The world stands poised on the edge of an abyss, just a few wrong moves away from another world war, all over a large and unattractive expanse of sand on the other side of the world. As Neville Chamberlain told the British people in September 1938, “How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas-masks here because of a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing.” A few weeks after his radio address to the nation, Chamberlain flew back from Munich waving a piece of paper and proclaiming a peace in our time over the dismembered body of Czechoslovakia. In the words of Churchill, “You were given the choice between war and dishonor. You chose dishonor and you will have war.” It came about less than a year later.
Syria is indeed a far away country, but thanks to the media saturation at least some of us know something about its people. And what we know is not good.
I last wrote substantively about Syria, as I’ve discovered when looking back through my online archive, almost exactly a year ago. The occasion was a tweet from Samantha Power: “Backed by Russia & Iran, declared permanent by Trump, Assad regime in #Syria feels safe to do what it wants. Gassing people is what it wants.” I noted then the hypocrisy of Power’s side of politics, which has spent the previous fifteen years agitating against the American military involvement in the Middle East, as well as Power’s more personal hypocrisy as Barack Obama’s Ambassador to the United Nations between 2013 and 2016, that is precisely the same time frame when the situation in Syria unfolded from problematic to disastrous, all the while her boss in the White House did nothing except drawing imaginary red lines in the sand.
Twelve months on, another gassing, another war jitters. Should we or shouldn’t we?
Syria is a story without a happy ending, no matter what happens next. More’s the pity for its people, millions of whom have already scattered beyond its borders, from Jordan to Finland, and millions more internally displaced by the fighting.
In a nutshell, there are no good guys in Syria, although we can quibble about the gradation of bad. On the one side there is the government of Bashar Al-Assad, a second-generation dictator, violator of human rights, sponsor of terrorism, and the enemy of peace in the Middle East. Assad is supported by Russia, partly because during the Cold War, Bashar’s dad Hafez was a Soviet client, and partly because Putin wants to reassert himself as a leader of a once-and-future world power. Closer to home, Assad enjoys the patronage of Iran’s mullahs. The Assad family are Allewites, an offshoot of Shia Islam, considered by many Shia to be heretical, but not heretical enough for Tehran to deny support to an otherwise reliable ally against Israel and the Sunni Arabs (who also happen to constitute the majority of the Syrian population). Iran’s Shia proxy in Lebanon, Hezbollah, supports Assad too.
On the other side are the anti-Assad rebels. When the civil war started six years ago, the armed opposition was relatively broad-based and contained many moderate elements inspired by the Arab Spring throughout the region. Years of attrition and consequent radicalisation have largely reduced the forces of the rebellion to Sunni Islamists. While ISIS has been largely eliminated as a player in a pincer between Assad and the US-led allies, what remains on the ground is only barely more appealing. The Sunni extremists are supported by Saudi Arabia, which is playing a proxy war against Iran, and by Qatar, despite the fact that Qatar otherwise cosies up Iran. Another significant opposition force in Syria are the local Kurds, who have done the bulk of destroying ISIS on the ground. The Kurds are just about the only force worth supporting in Syria, which is probably why they have been left high and dry by everyone, including the US. At the very least, the Syrian Kurds want autonomy, but preferably some sort of a unitary state together with the Iraqi Kurds. Turkey, a NATO member and an ostensible Western ally now under the leadership of another Sunni Islamist, hates Assad and wants to see him gone, but it hates the Kurds even more, on the account of their kinship with and support for the separatist Turkish Kurds. In the past, Turkey covertly supported ISIS and other Syrian Islamists; now Turkish forces are actively fighting the Syrian Kurds in Syria. Confused yet? How’s all this for “a quarrel in a faraway country”?
Assad, thanks largely to his foreign friends, is now in arguably the best military position since the start of the civil war. If left to his own devices (or, rather, own plus Russian and Iranian devices) he would likely mop up the remaining opposition with the next twelve months. Today he stands accused of using chemical weapons again, this time at Douma, a few kilometres north-east from the outskirts of Damascus. Did he or didn’t he? Most of the international community believes he did. Assad himself denies it as “fake news”. Most of the Western alt-right sides here with Assad, pointing to the unlikelihood of Assad needing to gas people and incur the world’s wrath at the moment he’s winning, including in Douma, which has been largely evacuated by the rebels prior to the gas attack. Instead, their fingers point to the anti-Assad opposition for gassing own people or faking the incident altogether in order to force an international intervention in Syria. It’s all pretty murky; both sides are certainly capable of committing an atrocity against civilians with weapons of mass destruction.
