The Battle of the Camel continues

As the opposing sides in the Syrian Civil War face each other across a table in Geneva I am reminded of a similar event over thirteen hundred years ago in a desert near Basra in Iraq.

On the 7th November 656 AD the Islamic community faced the prospect of Muslim fighting Muslim for the first time in its history. The forces of Ali, the fourth Caliph, faced a rebel army led by the Prophet’s wife Aisha. The issue that brought them into conflict involved the assassination of the third Caliph, Uthman.


Both sides knew that to wage war against a fellow Muslim was against the teaching of the Prophet and so in a last minute attempt to avoid war Ali rode out to negotiate with Talha and Zubair, leaders of the opposing side. While both armies watched in anticipation the three men quietly discussed the situation. Neither side could agree on the issue, but equally both sides agreed not to go to war. It was stalemate but at least war had been averted and both armies settled down for the night with a sense of relief. But this was short-lived. At dawn a party of un-known Bedawi attacked the two camps. The result was that each side blamed the other and so battle commenced. This was to be the first of many such wars.

Although in 656 AD the schism between the Sunni and Shi’a had not yet crystallized, it was clear that Ali’s supporters, members of the Ahl al-Bayt or House of the Prophet, were facing the forces of the Ummayads, who came to be known as the Sunni.

Today the Shi’a Alawite representatives of the Syrian Government sit across the table from the Sunni representatives of the various opposition forces. Despite the heroic efforts of the UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi to bring the two sides into discussion they have not even been able to agree on an agenda. Unfortunately the one party that might have had some influence on the Syrian Government, Iran, had its invitation to the talks withdrawn. A more difficult task would be to find a sensible voice that could speak to the disparate groups that make up the largely Sunni opposition.

Thirteen hundred years after the Battle of the Camel the same battle lines are drawn up, but today the issues are far more complex.  This is not simply a Syrian problem, or even a regional problem, it is of world concern.  As such Iran should be at the table along with an influential voice from a  regional Sunni neighbour.  While not guaranteeing progress, it would be a move in the right direction.