Some years ago Dr. Khalid El Sheikh, former Palestinian Ambassador to India, a fine human being and a scholar, gifted me a book he had authored on the history of the Middle East. By some Freudian slip, the book was printed ‘History of the Muddle East’. Dr. El Sheikh is no more, but the Muddle East continues. Today in a chilling rerun of history, we are witnessing the same discourse that we had done exactly a decade ago. Only then it was Iraq, and now it is Syria. But the vocabulary is similar – surgical strikes, regime change, chemical weapons. Only Syria seems to be more a rerun of Afghanistan, rather than Iraq.
Decoding regime change politics
A recent article in the Wall Street Journal, A Veteran Saudi Power Player Works To Build Support to Topple Assad by Adam Entous, Nour Malas, and Margaret Coker, document how Saudi Arabia and the CIA have teamed up to train and arm representatives of the Syrian opposition to overthrow the Bashar al Assad regime in Syria. Only in this case Jordan has replaced Pakistan as the frontline state. For sure, Syria had been marked for regime change a long time ago, soon after the regime change in Iraq. It is not that the Al Assad regime has been a benevolent one. Despotic and iron-fisted it has been. But, before the so-called Arab Spring and the uprising against the government began, one wonders how more oppressive had the regime been than that of the numerous other existing, but monarchical regimes in the Middle East. The one difference is that Syria had steadfastly refused to negotiate peace with Israel which was not on its terms – that is full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights – unlike Egypt, unlike Jordan and also unlike the Palestinians. And unlike the other regimes in the Arab world, the Syrian regime is non-Sunni, (though many of its practices have more in common with Hinduism than with the Shias, like the belief in reincarnation). And Hezbollah, the protégé of Syria and Iran, is the only militant group that has delivered in the region – in pushing the Israelis out of Lebanon in 2000, and in the war with Israel again in 2006. This ability to deliver forged a striking example of Shia-Sunni cooperation through the Hezbollah-Hamas alliance, in a region rife with sectarian violence today.
The Arab Spring only helped accelerate things. The script has changed since the emergence of the heart-wrenching videos of the August 21 attacks in Damascus suburbs, alleging the use of chemical weapons on a sleeping civilian population. Surgical strikes on Damascus are now said to be a matter of not if but when.
But karma seems to be getting in the way. After the unsuccessful Western interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya much of the world is no longer in the mood to buy their indignation over the use of chemical weapons; neither their assertions that it was the Assad regime that has used them. Surely, the timing seems to be too in your face – just as UN weapons inspectors arrived in the country to determine earlier chemical weapons use. As Sharif Nashashibi, an Arab journalist and political commentator, points out, the mandate of the UN mission to Syria is not to determine who has used chemical weapons, but merely to determine if chemical weapons have been used, not to pin responsibility for it on one or the other side. In other words, actually useless, since Carla Del Ponte, member of the U.N. Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria had earlier already established the fact that sarin nerve gas had been used – in fact she went on to allege their use by rebel forces.
It is not that it is impossible that the regime could use them, but it seems improbable. On the other hand, the US and the UK seem to have intercepted phone calls between panicking Syrian government officials and head of a chemical weapons’ factory soon after the 21st August attacks. This gives grist to their mill that it was the Syrian regime that is allegedly responsible for those attacks. Therefore, a chorus for ‘surgical strikes’. Not a regime change this time. Unlike in Afghanistan, where the modern world’s first jihad was fought, jihad has been around for some time now and the region is awash with jihadists, many of them freelancers. And since the uprising in Syria in 2011, many Islamists, together with jihadists affiliated with Al Qaeda, have entered and are operating in Syria. According to some counts there are 60,000 jihadists active in Syria right now. The world has watched videos of the harsh laws already imposed in some areas controlled by them, not to forget video clips of cannibalism.
Saving Secular Syria
Bashar Al Assad will go down in history as a tyrant, but unlike other repressive regimes in the region, he kept Syria secular, liberal and pluralistic. Which is why, aside from anticipating a bloodbath against his Allawite community, if the regime falls, the Christians of Syria also fear ethnic cleansing as has happened in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein, and are standing by the Assad regime. The war in Syria has already spilled over into Lebanon, and has affected Syria’s other neighbours – Turkey and Iraq. The disintegration of Syria is just one of the worst-case scenarios. Further, the Western powers are themselves not sure how much of the weapons that they have been arming the rebels with have found their way to the Islamists and others affiliated with the Al Qaeda in Iraq and Levant, and what would be the fate of Syria’s arsenal of chemical weapons should the regime fall.
In another scenario, as Israeli journalist Shlomi Eldar writes, if because of Western strikes on Syria, Israel is drawn into the war, many Syrians would then rally around their President, as may Muslims in other parts of the world. Hence, the US attack on Syria will achieve nothing. War fatigue for now has ensured that even public opinion in the US and the UK are divided, and not in support of military intervention in Syria. Which is why the UN route is being sought.
Listen to voice of Syrian people
But what of the Syrian people? Now that the one millionth Syrian child refugee has fled his country, two million Syrian children are internally displaced, 1.7 million Syrians are registered as refugees and 100,000 Syrians lie dead, is not time to ask what is it that the Syrian people want? The tragedy is that we do not hear the voices of the people inside Syria. Those calling for the regime’s ouster are mostly Syrians based abroad, and not refugees. But what of those inside Syria? Do they need, or deserve yet more violence? Will surgical strikes not cause collateral damage? Do they not have a way of going terrifyingly wrong as we have seen in the past? The very few voices heard have rejected any Western intervention.
Spare Syria more violence now. The warring factions may be on a high of anger, fear, loss, power, revenge, victory and allied emotions. But it is incredible that their allies can continue to watch the suffering and continue to talk more violence. More than anything, Syria now needs a cease-fire to be enforced on all sides, at least for a while. It is incumbent that the international community ensures this. Now more than ever all paths need to converge on Geneva.
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