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The flip side of intervention

June 25, 2012


IF somebody were to rely exclusively on our TV channels for news, he would soon come to believe that Pakistan is the centre of the universe. Events abroad — unless they relate to our country — are barely reported, and hardly ever deemed worthy of comment or debate.

Thus, the ongoing civil conflict in Syria — and its implications for the region and the world — has hardly figured in any of the TV reports and chat shows that I have been watching these last few weeks. Although around 15,000 Syrian have been killed over the last year, the Pakistani response has been a deafening silence.

We in Pakistan are so gripped by our unending and entirely self-created political crises that we have little time for, or interest in, what’s happening around the world. This unhealthy preoccupation with our series of storms in the proverbial teacup has resulted in an inward-looking mindset where conspiracies replace logic, and paranoid fantasies displace reality.

Had 15,000 Muslims — including hundreds of children — been killed, and thousands more tortured and wounded, by a non-Muslim power, we would have been demonstrating and attacking the embassy of the guilty state. Indeed, Pakistani politicians and clerics score points regularly by taking to the streets when an American drone strike kills villagers behind whom extremists shelter in our tribal areas.

But Muslim-on-Muslim killings go largely unreported and uncondemned. Whether the Taliban slaughter their fellow-Afghans next door, or jihadis kill Pakistanis by the thousands, there is scarcely a murmur of protest by the likes of Nawaz Sharif, Hameed Gul and Imran Khan.

So when Bashar al-Assad’s forces shell towns, or attack the opposition with helicopter gunships, few in the Muslim world are moved to protest. True, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are reported to be supplying arms to the opposition. But this is not out of any sympathy for Syrian civilians: the cold calculus here is that by removing Bashar, Iran will be deprived of a crucial regional ally.

This suits western powers as they try to cut Tehran down to size. Thus, the rising chorus to intervene in Washington and London. Had it not been for war-weariness and the current economic crisis, I have little doubt that we would have seen Nato planes over Syria by now.

Meanwhile, beyond the scarcely concealed supply of arms to Syrian rebels by Saudi Arabia (and coordinated, we are told, by the CIA), the Muslim world seems to have no clear role or strategy. Turkey has come out strongly against the Assad regime, but is cautious about direct intervention.

The downing of a Turkish jet fighter flying over Syrian airspace will have sent out a clear message that the country is not another Libya. The fact that the Syrian army has remained relatively united under the Assad government is a reminder that any armed intervention will be fiercely resisted. Continuing Russian and Iranian support are the other factors that discourage a Libya-type attempt at regime change.

While I would dearly love to see the Syrian dictator leave, the reality is that his departure might cause more problems than it solves. With an Allewite minority ruling over a majority of Sunnis, there are already rising sectarian tensions between the two communities. There have been credible reports of groups of pro-Assad Allewite thugs killing and torturing civilians. Should the regime collapse, there is a grave risk of a sectarian bloodbath as Sunnis settle scores.

Apart from Sunnis and Shia Allewites, Syria is also home to Christians, Druzes and small numbers of Jews and Yazdis. These minorities fear that once the brutal but secular government of Bashar al-Assad is deposed, the next one might not be as tolerant. They have reason to be worried, judging from the targeted killings of Christians in Egypt and Iraq. Indeed, around half of the country’s million-plus Christians have fled their homes in post-Saddam Iraq. The ancient, pre-Islamic Maronite community of Egypt makes up around 10 per cent of the population, and has been persecuted for years. But now, without the minimal protection they received from Mubarak, they fear the worst under an Islamic dispensation.

Libya today is witnessing regional fragmentation as local militias grab power, and confront a weak and chaotic Transitional National Council. Given the disunity and confusion, there are few prospects of a stable government emerging anytime soon. So clearly, it is easier to remove a despotic regime than it is to replace it with a democratic one.

Returning to Syria, it seems that a diplomatic solution is the only way forward if we are to avoid a messy endgame of the sort we saw in Iraq and are witnessing in Libya. Clearly, the Kofi Anan formula has collapsed under the weight of multiple breaches of the fragile truce by both sides. Britain and the US are now trying to persuade the Syrian dictator to go into exile with a guarantee of immunity from prosecution. This is known as the Yemen model whereby President Saleh stepped down after months of bloody street protests.

In an ideal world, a movement against dictatorship should culminate in the emergence of a freely elected, democratic government. Sadly, things are never that simple. Vestiges of the old regime continue to cling to power, as we are seeing in Egypt: with the military and security forces still entrenched, they are placing a series of roadblocks on the road to democracy.

How should the world react when faced with the kind of bloodbath we are witnessing in Syria today? Decent people want to see it end, and the only way to stop it seems to be the immediate removal of the dictator. Thus, the Nato campaign to rid Libya of Qadhafi was widely welcomed at the time. But few people are concerned with the disturbing aftermath. Similarly, hardly anybody in the West is aware of the disastrous impact of Saddam Hussein’s removal on women and the minorities in Iraq.

These are tricky moral and political issues, and there are no easy answers. Unfortunately, these questions are not properly discussed in Pakistan where, despite — or because of — our 24/7 rolling news and TV chat shows, we get more confused than ever.