Since the rebellion against the Assad regime exploded more than two years
ago, the United States, Britain, France, Turkey and other NATO states have
pledged their support to the eclectic conglomerate of oppositionists that have
grown out of the initial popular uprising. Following NATO-backed success in
toppling Gaddafi in Libya it was hoped that one big push by the oppositionists
would succeed in bringing down Assad in Damascus. The proclaimed intention of
the NATO states was to bring democracy to Syria. Never mind that their allies
in this enterprise were the sheiks of the Gulf States, whose arms were pouring
over the Turkish border with the active assistance of the CIA, and helping to
stoke the fires of civil war in Syria. It is realpolitik rather than democratic
sentiment that motivates Western supporters of the Syrian opposition. So it has
always been and so it is of course with Russian and Iranian support for Assad
against the opposition. But things are not working out quite as the champions
of intervention had hoped.
The early, democratic phase of the Syrian popular uprising was met by the regime with brute force. Since then Syria has descended into a chaotic, bloody civil war in which atrocities have been perpetrated by both sides. The destruction of towns and villages has resulted in more than 80.000 deaths and led to a growing flood of refugees across the borders with Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. The scale of the refugee problem is mind-boggling. So far 1.5 million people have fled the country, one third of them in the last ten weeks. If the exodus continues at this accelerated rate the numbers fleeing to neighbouring countries could reach 3.5 million by the end of 2013. Human Rights Watch has estimated that up to 10% of Jordan’s population consists of refugees from Syria. Both the regime’s forces and the opposition have been plausibly accused of using chemical weapons against civilians. And now, out of this maelstrom of human suffering has come the account of an episode so horrific as to beggar belief. A prominent rebel commander, Khaled al-Hamad, of the Omar al-Farouk brigade of the Free Syrian Army proudly had himself filmed eating the heart or lungs of a dead Syrian army soldier. This was an act he considered justified on the grounds that the cell-phone seized from the dead soldier contained filmed footage of him violating the dead bodies of three women. “Our slogan”, he averred, “is an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”
As long as it could be argued that the atrocities were being perpetrated only by the Syrian army and that the Free Syrian Army was relatively free from jihadist influence, the Western case could be made for intervention against the Assad regime. When it became clear that the opposition was unlikely to topple the regime without vastly increased aid and possibly direct military intervention by their Western backers, the case for such intervention had to be ratcheted up. The charge of terrorism leveled against the opposition by the Syrian government was dismissed as propaganda. The Russian and Chinese veto at the UN Security Council blocking sanctions against the Assad regime, was condemned by the U.S., the E.U. and their Middle Eastern allies. It was argued that, but for Russia, China and Iran the balance would have been tipped against the regime, forcing Assad from power and paving the way for a democratic solution based upon the opposition. This is a fairy-story. The truth is that all the players in the Syrian tragedy – domestic and international – are motivated primarily by their own cynical self-interest rather than concerns about a democratic outcome.
For the interested Western powers the prospect of toppling Assad’s regime has obvious attractions. A pro-Western government in Damascus would be a severe setback for Iran in the region, thereby weakening Hezbollah and eliminating its influence in Syria. Such an outcome would accord with Israel’s interests. It would also suit the Gulf States, Saudi Arabia in particular, to see the “heretical” Shiite arch- enemy, Iran, knocked out of the Middle Eastern equation and replaced by the Saudis as a Sunni-ruled Syria’s main oil supplier. But, needless to say, everything would depend on the alternative to Assad being a pro-Western regime, and such an outcome now seems increasingly unlikely.
For the Russians the stakes are also high. Successive Syrian governments back to the late 1940s have always had close relations with Moscow. Russia also supplies Syria with oil and gas and the naval base at Tartous is their only outpost in the Mediterranean. A pro-Western government in Damascus could lead to a severe weakening of Russia’s economic and strategic interests in the region. Any policy by the West aimed at regime change in Damascus, is a red line for Russia.
After Kofi Annan’s UN/ Arab League peace plan for Syria collapsed in August 2012 the country was plunged into a vortex of destruction. All pretense that there might be a negotiated solution has been abandoned. There may have been an opportunity to reach a compromise agreement earlier in 2012 when it seemed that Annan’s six point plan might succeed, but that time passed long ago. For the people of Syria neither side in this conflict offers any hope for a peaceful, democratic future. It is becoming clear that the FSA and the other opposition militias cannot win this war. Although it is far from certain that Bashar al-Assad can win an outright victory, it is also becoming clear that he will not suffer defeat. The government forces have secured their supply lines to Hezbollah through Lebanon and their route to the ports and airports for supplies from Russia and Iran. They can and will hold these lines indefinitely and use their strategic advantage to wear down their enemies in a stalemated situation. Assad has also won a considerable propaganda advantage over the Western supporters of the armed opposition. At the outset of the conflict he claimed that the uprising was dominated by Islamist terrorists. Then the claim was false. Now it is true. And this has put the Obama administration, Cameron and other European leaders who backed the rebellion on the spot. The FSA is increasingly dominated by the Jabhat al-Nusra militia which is allied to al Qaida. This puts the Western supporters of the FSA in essentially the same position as the U.S. was in the 1980s when it armed, trained and funded the Afghan Mujahedin (forerunners of the Taliban) against the Soviet Union. Possibly thousands of Sunni Jihadists are pouring into Syria from different parts of Europe and elsewhere to join armed forces linked to the perpetrators of 9/11. And these groups are receiving arms from Western suppliers that could assist them in taking power and turning Syria into a bastion of Sunni Islamism. What a great outcome that would be for those who proclaim as their aim the establishment of democracy in the Arab world.
The Sunni majority in Syria have justifiable grievances against the regime. But the democratic ideals that inspired the original demonstrations have been smothered by the fanaticism of the Jihadists. Jabhat al-Nusra and its Sunni Islamist fellow-travellers are consumed by ferocious, divine hatred for Alawite and Shiite “heretics”. The ruling Alawite minority (to which al-Assad belongs) have themselves suffered historic persecution at the hands of Sunnis. The Alawite bond with Iran is influenced by their shared interpretation of Islamic doctrine, and that is itself a reason for the intense hatred felt for them by the conservative Saudi Wahhabis who subscribe to (and decree for others) a strictly literal interpretation of the Quran. Whatever their protestations to the contrary, it is certain that a victory for the FSA, dominated as it now is by sectarian Islamists, would result in fanatical fratricidal violence and the likely imposition of a Sunni theocratic dictatorship. If, as seems to be the case, there is no possibility of a “third way” between the two extremes of the Assad regime and Sunni Islamist Jihadists, does this amount to a choice between the frying pan and the fire? Such a choice is, of course, no choice at all. The only option worth pursuing is a solution involving the lesser of evils.
Tentatively it may be suggested that, if it is capable of achievement, a solution based on retaining in power a more broadly-based government including Bashar al-Assad, committed under U.N. supervision to non-sectarian peaceful reconstruction, is the best that can be hoped for. It is a very big ”if”, but victory to the Islamist Jihadists would be a catastrophe and must be avoided at all costs.