The Syrian vortex

Updated 05 Oct 2015


FOUR years ago, soon after the uprising in Syria had begun, I met a young American diplomat in New York while on my book promotion tour. He had just spent some months in the Middle East, polishing his Arabic and studying the region at first hand before his first posting.

In those heady days of the Arab Spring, I was naive enough to expect Arab dictators, decadent emirs and kings to be toppled soon, following the Tunisian example. But the young diplomat disagreed, saying he expected Bashar al-Assad to hang on for quite a bit longer.

Four years later, the Arab Spring has been killed off by the Saudi-led counter-revolution, while Assad is still in power, albeit precariously. As time goes on, more and more states are getting involved in the Syrian tragedy unfolding before our eyes. Some want to see the end of Assad, while others, like the United States, are more interested in destroying the self-styled Islamic State. And still others like Saudi Arabia want to topple the minority, secular Alawite regime and replace it with a Sunni leadership more amenable to instructions from Riyadh.

Into this maelstrom of conflicting interests and ambitions, enter Russia with its own agenda of propping up the Assad government. While it seeks to protect its Mediterranean base at Tartus, its basic aim is to keep the Syrian president in power. As Putin has argued repeatedly, when dictators are toppled, as Saddam Hussein, Muammar Qadhafi and Hosni Mubarak were, what follows is almost invariably worse. In the latter case, the army is still in charge, but Egypt is teetering on the edge of civil war as Islamists see themselves robbed of power after having won the election.

In a perfect world, the United States, Iran and Russia — as well as the lesser regional powers — would have coordinated their policies in Syria to supervise the elimination of IS, as well as a managed transition to more representative rule. But the Western powers, prodded by Turkey and Saudi Arabia, refuse to accept that Assad has any role in the transition. This puts them at loggerheads with Russia and Iran, both of whom are convinced that the Syrian dictator’s fall would lead to greater chaos as nobody else could hold the fissiparous state together. Both recall what happened in the wake of Qadhafi’s downfall and death: today Libya is in chaos, with various gangs ruling different parts of the country.

The irony in Syria is that the recent Russian military intervention has come in response to an official request by the legitimate government. The US-led coalition, on the other hand, are hitting targets in a sovereign country without legal authorisation from the United Nations. And yet, President Obama is complaining that Russian air strikes are ‘unhelpful’, and could lead to further violence.

Putin counters by asking what the year-long aerial campaign has accomplished. The reality is that IS is stronger than ever as a weakened Syrian military has ceded more cities and space to the jihadis. The American campaign to train so-called moderate forces to fight IS has been a dismal failure: at a recent congressional hearing, the commanding officer of the Central Command admitted that only ‘four or five’ of this force were fighting in Syria. Many others had handed over their US-supplied weapons and other equipment to IS.

In fact, the Americans have been the prime weapons suppliers to IS: when the Iraqi city of Mosul fell to the jihadis, entire warehouses full of American weapons, including heavy artillery, fell into IS hands. The Humvees these terrorists drive around in were originally supplied to Iraq by Washington. The Iraqi army was supposed to have been trained and armed at the cost of billions of dollars by the Americans, and yet have consistently chosen to retreat rather than fight IS, despite outnumbering the jihadis in several battles.

Given this litany of failures, do the Russians have a better chance of success? According to reports, the Iranians are also poised to send in troops to help Assad. The Russian intervention has done much for Syrian morale. The aim of both seems to be to hold on to the strip of the Mediterranean coastline where the bulk of the population is concentrated.

The problem is that this area is also being contested by a motley crew of rebels ranging from the Jabhat al-Nusra, the Al Qaeda affiliate allegedly supported by Saudi Arabia and Turkey, to the Free Syrian Army supplied by the United States. So when the Russians hit these groups, they are seen as hurting the clients of the US-led coalition, and helping Assad.

And as fighting in this densely populated area escalates, the number of refugees is bound to increase. This will exacerbate the crisis that has caused deep divisions in Europe. And yet, the Russian intervention has not been condemned out of hand. This is due largely to the failure of Western policies in the region. In fact, it is hard to discern any clear, coherent path: surely, bombing the odd IS target in a vast desert for months does not constitute a policy.

The Syrian opposition, called the National Coalition, refuses to accept that Assad has any role, and will not talk to his team. Talks in Geneva have floundered on the issue of the transition. The Americans and their regional allies have not succeeded — or tried — to convince them that they should at least sit down and talk, and see what options are on offer. The UN has been stymied as both Russia and China have blocked American moves to obtain a resolution permitting the use of force to effect regime change. They both remember what happened in Libya when they agreed to the use of air power to protect civilians.

Until Russia and the United States can align their respective positions on Syria, civilians will continue to suffer, and refugees will continue to seek asylum in Europe.



Published in Dawn, October 5th , 2015

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