A victory for Assad means the return to the dictatorial life of the old. It’s good news for Assad, but it’s also good news for Syria’s minorities, including Christians, who have been traditionally protected by the minority Allavite regime. By extension, it’s also good news for Iran in its war against the Sunnis and America, and for Russia, who will have secured a valuable foothold in the region as well as giving the United States an indirect bloody nose.
But it’s not good news for many other people in Syria or in the broader Middle East for that matter. The victory of the opposition, now unlikely, failing a large scale military intervention, would have been an even worse news, however, seeing that the opposition now ranges from the extreme Islamists of ISIS to marginally less extremist Islamists of Al Nusra Front (formerly associated with Al Qaeda – remember them?) and other similar groups.
So what about that intervention? In all honesty, the best time to intervene was right at the beginning, say in 2013, when Assad was on the defensive, taken aback by the strength and the extent of the revolt, before Iran and certainly before Russia became heavily involved, and when the anti-Assad opposition was still broadly enough based to include moderate and secular elements. At best, however, the 2013 invasion would have likely replicated the Iraqi experience, with a subsequent civil war pitting the more moderate post-Assad central government against the Islamists. Arguably this would have still been better than the current situation and would have resulted in less bloodshed and certainly fewer refugees. All at an unknown price in the American and allied blood and treasure, of course. Essentially, Iraq is what happens when the United States intervenes and Syria is what happens when the United States doesn’t. Take your pick.
An intervention now would punish Assad, but it’s uncertain who inside Syria it would help. It also risks a direct confrontation and conflict with Russia. For that reason there is unlikely to be a “boots on the ground” invasion, though there might be a lot of bombing in the days ahead. What the allies should be doing instead is arming and protecting the Kurds – from both Assad and Turkey. As I said many times before, the Kurds are actually the only people in the Middle East (apart from the Jews) who actually deserve a state of their own. It won’t happen overnight, particularly since no one, apart from the Kurds themselves, wants it to happen, but such a state is likely to gradually emerge out of the chaos and disintegration in the region, particularly if the Saudi-Iranian Sunni-Shia war heats up.
Whatever the nature of the likely military response in the wake of the Douma gassing, we are now in a slightly surreal political territory where Donald Trump is getting increasingly belligerent (at least in his tweets) and getting cheered on by the interventionist left, who have spent the past two years accusing him of being Putin’s puppet. The people who are increasingly uncomfortable about it are sections of Trump’s base, including the numerically small but vocal alt-right. After all, Trump is well known for his view that the invasion and occupation of Iraq was a monumental mistake and he had campaigned on his opposition to foreign interventions, particularly in the Middle East. But now Donald is starting to sound like a neo-con. The Infowars crowd are having shivers – and, as the former Islamist Maajid Nawaz notes, the opposition to war is increasingly having “the far right” and “the far left” singing from the same hymnbook:
Significant re-alliance taking place under our noses over Russia/Syria. Far-left @ggreenwald praised Fox’s @TuckerCarlson. Far-right @bnp’s @NickGriffinBU endorsed far-left @UKLabour’s @jeremycorbyn. Alt-thinkers united against “globalists”. Fascinating. #CtrlLeftAltRightDelete pic.twitter.com/mYZhilWhqk
— Maajid – (Mājid) [maːʤɪd] ماجد (@MaajidNawaz) April 11, 2018
The civil war in Syria reminds me of the civil war in Spain between 1936 and 1939, though I hope and pray that unlike the Spanish civil war, the Syrian civil war will not be a prelude to a world war. While the Spanish conflict revolved around ideology (liberals/republicans/ socialists/anarchist/communists against nationalists/conservatives/monarchists/fascists) whereas the one in Syria is more about sectarianism and ethnicity, both are quite morally murky, with two anti-democratic if not totalitarian sides fighting it out for domination. The additional similarity is the widespread foreign involvement to shore up both warring parties – except this time the Russians are supporting the fascists (Assad’s Baath party has been largely inspired by European fascism) and the international fighters are largely Western-based Islamists who have travelled to fight – and die – with ISIS. There’s no modern Orwell here to write “A Homage to Aleppo”; if there was one he would now be fighting alongside the largely socialist if not communist Kurds.
Will we choose dishonour or war – or a third or fourth option? Stay tuned.