Over-simplification on Syria

There has been a worrying over-simplification by large swathes of the media regarding Syria in recent months. The dominant narrative goes something like this: the regime is finished, it is only a matter of time before the peaceful protestors triumph and the Assads are swept from power. I am more skeptical. The Assad regime, while employing murderous and brutal tactics, has proved surprisingly robust so far. The leadership of the army has remained largely loyal, even though foot soldiers are increasingly defecting, and the key cities of Aleppo and central Damascus, whether through fear or genuine loyalty, have remained quiet until now. Unless Assad suddenly accepts an offer of asylum and flees, or someone in the regime or army decides to launch a coup against him, i can’t see the regime crumbling in the next few months, even if its long-term survival must be in doubt.

However, while a few writers and journalists have been pointing out that the ‘Assad is finished’ narrative is premature, some have lurched too far the other way. Jonathan Steele, for example, seems to think that some kind of mediation is still possible suggesting that the Arab League should appoint,  “a group of eminent independent Arabs to listen to all sides in the Syrian crisis.” This is a noble idea, but surely the Assad regime has by now shown that it doesn’t care for its neighbours’ advice. If Turkey could not persuade them, surely an Arab delegation can’t either. A delegation from China, Russia and Iran,would be  a different prospect, but even then Assad’s contempt for mediators suggests it would fail.

To a further extreme, Alistair Crooke argues that the whole Syria crisis is part of a wider ‘game’ orchestrated by the West and Saudi Arabia to flip Syria from its alliance with Iran. This is again, an over-simplification. While Saudi and the US may see the benefit of a post-Assad Syria ditching its ties to Iran (although i question if this would happen – unless Israel suddenly surrendered Golan), they have been reactive rather than pro-active throughout this crisis. There is a danger that the Syria crisis is only viewed through the Iran prism, which is a mistake. Mr Crooke does a disservice to the legitimate demands of the Syrian people to end dictatorship and stop the violence by implying that they are simply being manipulated by insidious external forces.

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2 responses to “Over-simplification on Syria

