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The difficult road to Damascus

June 13, 2012

THE clamour for foreign military intervention in Syria gathers pace with each reported massacre. On the face of it, there would appear to be moral grounds for such a stance.

Dozens of Syrians are dying every day, and in its quest for survival the regime in Damascus seems determined to indefinitely carry on deploying the tools of mass repression.

United Nations and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan’s six-point peace plan, meanwhile, has demonstrably failed to provide so much as a breathing space in what increasingly looks like a civil war with sectarian dimensions.

At the same time, there is already some evidence of foreign intervention. Late last month, a report in The Guardian quoted “Ismail Gha’ani, the deputy head of Iran’s Quds force, the arm of the Revolutionary Guards tasked with overseas operations”, as saying in an interview: “If the Islamic Republic was not present in Syria, the massacre of people would have happened on a much larger scale … Before our presence in Syria, too many people were killed by the opposition, but with the physical and non-physical presence of the Islamic Republic, big massacres in Syria were prevented.”

The interview was apparently briefly posted on the website of Isna, described as a “semi-official” news agency. Iran is the Bashar al-Assad government’s only ally in the Middle East.

Around the same time, a report in The Washington Post quoted “US officials and Syrian opposition figures” as saying that “a discreet effort by Arab Gulf states to channel funds and weapons to the [Syrian] rebels — an undertaking the United States is helping to coordinate — had begun to gear up”.

The paper went on to say: “The rebels’ apparent progress suggests that the assistance is having an effect, driving the dynamic towards a deepening conflict, and perhaps intensifying pressure on the government to make concessions….”

Meanwhile, William Hague, the British foreign secretary, told the House of Commons on Monday: “We have reason to believe that terrorist groups affiliated to Al Qaeda have committed attacks designed to exacerbate the violence [in Syria], with serious implications for international security.”

The Syrian regime has been citing — possibly overemphasising — this aspect of the conflict for a while, and it gained some international credence after devastating car-bomb attacks in Damascus aimed at government installations, even though some defectors claimed the blasts had been organised by the government to discredit its opponents.

Similar allegations have been made against the Free Syrian Army (FSA), whose advocacy of foreign intervention is obviously bolstered by instances of official ruthlessness.

Among other evidence, Alex Thomson, the chief correspondent of Britain’s Channel 4 News, recently claimed that an FSA group deliberately sought to get him and a bunch of colleagues killed by the Syrian army in a “free-fire zone” near al-Qusayr because “dead journos are bad for Damascus”.

The FSA has been at pains to deny any connections with Al Qaeda, while occasionally conceding that the latter has occasionally sought to establish contact. Some western analysts have suggested that the militants Syria infiltrated into Iraq during the conflict in that country are now coming back to haunt the Assad regime.

If that is true, it isn’t all that different from the circumstances whereby a number of Arab countries exported diehard Islamists to Afghanistan during the anti-Soviet crusade, only to be subsequently confronted with blowback.

One of the more ‘successful’ exports, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has lately urged all good Muslims to combat Assad’s “pernicious, cancerous regime”, thereby effectively allying himself — not for the first time — with the West.

For some, this evokes a dreadful sense of déjà vu. Alistair Cooke, a former MI6 operative deployed in Afghanistan during the anti-Soviet jihad, was last month quoted by the BBC as saying: “At that time we also looked aside. We didn’t look at who our allies were or what their motives were … We looked away because confronting communism in Afghanistan was so popular.

“The point is,” he added, “that the hard element of the opposition [in Syria], the armed, combat-experienced part of the opposition that has come up from Libya or Iraq are not only at the vanguard, but are also pushing out all the other forms of opposition. The only opposition we are seeing in Syria at the moment is not peaceful protest. It is characterised by extreme use of violence.”

It could obviously be argued that the Assad regime has played its part in relegating peaceful protest, and the ostensible role of the largely Alawite al-Shabiha militia in the recent massacres in al-Houla and al-Qubair has been utterly unconscionable.

Yet, equally obviously, there’s a case to be made for being extremely wary of the divided opposition. There are bound to be plenty of Syrians who would love to see democracy bloom in their country. Others, it would appear, are inclined to replace the Alawite dictatorship with an even less tolerant tyranny.

Russia and China have lately faced considerable criticism for failing to fall in line with the West on the Syrian question.

The more reasonable western analysts are willing to acknowledge, however, that this is in large part a consequence of last year’s Libyan experience, when an ostensibly humanitarian resolution in the UN Security Council was interpreted as sanction for Nato-led regime change. And Libya today, effectively divided into militia-dominated fiefdoms, hardly constitutes a salutary template for Syria or any other nation yearning for ‘liberation’.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has lately suggested her government would be amenable to change in Damascus that involves Bashar al-Assad’s exit but leaves the remainder of the regime largely intact — a scenario that may appeal to Israel, which, for its own reasons, remains wary of the prospect of a Sunni fundamentalist regime on its frontier, even though its keen to dismantle the Damascus-Tehran nexus.

Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, meanwhile, noted a few days ago that Moscow would be amenable to Assad’s exit, if that’s what Syrians want.

He did not tackle the question of how popular opinion can be ascertained in the present circumstances. It’s not impossible, though, that Russia and China could both relent on economic sanctions and other means of ostracising the incumbent regime if military intervention — which invariably creates more problems than it solves and unleashes greater mayhem than it pre-empts — were to be decisively ruled out.