Cutting the SYRIAN knot
A war on Syria with disastrous consequences for the rest of the world has presumably been avoided. The Obama Administration was all set for launching the war, ostensibly as a punishment for the use of the chemical weapons by the Assad regime in Syria on August 21. The French President Francois Hollande was solidly behind President Obama for such an attack. British Prime Minister David Cameroon was also in the “company”, but unfortunately for him the British Parliament did not allow him to participate in this proposed war. In fact, the overwhelming majority public opinion in all these three countries, as well as in most parts of the world, has been against this war.
An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll conducted in June found that only 15 per cent of re-spondents supported US military action in Syria, with only 11 per cent favouring providing arms to the rebels. Similarly, a poll by the Pew Research Center taken during the first two weeks of March 2013 indicated that, “there is no public support in the United States, Western Europe or in Turkey for sending arms and military supplies to the anti-government troops in Syria.” An overwhelming majority—64 per cent—of Americans disapproved of equipping the rebels with arms.
In any case, the war has been averted because Syria has agreed with the proposal of Russian President Vladimir Putin to give up chemical weapons and win a reprieve from US military strikes. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem has said: “We want to join the convention on the prohibition of chemical weapons. We are ready to observe our obligations in accordance with that convention, including providing all information about these weapons,” adding, “We are ready to declare the location of the chemical weapons, stop production of the chemical weapons, and show these (production) facilities to representatives of Russia and other United Nations member states.” This has made President Obama to pause over a bit in carrying out his action-plan, but he has not ruled out the attack on Syria completely.
In fact, the issue of the chemical weapons was a ruse for Obama to attack. The American claim that Assad used chemical weapons was not convincing at all, particularly when it was the Assad regime which had invited a United Nations team to investigate the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian rebels against the innocent civilians. The so-called use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime that the American establishment was talking of took place when this UN team was in Syria. It is difficult to fathom that a regime will use the chemical weapons when a UN team at its request is in the country to investigate the use of such weapons. On the contrary, now there is growing evidence that the rebels in Syria did indeed frame Assad for the chemical attack so as to ensure the American intervention.
In any case, what exactly are the chemical weapons that are commonly used or misused? That is the nerve – gas (chlorine gas, mustard gas, sarin and arsenic agents—that affect the nerves). And these are very easy and cheap to manufacture. Therefore, chemical weapons are called the poor man’s weapons and far less effective than other conventional weapons. These can be manufactured at individual level. For instance, a Japanese nut cult, Aum Shinrikyo, managed it by themselves back in 1995, killing 13 people in the Tokyo subway. Viewed thus, can the Obama Administration be sure that these weapons were not manufactured by the Syrian rebels? This is the question many Americans are asking these days. After all, if the example of the American intervention in Iraq is anything to go by, then American allegations and the realities on the ground often do not match. The world is yet to find out the secret weapons of late Saddam Hussein, discovering and destroying which was one of the principal justifications for the American intervention in Iraq.
Be that as it may, the fact remains that if America intervenes in Syria, that will be the continuation of a policy that it has been pursuing for the last two and half years. In a sense, it is already at war with Syria. This war is a proxy war, whereby the USA has been providing resources, arms, training, and other forms of support to the Syrian rebels. Besides, it was preparing for an open war side by side; and this was much before the so-called use of the chemical weapons by the Assad regime. The United States, in the name of a joint military exercise with Jordan, has already transferred Pa-triot missiles, 4,000 troops, and F-16 aircraft to the country, which remained there after the conclusion of the exercise.
In other words, the US, or for that matter its allies such as France, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have been effectively “state-sponsors” of the Syrian rebels for a long time now. Of course, this phenomenon is nothing new in international politics. As Erica D. Borghard of the Columbia University has pointed out, data on non-state actors in civil wars indicate that, since 1945, 134 of 285 rebel groups enjoyed explicit support from a state sponsor, while an additional 30 groups are alleged to have received external state support. “War by proxy is an attractive policy option for states when they are hesitant to use force directly. The clandestine and informal nature of many of these arrangements allows states to challenge adversaries while providing plausible deniability for actions committed by non-state allies”, Borghard says.
However, there are often serious problems in these proxy wars, denying ultimately the state-sponsors the realisation of their goals. And that is because, there is often great differences between their ability and the ability of those they are helping—the proxies, be it the use of the weapons or intelligence-gathering or the fighting skills. In many a case, and it is certainly true in Syria, the proxies or the rebels are not a united lot. All this finally compel the “state-sponsors” to cross the line, to be visible and fight openly if they have to realise their foreign policy goals. And, in the case of Syria, the foreign policy goal of America and its allies is the removal of Assad regime by hook or crook, though it is coated with many layers of sugar. Thus we hear “the Arab Spring” in Syria, removal of a dictator, protecting the rights of all Syrians, and countering terrorist activity etc.
