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The prologue to war

Published Mar 24, 2013 05:15am


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IS America planning to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the war which eliminated Saddam Hussein and destroyed Iraq with an intervention in Syria?

Jaundiced Arab eyes are asking a cynical question: if Camilla and Prince Charles drop by to see war refugee Syrian children at a camp in Jordan, as they did on March 13, can Nato troops be far behind?

Observers are adding two plus two, and perhaps getting five. But they note that when Republican Senator John McCain puts on his best stentorian manner and claims Bashar Assad is committing genocide against his own people, something is beginning to cook in Washington. Across the Atlantic, Britain and France have urged the European Union to lift a ban on weapons for Syrian rebels.

Little flakes point towards a storm. This clamour, half official and half unofficial, seeks to suggest that only Nato can rescue a crucial nation on the geo-strategic map from the despotic and dynastic rule of the Assad family. So far, the war in Syria has been an uneven contest between a Russian-backed authoritarian regime and disparate rebel groups.

International intervention means nothing without American involvement. Britain and France have neither the stomach nor the wherewithal for unilateral action.

Barack Obama is not a pacifist, as evidence from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen proves. But he is too smart to repeat the foolishness of George Bush the Younger. He will not use lies as justification for war. He has laid down a “red line”: the use of chemical weapons, which the Assad regime possesses.

A flutter went up this week when both government and rebels accused each other of using chemical weapons. Washington reacted calmly, ordering its intelligence analysts to check the allegations. At the moment of writing this is still in progress. If Obama does go to the United Nations it will be with solid evidence, not hearsay manufactured in the neocon imagination, as Bush did.

Bush made unforgivable errors. His target was Saddam Hussein, and he went to war against the whole of Iraq. Obama will choose his enemy more carefully. He will more probably concentrate his military attention on the elite that controls Damascus, and avoid battle to the extent he can with the Syrian army.

This would mean maximum use of missiles and warplanes, and minimal use of infantry. The official Assad palace in Damascus is atop a high hill and very vulnerable to air assault, but the Assads understand that and have moved out. But dominant air cover will be invaluable to rebels who have already reached the edge of Damascus.

Obama is unlikely to risk American boots on the battlefield. The heavy lifting on the field would probably be left to Turkish troops; Turkey is a member of Nato, and has provided refuge and sanctuary to both civilians and fighters. It has an important national interest in the outcome of this conflict.

Nor can Assad hope for popular support in his own country. His sect, the Alawites, who form only 10 per cent of the population, have alienated the Sunnis. Foreign intervention will get just that touch of local support that makes its efforts credible.

The tough part may not be the big war in the beginning, but the small wars of succession that will plague Syria in the aftermath. The rebels do not ride under a single flag. Their motivation varies. Some of them are Islamists; others dream of becoming regional warlords. They could turn Syria into another Lebanon.

Afghanistan may be an extreme case, but it is always worth noting that three decades after the Soviet troops were driven out the wars of succession are not over. It is easier to end a war between nations than calm the consequences of an insurrection.

Whatever the eventual price, it is obvious that the present order in Damascus is no longer sustainable. When the conflict was still in its incipient stage, Turkey advised Assad to accept a compromise and lead the change rather than defy it and invite bloodshed.

Bashar Assad had seen his father Hafez contain and defeat one challenge after another, and thought he could do so as well. But Hafez Assad lived in an age of dictators and comparatively settled internal and external relations.

Bashar Assad rules at a time of turbulence on the Arab street and massive flux in the neighbourhood. He could have been an exemplar of transition. He chose a worse fate. Russia, and China to a lesser degree, will continue to back Assad, if for no other reason than to rebuff America, but not at the cost of their self-interest.

Iran is a far more reliable ally, but its ability to protect Assad against a carefully constructed, UN-authorised American-Turkish operation must be in question.

This is a war whose opening stages have become a prolonged prologue. Every war is unpredictable, and no one can say how it will end. But once they start, the middle and end games will be quicker.

