more or less unharmed. Now, more churches are attacked; more people are murdered; there's more attempts to convert the young to Islam. I'm not sure what this signifies. Is it that the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is just taking advantage of the regional chaos to do what they were doing more quietly and more slowly? Is it, now that there are almost no Jews left in Egypt, that they can proceed with what they've always wanted to do. As they always say: After we kill the Saturday people, we will eliminate the Sunday people. Or is it they feel that everything is going so well, the day of the ascendancy of Sunni Islam uber alles is almost here. I don't know. One thing is sure: the days when the Muslim Brotherhood had to keep a low profile are over. They can be as nasty to the minorities as they like.

Why haven't I mentioned the United Nations? To my way of thinking, the UN has a remarkable set of trip wires set differentially for the various nations. Were Israel to kill an innocent 11-year old Arab child who threw a 40-pound pebble that accidentally killed the driver of a passing car, that would set off alarms and trigger the start of a fully-developed procedure. In almost no time -- well, they've had a great deal of practice at this -- UN members would be convened for an emergency session to investigate this latest war crime by Israel. The media would be informed and they in turn would pull up canned articles on Israel's reckless indifference to human rights. A minute or two spent filling in $TIME, $PLACE and $SPOKEMAN, and revising a few of the details and another news item would be ready to go.

On the other hand, a country that qualifies for the UN's understanding and tolerance is allowed to murder thousands before receiving a slap on the wrist. The procedure for this class of country includes a ritual where a committee is convened to convene a committee to send an investigative committee -- once it's safe. The Syrian regime's disregard for the safety of civilians as it bombards the rebels has reached the point that the U.N. has 'voiced its concern'. It might send a pleading envoy next. When you think about how nuanced a UN response must be because the other countries or groups involved in the dispute must also be evaluated, as I said, the complex procedures for evoking a U.N. response are remarkable. In Syria's case, as example, it must also determine the composition of the rebel force and take heed that the silent partners -- Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iran -- are power players at the U.N. People don't appreciate how hard the U.N. works!

All the players in the Syrian civil war are doing what they do best. A terrorist from the Free Syrian Army kills the Syrian Defense Minister in a suicide attack. Moscow says collective action is needed. China won't let the U.N. Security Council order Assad to step down. The diplomats dipl. The U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi reveals a brilliant solution -- he calls for a ceasefire during the four-day holiday of Eidul Azha. He thinks there's an "urgent need to stop the bloodshed." Duh.

Meantime, the war drags on. Some 25,000 Syrians have died in a year in a half. A couple of hundred thousand have become refugees. The U.N. will ponder some more. After lunch.

Bernice Lipkin is managing editor of Think-Israel.

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