By Patrick Bahzad
The people of England have been led in Mesopotamia into
a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity
and honour. Things have been far worse than we have
been told, our administration more bloody and inefficient
than the public knows. It is a disgrace to our imperial record,
and may soon be too inflamed for any ordinary cure.
T.E. LAWRENCE, "Report on Mesopotamia", Sunday Times (August 1920)
By the time ISIS – then still ISI – launched its 2010 offensive against Baghdad and Central Iraq, preparations were well underway for the tidal wave of "Arab Spring" revolutions that swept across North Africa and the Middle-East. Although this is not the subject of this essay, there's a lot to be said about what seemingly started as spontaneous mass demonstrations of disorganised youth who rallied under slogans coined by "Facebook", "Twitter" and other social media, in a movement that spread from Tunisia to Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya and finally Syria.
Suffice to say that these revolutions were neither fully spontaneous nor totally disorganised. To those with an eye for that kind of detail, they seemed like a distant echo of the colour and flower revolutions that did away with authoritarian, anti-US regimes from Belgrade to Kiev and Tbilisi in the early 2000s. Based on a similar 2.0 template of democratic revolution, with the insurgency option as a contingency plan, this rudimentary approach proved to work out rather well – at least in the short run – in countries such as Tunisia and Egypt, but it would show serious shortcomings in Libya and even more so in Syria, where the deep flaws of this regime change strategy camouflaged as a peaceful movement for democracy and a "moderate" brand of Islam revealed its true nature.
Fact is that for all the social causes of unrest in Syria, which were very similar to Tunisia and Egypt, there were also fundamental differences in the ethnic and religious fabric of the country, as well as a totally different power structure, that made Syria an alltogether different proposition. Before turning to the central topic, which is ISI/ISIS involvement in the civil war and the implications of that move, it seems rather fitting to briefly summarize the context and the specifics of the Syrian case.
Back to the future
Contrary to Tunisia and Egypt, which both share a pretty high degree of religious and ethnic homogeneity, despite the presence of a Christian Copt minority in the latter case, Syria used to be both a multi-ethnic and a multi-confessional State in which Sunni Arabs only represented roughly 60-65 % of the population. In other words, it is a State whose various minorities, whether religious (Alawis, Christian, Shia, Druze) or ethnic (Kurds and Assyrians for example) totalized over a third of the population.
It is also a country whose ruling Alawi minority has a history of persecution by Arab Sunnis, dating back to a 14th century "fatwa" by Islamic scholar Ibn Taymiyyah, which still fuels a sense of paranoia and schizophrenia among Alawis today, whenever the mere idea of power sharing with the Sunni majority is being considered. This "fatwa" is still valid today and applied very much to the letter when Fundamentalist brigades of the "Free Syrian Army" deal with Alawi soldiers, not to speak of the treatment prisoners or even civilians receive at the hands of Al Qaeda's "Jahbat al-Nusra" or ISIS. To these foes, Alawis are apostates at best, probably worse than Iraqi Twelver Shia, and deserve to be put to the sword without mercy.
To the first wave of peaceful demonstrations that took place in March 2011, the Baathist regime of Damascus replied with the brutal ferocity that is the trade mark of authoritarian regimes trying to nip in the bud any attempt at social or political emancipation. Claims of that sort have been heard over and over again on CNN, the BBC and other networks, and while they're not exactly false, they don't tell the whole story either.
The "Long campaign of terror"
Indeed, to many among the Alawis, especially in the security forces, the current civil war hasn't begun in March 2011, but during the "long campaign of terror" that started in 1976. Back then, the "Muslim Brotherhood" – spiritual ancestors to many of the Fundamentalist groups among the Syrian rebels – kicked off a campaign of political assassinations, with the help of various sponsors, some of whom are probably behind the insurgents of today's.