The Syrian blowback

The law of unintended consequences is taking its toll on every major actor in Syria. It was Bashar al-Assad who reaped the whirlwind given the way he brutally reacted to largely peaceful demonstrators two years ago. But the rebels and their international patrons have not been immune.

Many Muslims are scandalised by how the Islamist groups are using religion to bless savagery

If ever there was a macabre adaptation of the famous Arab verse that speaks of Syria as the heart of the Arabs, then it is the video obtained by Time magazine in April and released by a Syrian pro-regime group 11 days ago.

Time journalists have not yet been able to confirm the integrity of the footage, although there is some circumstantial evidence to suggest it’s authentic. In it, an Islamist rebel fighter carves out the heart of a loyalist dead soldier and, after addressing the camera and warning all loyalists that the rebels will eat their hearts and livers, takes a bite of the heart – to the sound of fellow fighters saying “Allahu akbar”.

We should resist the temptation to use this episode to draw conclusions about Islam as such. Videos like these indicate the brutal frenzy into which Syria has descended. Rebels who two years ago were able to sympathise with the conscripts in the loyalist forces are now admitting to journalists they take no prisoners.

The video is not just a symptom, though. Used as propaganda to strike fear in the enemy, it is having the reverse effect in many parts of the Arab world, where many Muslims are scandalised by how the Islamist groups are using religion to bless savagery.

Other news include stories of refugee camps developing a sideline in the trafficking of women, where girls as young as 10 or 11 are forced to enter marriages. Some Islamist groups have declared licit ‘temporary marriages’ (which could be as temporary as a day) for their fighters, saying it’s a way in which women can participate in jihad.

Such marriages were traditionally permitted within Shiite Islam but generally frowned on within the Sunni tradition, to which the rebel Islamists in Syria nominally belong. The opportunist doctrinal flexibility, when it suits them, has, of course, been lost on no one.

Just as the beginning of the Arab Spring had a huge impact on its initial spread, we cannot exclude that its trajectory in Syria (not to mention Egypt and Tunisia) will not have an impact on how the political process develops elsewhere.

The Islamists, however, are not the only ones whose actions are likely to have unintended consequences. The international patrons of the various groups will all be affected.

Qatar has been one of the most generous funders of the armed groups. Figures of $1 billion to $3 billion are mentioned, with the higher number said to be closer to actual fact. Some commentators claim that Qatar is competing with Saudi Arabia and funding groups that are rivals to those sponsored by Saudi Arabia. Qatar itself denies this, claims that there is regular consultation with Saudi Arabia and some evidence exists that at least some groups (of which there is a proliferation) have multiple sources of funds.

Last week, however, a Financial Times feature on Qatar’s extensive role in Syria concluded that, at the end, Qatar may have nothing to show for its investment. One of the groups the country is funding is the al-Qaeda linked Jabhat al-Nusrah, which is listed as a terrorist group by the US, Qatar’s ally. Qatar’s sponsorship could complicate the country’s relationship with the US.

More importantly, however, is the fact that Syria could be unravelling into a failed State. Instead of finding itself in a post-al-Assad scenario with influence on many actors, Qatar could find itself resented by many groups, rebel and loyalist, and unwelcome in the country.

The law of unintended consequences in Syria does not appear to be sparing the Europeans, either. The UK’s Foreign Secretary, William Hague, has recently declared that a regional catastrophe is beckoning as a result of the fighting and he is seeking to adjust the current EU arms embargo.

He is insisting that weapons will be distributed under carefully-controlled circumstances and with clear commitments from the opposition forces. But al-Assad has survived because the opposition is divided and not in a position to give or keep commitments.

As to whether circumstances can be controlled at all, let alone carefully, is at best an open question. The recent lifting of EU sanctions on Syrian oil has ended up boosting jihadists, who control all the oilfields in rebel hands. Some have struck deals with al-Assad, others are simply going commercial with makeshift refineries (in the same way that they have peddled every antiquity that fell into their hands).

As one prominent US commentator put it, the decision may actually mean that the European Union has ended up indirectly funding al-Qaeda.

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