The Syrian crisis is brewing a proxy war that is taking sectarian shape, with the Sunni-majority countries on one side and the Shiite-majority countries on the other. The recent loss of minority power, e.g. in neighbouring Lebanon (in the 1980s) and Iraq (after the US invasion in 2003) has terrified the minority Alawite Sect in Syria and it appears they would do everything possible to defend the regime.
With more than 6,000 people dead in one month, the Syrian crisis enters into a deadly phase.
Britain's Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) recently launched an urgent campaign to help coordinate relief efforts for Syria, a land ravaged by death, destruction and suffering in the past two years. Islamic Relief, the UK's largest international Muslim charity, has coordinated its relief effort with London's oldest mosque, the East London Mosque, to this end. According to the DEC, four million Syrians are now relying on aid, food and clean water; basic sanitation is faltering and the risk of air-borne diseases is increasing day by day.
The United Nations estimates that more than 70,000 people have been killed in the bloody civil war. "With a million people in flight, millions more displaced internally, and thousands of people continuing to cross the border every day, Syria is spiralling towards full-scale disaster", said the UN High Commissioner for Refugees recently.
The world divided
Disaster relief is obviously a vital element in helping Syria from falling into a humanitarian catastrophe, but unless the root cause is addressed things may only get worse. Violence from both the government and opposition rag tag army has brought this great land, known as Bilad al-Sham, to its knees. The world is not only divided on the Syrian crisis, but is also driven by neighbouring and global political interest; ample fuel is being thrown into the fire.
Since the Syrian Uprising began over two years ago (15 March 2011), popular discontent grew nationwide against President Bashar al-Assad, whose family from the minority Alawite Sect has been ruling Syria with an iron fist for four decades. The Syrian army was deployed to put down the uprising; but instead the protests evolved into an armed rebellion led by mainly defected soldiers and civilian volunteers. However, the opposition armed groups remain divided and without an organised national leadership; the Syrian government characterises the insurgency as an 'armed terrorist group and foreign mercenaries'.
With a population that is 74% Sunni, 13% Shia (including Alawite) and 10% Christian, Syria's religious and sectarian complexity has exposed its challenges. No other 'Arab Spring' country has divided its people, its neighbours and the international community as much as Syria; Turkey and Jordan are supporting the opposition, but Iran and Iraq strongly support the Assad regime; in the Security Council Russia and China are against the other three veto powers on regime change. The Arab League is supporting the Syrian opposition; its recent decision to offer Syria's main opposition coalition its official seat has drawn criticism from Russia and Iran.
Iran continues to provide Syria with military and economic help; the Iranian Basij militia is accused of training the Syrian militia (Shabiha), which was implicated in the brutal Houla massacre in May 2012. Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, an ally of Iran, has warned against any foreign intervention that could stir a wider conflict in the region. On the other hand, Syrian rebels are getting military help from Qatar and Saudi Arabia through Turkey.
The opposition political alliance is still weak and the military wing not yet under one central command; the West is worried about the rise of Al-Qaeda which has become one of the most effective fighting forces against the Assad regime.
The Syrian crisis is also creating tensions within Muslim communities in many countries including in Britain where it has thrown some challenges for British Muslims; fortunately the Muslim community here is better organised compared to many other countries, thanks mainly to the efforts of the umbrella body, the Muslim Council of Britain.
Is there light at the end of the tunnel?
The intransigence of the Assad regime, weak opposition and division in the UN Security Council has created a dreadful stalemate. The often-admired Arab Spring has fallen flat in Syria. A propaganda war between the regime and the opposition gives a distorted picture of the real Syrian tragedy. The efforts by global mediators such as Kofi Anan and Lakhdar Brahimi came to no use in finding a political solution. The NATO has ruled out a military intervention in Syria; other military options such as the use of air power or no-fly zones are not on the table.
The recent alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria raises far bigger concerns; it is the Syrian people who would pay the price if sanity is lost from any side. Analysts do not expect any immediate change in the military conditions on the ground. In the absence of any light in the tunnel, international and regional diplomacy still remains the only option.
However, the ultimate solution lies with the Syrian people and their political leadership. The mainstream opposition can make a breakthrough if they can really become inclusive enough to bring all meaningful sections of Syrian people in their anti-regime umbrella movement. For this, they should be able to moderate their strategy and win over sensible Alawite, Kurds and others to strengthen their justifiable cause. In addition, their armed wing should stop waging indiscriminate attacks on civilians and the country's infrastructure.
On the other hand, the regime must come down from its ivory tower and realise that its total disregard for popular opposition is not going to work in the long run. The government's job is to protect its citizens, not clinging to power at any cost.
However this is easier said than done, given the Alawite fear of a future Sunni rule and mistrust between the fractured people for. But this is not impossible. This needs some courage and determination from both sides. The regime and the opposition should find some 'out of the box' way to converse, side-by-side if not face-to-face, to save their land from total anarchy and bloodshed.
Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari is an educationalist, writer and freelance parenting consultant (www.amanaparenting.com). Follow him on Twitter: www.twitter.com/MAbdulBari