There are two ways of looking at Arab Spring. If it is supposed to usher in democracy in the Arab world, then it has not exactly been a success story. Similarly, democracy is not exactly a number game where the majority has got every power to the extent of being sectarian and the minority none—true democracy means rights of equality and justice. In this too, Arab Spring has been a story of huge disappointment. Its promoters like the US and France have shown double standards. While justifying changes in Egypt, Libya, Yemen and now Syria under the pretext of furthering democracy, the Western countries have closed their eyes towards Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Sheikhdoms, which are certainly not citadels of democracy and have directly or indirectly furthered the cause of Wahabism or Islamic fundamentalism all over the world.
The concrete effect of the Arab Spring has been that extremist elements within the Sunni community—and their great promoters in the regimes of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and now to a considerable extent in Turkey—have become powerful and the forces of multi-ethnicity and secularism are getting weaker. Syria seems to be a victim of this process. There is no denying the fact that Syria is not a democratic country. A country which has been ruled for the last 40 years by one family is not going to be an ideal democratic country all of a sudden in the absence of democratic institutions such as independent judiciary and media. Syria, like all other Arab countries, does not have a democratic culture as such. But one great asset that Syria has is its secularism and multi-ethnicity. As I have visited Syria, I can vouchsafe that it is arguably the most secular country in the Arab region. Here, and this is most important, you find the women as liberated as they are in any Western country.
The continuing survival of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria is not only due to the support of the minority Alawite sect, making up about 12 percent of the country’s population, of which the Syrian strong man is a member. It is also due to the backing of the Christian community, which makes up about 10 per cent of the population. They have a deep and understandable fear of the sort of instability and sectarian recriminations that followed Saddam Hussein’s fall in Iraq. The majority of Iraqi Christians there were eventually forced to flee the country after suffering high levels of violence and intimidation.
There are other minority groups, such as Syrian Kurds and Druze, who have either continued their support Assad or have resisted the urge to join elements of the protest movement for similar reasons. Though Sunnis (59 per cent of the population) account for the overwhelming majority of Syrian opposition to the Assad regime, there are other Sunnis within the ruling Baath Party’s rank and file that would have few prospects in a post-Assad Syria and so have not opposed the status quo. The country’s Sunni merchant class and business community, located mainly in Aleppo and Damascus, have also remained largely on the sidelines of the rebels, fearful of the socioeconomic vacuum that an abrupt change in leadership would create. Kurds, also Sunnis, add to another nine per cent of the population, but being different from the Arab Sunnis, have been more comfortable with Assad.
“Syrian crisis is not a war for reforms, but an American conspiracy”— Syrian Ambassador
“The ongoing crisis in Syria is not a byproduct of Arab Spring, but a conspiracy of America. This crisis is media-created propaganda, and is aided and abetted by Saudi Arabian mercenaries and America in connivance,” said Syrian Ambassador Riad Kamel Abbas at a seminar, organised by Indian Policy Foundation in New Delhi recently, where he not only refuted the charges of using chemical weapon on their own people, but also challenged America to prove the accusation made by it. “America is doing an Iraq with Syria. Attacking on the wrong pretext, anywhere in the world, is an old habit of America,” he stated. On the charges of sectarian conflict going on in Syria, he said that there is no such thing in Syria. He gave the example of President Bassad’s marriage to a Sunni woman and the Prime Minister who is a Sunni Muslim, to refute the charges. He further presented the data, according to which 65 per cent population of Syria are Sunni Muslim, and 8 per cent of population are Hanafis. He claimed while presenting this data, that Saudi Arabia is trying to propagate Wahabism in Syria, which is being opposed by the people of Syria. He also said that the ongoing crisis is not for any reform in the country but an American propaganda. Claiming that Al-Qaida is created by America and it uses it for its own purposes, he indicated that there is tacit understanding among America, Al-Qaida and Muslim Brotherhood. In the garb of democracy, they are trying to de-stabilise the region. He stressed that Syria is itself a tolerant country, so there is no need of western imposed democracy in the country.
On the charges of taking support from the Hezbollah group in the crisis, he said that there is a difference between Hezbollah and Al-Qaida. He stressed that Hezbollah is a resistance party and works for the political solution of the problems whereas Al-Qaida is a terrorist organisation, which uses terror tactics. He warned America that if it attacks Syria, Syria will not remain silent; it will retaliate with its full force. He further warned that if the war is imposed on them, they will fight back, as they have to protect their people. “If America attacks Syria, there will be no stability in the region,” he said. On the role played by the United Nations on the issue, the Syrian Ambassador was of the view that UN should not always toe the American line. It should stand against the proposed unilateral attack by America on Syria. Being highly appreciative of India’s stand on the issue, he said that India’s opinion on the issue tabled in G20 meeting has given a hope to the people of Syria, of peaceful solution of the ongoing crisis.
