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The fog of civil war

September 12, 2012

THE veteran Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi began his Syrian peace mission on a sombre note this week, having previously described his chances of success as negligible.

He wasn’t being unduly pessimistic, in the wake of Kofi Annan’s failure — albeit not for want of trying — to achieve a breakthrough.

The obduracy of the regime in Damascus is not the only problem. Incompatible geopolitical interests, both within the Middle East and on a global scale, also stand in the way of a possible compromise that could at least staunch the flow of blood from Syria’s multiple wounds.

On an extraordinarily violent day in neighbouring Iraq this week, almost 100 lives were lost in car bombs and other attacks across the country. That happens to be the average daily death toll in Syria, where 23,000 people are estimated to have been killed in the past 18 months.

At the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Vladivostok, meanwhile, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton nixed the Russian proposal for a fresh United Nations Security Council resolution on Syria, claiming that such a move would be pointless and “without teeth”.

Her impression that Damascus would be inclined to simply ignore a resolution that lacked the threat of dire consequences is probably not inaccurate. At the same time, Russia and China are understandably wary; after all, it wasn’t that long ago that UN authorisation for protecting lives in Libya led to a Nato military intervention aimed at regime change.

It is more than likely that Bashar al-Assad, too, cannot bring himself to overlook Muammar Qadhafi’s fate. His determination not to surrender is no doubt based on other calculations as well, but his declaration in a recent interview that his administration would in due course be able to pacify the nation testifies to a disconnect with reality.

He is fatally mistaken if he seriously believes that time is on his side. On the other hand, his level of international isolation is nowhere near that of Qadhafi. In the eyes of some observers, that is precisely the problem. And, all too often, from that point of view the perception tends to be that whereas Russia and China are on the wrong track, the chief culprit is Iran.

Given the broad antipathy Tehran attracts elsewhere in the Middle East, its keenness to preserve its sole dependable ally in the region is understandable. It has been accused of flying reinforcements, in the shape of weaponry as well as manpower, to the beleaguered Assad regime. Like so much else in the Syrian context, the extent to which this may be true is indeterminate.

Amid the fog of war, it is all but impossible to sift through the propaganda on both sides and come up with indisputable facts. As Antonin Amado and Marc de Miramon commented recently in Le Monde Diplomatique, “Syrians have been fighting for democracy since March 2011 in a popular uprising that has been brutally repressed and widely documented. But a media war is also being waged, and that has gone largely unreported by Western news organisations…

“To the embarrassment of the opposition army, the presence in Syria of jihadist groups, some claiming links to Al Qaeda, is an established fact [although] separating the revolutionary wheat from the jihadist chaff often turns out to be difficult.”

It is notable, though, that reports of radical jihadist involvement in the conflict have intermittently surfaced in Western media, including outlets eager to promote Western military intervention in Syria, regardless of the broader consequences.

For instance, The Washington Post’s correspondents reported from Aleppo last month: “A shadowy jihadist organisation that first surfaced on the Internet to assert responsibility for suicide bombings in Aleppo and Damascus has stepped out of the shadows… Here in Aleppo, the Al Nusra Front for the Protection of the People of the Levant, widely known as Jabhat al-Nusra, is fielding scores of fighters, some of them foreigners, in the battle for control of Syria’s commercial capital.”

In July, The New York Times published a report about “a video of masked men calling themselves the Free Syrian Army and brandishing AK-47s … In the background hang two flags of Al Qaeda, white Arabic writing on a black field”. It went on to say: “The evidence is mounting that Syria has become a magnet for Sunni extremists, including those operating under the banner of Al Qaeda.”

Meanwhile, earlier this month, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz noted: “A new ally has joined Israel in the struggle against [Lebanon’s] Hezbollah. Al Qaeda recently published a harsh attack on Hezbollah, in which it calls on [Shias] to renounce the organisation ‘if they do not wish to be the target of Al Qaeda attacks’.”

It cited a statement by “the commander of the Abdullah Azzam Shaheed Brigade in Syria, Majd al-Majd” as the source for the quote, describing al-Majd as a Saudi citizen who is on Riyadh’s most-wanted list, and who, according to Jordanian intelligence, “oversees nearly 6,000 militants that entered Syria from Iraq and Turkey”.

Other reports have mentioned a CIA presence on the Syria-Turkey border tasked with seeing to it that weapons shipments to the armed opposition do not get into the “wrong” hands.

If one were to start enumerating the ironies inherent in the unfolding events, where would it end? Suffice it to say that the minorities in Syria — notably the Alawites (whose predominance in the ruling clique means that even those who oppose Assad face reprisals) and the Christians — have cause to be wary of what the future holds.

At the same time, although it is likely that some of the atrocities attributed to government forces were in fact carried out by opposition militias, it seems unconscionable to portray the regime as anything other than the primary perpetrator of violence.

Whether Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi’s initiative for a contact group comprising Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iran will lead anywhere is uncertain, but one must hope that all parties with a finger in the Syrian pie are at least aware of the profoundly dire consequences of deepening sectarian divides across the Middle East.