I could not agree more with Ambassador Chinmaya Gharekhan’s view (“One big step towards peace,” June 4) that the West dropping its insistence on Assad’s departure as a pre-condition for peace negotiations is essential if civil and sectarian strife is not to envelop the entire Middle East. But his tacit assumption, reflected also in his earlier articles, that the fight in Syria is a sectarian one and, therefore, there genuinely are two sides, Sunni and Shia, in the civil war with valid, if not equal, claims to political power is not merely simplistic but wrong.

Here are a few facts to the contrary: Syria’s Foreign Minister and Information Minister are Sunnis. Its Deputy Prime Minister is a Communist, Kurd, and Sunni in that order. Most of its top generals are also Sunnis as is almost nine-tenths of the Syrian armed forces. Second, 15 per cent of Syrians are Christians who feel most threatened by the armed rebels. They are strongly with Mr. Assad, and do not fit into the Sunni-Shia sectarian conflict mould.

Third, on the rebels’ side, every leader who has been prepared to discuss peace with Mr. Assad has been unceremoniously dumped by not only the Sunni sheikhdoms but also the West. The most recent was Moaz al Khatib, former rector of the (Sunni) Omayyad mosque in Damascus, whom the West and Turkey had themselves chosen. As for the genuine Syrian democratic opposition, it is now almost entirely behind Mr. Assad whom it sees as the lesser of the two evils.

The battle being fought in Syria is not sectarian but ideological. It is between the secular values of the Enlightenment and the rigid theocratic values of Wahhabi/Salafi Islam. And the West is on the wrong side.

Prem Shankar Jha,

New Delhi

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