Importantly, the Assad regime has not supported any terrorist activities aimed at the Western countries for decades. It never supported Al-Qaeda and had nothing to do with 9/11. On the contrary, a significant faction of the anti-Assad rebels does have ties with Al-Qaeda and have attracted foreign jihadis. And these rebels are being funded now by the Western countries. What an irony! In fact, by planning to invade Syria, the Americans and their Western allies look a confused lot because they really cannot explain who’s fighting whom there in the Middle East. It is instructive in this context to point out how a letter to the editor in the Financial Times, now going viral on the internet, has managed to explain it all in a few paragraphs:
Sir, Iran is backing Assad. Gulf states are against Assad!
Assad is against Muslim Brotherhood. Muslim Brotherhood and Obama are against General Sisi(of Egypt).
But Gulf states are pro-Sisi! Which means they are against Muslim Brotherhood!
Iran is pro-Hamas, but Hamas is backing Muslim Brotherhood!
Obama is backing Muslim Brotherhood, yet Hamas is against the US!
Gulf states are pro-US. But Turkey is with Gulf states against Assad; yet Turkey is pro-Muslim Brotherhood against General Sisi. And General Sisi is being backed by the Gulf states!
Welcome to the Middle East and have a nice day.
However, one may venture to cite some hard facts that may explain the American decision towards Syria. The Assad regime, to begin with, is a collateral victim of the American policy in the sense that America’s real enemy happens to be Iran, which is Syria’s greatest ally in the region after Russia. Here, the religious dimensions have aggravated the issue further. Both Iran and Syria happen to be ruled by the Shias, whereas Saudi Arabia, which has promoted Islamic fundamentalism all over the world, wants the Sunnis, who constitute the majority in Syria to rule the country. Secondly, there is that factor of oil politics. Qatar and Saudi Arabia want to kill the proposed Iran-Iraq- Syria gas line that will transfer gas from Iran to Europe directly from the Lebanon coast. Because, by so doing, Qatar will be selling gas to Europe via the alternate pipeline through Iraq and Turkey. The Americans bless this Qatar-Iraq-Turkey route, as this would be linked with the US backed Nabucco pipeline, carrying gas supplies from the Central Asian Republics. Besides, it will lessen the dependence of Europe on Russian gas.
But now the question is: in pursuing its geopolitical goal if the US (and the West) attacks Syria, will it earn an easy victory? The answer is a big “No”. Syria is no Libya or for that matter Kosovo, where the NATO forces earned victory through bombings from air, without placing their troops on the ground. The Western countries want to enforce massive air bombings on Syria but reluctant to send their ground troops there, something they did in Iraq and Afghanistan at a huge loss of men and materials. But then Syria has a great air force, perhaps the best in the region, with long-range S-300 surface-to-air missiles, Russian Pantsyr-S1 and Buk-M2 systems that bolster its air defences. Assad’s military may have problems with old systems. But it, thanks to the Russian support, is still formidable enough. Syria has five times more air defence systems some of which are high-end systems. The Syrian army has roughly 50,000 personnel, not including the paramilitary Shabiha that operate outside of the conventional military chain of command. If the war gets prolonged, Assad is guaranteed of the additional support of Iran and Hezbollah in nearby Lebanon.
Secondly, with no ground troops, America and its allies will increasingly depend on the Syrian rebels. But then the fact remains that these rebels do not constitute a uniform group; they are highly factionalised and divided across multiple fronts and fighting groups. Broadly speaking, the anti-Assad groups are organised into three primary fronts: the moderate Supreme Military Council (SMC), which is led by General Salim Idriss and was organised by Western (American) and Arab states but has only a nominal presence within Syria; two Islamist fronts called the Syrian Islamic Front and the Syrian Liberation Front. These two contain many jihadist groups, including the most potent al-Nusra. There are also at least nine different military groups currently active in Syria, only some of which are affiliated with the SMC: Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham, Farouq Battalions, Liwa al-Tawhid, Saqour al-Sham, Ansar al-Islam, Ahfad al-Rasul, Ghurabaa, and the Democratic Union Party. The point is that these rebel groups suffer from the problems of command and control.
No wonder why the Pentagon, not to speak of the growing public opinion in the West, is not enthusiastic for a direct assault on Syria, which may expand the war front involving Iran and Russia.
All this is not to suggest that one should close one’s eyes to what is happening in Syria. The best way to cut “the Syrian knot” is to strive for peace and a negotiated political settlement under intense international pressure short of war and with the principle of give and take. But this is something that will happen by involving President Assad, not eliminating him. Under the pretext of ending Alawite genocide, the world is not prepared for the emergence of a monster called jihadist Syria.
By Prakash Nanda