Several days ago, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in Syria announced that it would establish its own militia, the Armed Men of the Muslim Brotherhood, and function independently of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – the main military rebel movement.
United by a common goal to topple the Assad regime, the two entities seem to have different backers, pursuing conflicting interests. The FSA – consisting mainly of defectors and representatives of various religious groups – is supported by Saudi Arabia, while the new group is funded by Qatar, a country that promotes Islamist regimes.
The fact that there are conflicting parties involved in the civil war comes as no surprise to some experts, who say divisions within the opposition were dictated by the ethnically diverse nature of Syria.
“Syria is a medley of ethnicities, religions, languages and cultures – all living in one place, where every group is competing in a tug of war, trying to promote its own interests,” said Orit Perlov, a researcher with the Institute of National Security Studies (INSS) specializing in the Arab states.
The same pattern holds true for the rest of the Arab world, where different ethnic communities and tribes have been forced to share the same territory despite significant differences. With the eruption of the upheavals that have rocked the Middle East since late 2010, movements have begun resisting the artificially drawn borders – intact since the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 – that divided control over the Arab provinces of the ailing Ottoman Empire between Britain, France, and Russia after the conclusion of World War I.
In December 2011, the spokesperson for Syria’s MB, Zuhair Salim, stated that the organization was interested in reviving the caliphate and creating a state for all Muslims of the region. “The hell with Syria and Syrian nationalism!” he was quoted by Kurdish-Iraqi publication Kurdwatch as saying. “How was the modern Syria created? It was sketched by Sykes and Picot… We don’t recognize this agreement!” he added.
Addressing the issue, Reuven Paz, a former head of the research department at Israel’s General Security Service agreed with Salim’s statement, saying that “although the Arab Spring was inspired by social inequality and widespread corruption it was also caused by the desire to scrap the artificial boundaries between states and to establish a more natural territorial division of the Middle East”.
Boasting a crucially strategic location, the Middle East served as a convenient ground for the superpowers to promote their geopolitical and economic interests, where little (or no) heed was paid to the interests, desires, or differences of the affected local communities. “The borders were aimed at securing the world powers’ access to key locations, like the Suez Canal, present day Iran and Iraq, [all of which] led to India, Britain’s former colony,” explained Paz. The pundit also stressed that western involvement in the region has only increased following the discovery of impressive reserves of oil first in Persia (1908) and then Saudi Arabia (1938).
But by fragmenting the region, Paz reasoned, the world powers created mostly failed states, torn by endless wars and conflicts. Each of Israel's neighbors, for example, has had tense relations with a fellow Arab state. Such was the case with Jordan and Saudi Arabia (following King Hussein's pro-Saddam stance in 1991), Syria with Iraq (after Syria sided with Iran during the Iran-Iraq war), Lebanon with Syria (amid the Lebanese civil war), among other instances. The absence of close economic relations, the expansionist ambitions of certain regional leaders, and frequent territorial disputes aggravated the situation even further, leaving the region in a perpetual state of tension and conflict.
“Even though there were attempts to unite the peoples under various ideological concepts, including socialism, communism, nationalism, Pan Arabism, all of them failed – although strong armies and powerful leaders (read dictators) did serve as connecting elements,” stated Paz, stressing that only religion was able to bring a sense of unity and belonging.
Yet, in a pluralistic country like Syria, the possibility of religious unity is unlikely. Out of the country’s 22.5 million people, some 74% are Sunni Muslims (with at least 40% belonging to the MB). Other Muslim sects like Druze, Alawis and Kurds make up 16% of the population, whereas Christians of various denominations comprise 10%.
This is part one of a three-part story. Check back tomorrow for part two of this important report.