  1. Dear Christopher,

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  2. Dr. Phillips dismissal of Alistair Crooke’s analysis of the Syrian turmoil was disappointing. US/Western concern was far more circumspect to events in Tunisia and Egypt, and markedly absent in Bahrain and Yemen. The excuse of supporting democracy and opposition to authoritarian rule is at best hypocrisy and worse a smoke screen.
    Syria is not the odd man out in the Middle East. One man one vote is not the dominant form of government in the Arab League. Most of these nations do not even go through a pro-forma election for their heads of state. Bashar al-Asad may get 90% plus of the votes, but is that different than a handful of men picking the next ruler? Syria’s one man rule is line with America’s allies like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Jordan, etc. in that democracy has no place in the body politic.
    What about suppression? Once again, Syria is not unique in using force or its threat to maintain its hold on power. Syria suffers from the common ailment of sectarian, ethnic, regional, tribal, etc. divisions. Lebanon is an example of the failure of a central government and the rise of disparate groups. Lebanon is more a patchwork of mini-states than a unified nation. In the aftermath of America’s invasion of Iraq, the nation does not exist. It is but competing groups for control of oil and power. Jordan? It faces the challenge of having the majority of its population being Palestinian refugees or their descendants. King Abdullah II knows the history of his father and battles with these citizens. Police and army are firmly in the grasp of the bedouins who insure his throne. Saudi Arabia? Fears of Iran relate to its concern about its Shiites and the oil fields. Its secret police could teach lessons to Damascus’. Bahrain has already been identified with torturing its dissidents.
    Why the overheated attention and outrage at Syria? If democracy and suppression are common, then what makes Bashar al-Asad the next tyrant to go? Two issues are paramount. First, Syria remains the last Arab nation to resist American hegemony. Second, Syria’s “alliance” with Iran and the US/Saudi contest with Tehran.
    Almost from independence, Syria has resisted direction from Washington. Syrians were frustrated with the boundaries that resulted from World Wars. What was regional and national turned international and ideological. The United States viewed the Middle East through the lens of the Cold War. Syria’s rejection of joining the Baghdad Pact was based more on its opposition to imperialism and outside control. America only saw a country refusing to march to its tune. The rise or fall of local communists or socialist/nationalist (i.e. Baathist) was closely monitored by Washington. Clandestine attempts to alter the government in Damascus was even reverted to. When Syria turned to the Soviet Union for military assistance, America’s response was to aid surrounding countries like Turkey and Jordan, and Israel after 1967. The collapse of Saddam Hussein and Gadahfi coming in from the cold left only one Arab nation still immune to American guidance. Moreover, the alliance Damascus had established with Tehran only added to the push of regime change.
    For reasons of its own, Syria viewed Iran as an important foreign policy initiative. Being isolated and sometimes threaten by its neighbors, Syria saw Iran as a potential counterweight. The Iran-Iraq War cost Syria support at home as well as enmity from its Arab brethren. On the surface, Syria and Iran shared goals–opposition to Saddam, assistance to Palestinian resistance to occupation, reduction of American Mideast hegemony, etc. In detail, Damascus and Tehran followed what they considered vital interests regardless of the other–peace with Israel, Gulf War I, assistance to Iraqi Sunnis, etc. But again, the view from Washington was Tehran’s challenge to US domination the Persian Gulf. With the fall of Iraq, Iran has become the bogeyman de jure. Sectarian hostility between the Sunnis and Shiites is compounded by oil production and controlling access. Aligning ourselves with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf sheikdoms, America (and therefore our minions in Europe and Asia) has entered geo-political contest in the Gulf. We perceive Iran as a threat to our dominance and interpret any and all Iranian behavior as a rival to our dominance. In this quarrel, Syria becomes a target.
    For at least two decades, policymakers and commentators have viewed Damascus as an avenue to impede Tehran. Attempts to draw Syria away from Iran have foundered on the Golan Heights, Lebanon, and Palestinian rights. Those who have influenced American policy towards Syria have taken a hardline–blaming Hafez al-Asad for scuttling peace in 2000 through opposing US invasion of Iraq and failing to secure its border with Iraq. Setting aside the neocon game plan to take action to alter the Mideast situation, it cannot be ignored that these same individuals came into power in 2001 and inaugurated projects to accomplish the same goals. As it has come out, Washington targeted Iraq prior to September 11. Intelligence was manipulated to create fear and justify the invasion of 2003.
    As the triumph over Saddam evolved into a military nightmare, these same experts sought to blame others for the quagmire. Syria was identified as a culprit and the propaganda machine went into action. American incursions into Syria and killing of Syrian citizens failed to result in Damascus taking the bait and invite war. America exploited Hariri’s death with the idea that Syria’s expulsion from Lebanon would end with regime change. When Turkey acted as a broker between Israel and Syria and an peace agreement seemed within reach, it was President Bush’s administration that ruined the chance by opposing it. As his term was winding down, the Bush team again made another effort to draw Syria into war.
    Having failed in overt attempts, is it radical to believe that covert efforts were not implemented? It has already been reported by the New York Times that the State Department spent $2 million “to deploy ‘shadow’ Internet and mobile phone systems.” Documents from WikiLeaks revealed American money and support funneled to Syrian opposition groups and aid to establish anti-regime satellite television. Saudi financial support alongside US pressure has seen a firestorm of publicity, growing economic and political isolation and now military threats from Turkey. France, after consultations with America and Turkey, has come out for a free zone for Bashar’s enemies. Backing this move are Turkish tanks, and air cover may be provided by America. Reports are out that an American carrier task force is moving into position just outside Syria’s territorial waters.
    In the majority of discussion on this, the wonks see the benefits of Bashar’s removal as a blow to Iran. Benefits include the crippling of Hamas, the demise of Hezbollah, and removing “obstacles” from an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. Iran would lose a key player on the Mideast chessboard. Energies spent on Damascus could then be concentrated on Iran. The war propaganda has increased with dire warnings and calls for military undertakings by Israel or us.
    Alistair Crooke is far more correct than Prof. Phillips imparts. Bashar al-Asad’s government is not unique in either being authoritarian or oppressive. On the contrary, the regime displays greater freedom as in women participation in society–dress, work, etc.–than does America’s good friend Saudi Arabia. In addition, minorities have fared better. Christians, although under restrictions, have places of worship, celebrate their faith, have until this present turmoil lived without fear of attacks, and allowed to repair their houses of worship. This cannot be said of Jordan, Egypt, Turkey or any Gulf country. What does separate Syria has been its refusal to obey Washington’s commands and its relationship with Iran. It is these elements that make Bashar al-Asad America’s target for removal.

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