The writer is editor of The Sunday Guardian, published from Delhi, India on Sunday, published from London and editorial director, India Today and Headlines Today.


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Comments (12) Closed

Bbbb Mar 24, 2013 03:30am
I don't think, that American public has the appetite for another war. They have most probably learnt their lessons form Iraq and Afghanistan. It will take about a generation to forget the lessons. They forgot the Vietnam lesson in about a generation. It is much safer to make movies like 'Zero dark thirty', than to actually play it out.
Raj Hukkoo Mar 24, 2013 06:25am
Muslims are, as is the norm, killing Muslims. Yet Muslims are silent. Will Mr. M. J. Akbar please don his military fatigues and go fight whoever he thinks is in the wrong in Syria and take soldiers from other Muslim countries along with him? Why should non-Muslims be expected to step into a calamity that is 100% of Muslim making?
ahmed41 Mar 24, 2013 10:35am
"-------Afghanistan may be an extreme case, but it is always worth noting that three decades after the Soviet troops were driven out the wars of succession are not over. It is easier to end a war between nations than calm the consequences of an insurrection.----" This seems to be an understatement. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ "-----This is a war whose opening stages have become a prolonged prologue. Every war is unpredictable, and no one can say how it will end. But once they start, the middle and end games will be quicker.----" As he has explained this is not a war between two nations. It is an internal struggle for political power. Whichever party looses this fight , it is certain that a prolonged insurgency / insurrection will ensue. Better to have a political & social compromise and agree to share power on some practical basis. Take a lesson from Iraq, libya and other areas of the *SPRING*
Akhlaq Mar 24, 2013 02:57pm
Turkey is playing for west in region, He will soon know the truth of agentism. To support rebails is not wise nor to lead attack on Syria. The west itself is not willing to induct in war directly.
Rahul Mar 24, 2013 04:05pm
M J Akbar is a journalist. Your comment makes no sense whatsoever.
pathanoo Mar 24, 2013 05:33pm
An excellent article by a respected, unbiased journalist. I have a few questions for you, Mr. M. J. Akbar. Why is it that all the sectarian and religious hatred based killings are happening, and have mostly happened, in the Muslim world only? Does the intolerant strain of Islam has some thing to do with it? If not how do you explain this religious carnage in the Muslim countries only? When would respected, unbiased journalists like you would have the intestinal fortitude to shed a light on it? When would journalists or scholars in the Muslim Ummah have the courage to address the elephant in the house of Islam? Till you all address this; you guys are blowing smoke of the Ummah's and the World's arse. No one is going to take you guys seriously. Truth is no one does.
Shubs Mar 24, 2013 05:48pm
Complete ignorance of geopolitics should not be an excuse to embarrass yourself with such comments.
Shubs Mar 24, 2013 05:58pm
I completely agree. That said, second-term Obama has much less to fear when it comes to public opinion. While many Americans will still feel the moral urge to intervene in another country when they are being fed reports about genocide, they may not have the stomach for it. Though they are still a military hyper-power, the Iraq experience has definitely damaged their will for military intervention. And no, this is not because they suffered militarily in Iraq, far from it. It is only because the moral high-horse the American public believed they were on, was rudely snatched away from under them when the war clouds cleared, and they realized why the war was really fought. In their name. And in spite of the stereotypes, Americans as a people, still believe and want to do the right thing. They were misled by their own government.
Shubs Mar 24, 2013 05:59pm
Oh, and by the way, Zero Dark Thirty may have been a movie, but the reality was much more audacious, and much more humiliating than most Pakistanis would like to admit...:-)
G.A. Mar 24, 2013 09:18pm
@Raj Hukkoo- You say it with much conviction that the non-Muslim states (I.e. former colonial masters that decimated much of India, Africa, East Asia and Latin America) are dying to step in for the love of Muslim civilians when they are least bothered about Israeli or Bahraini atrocities. Wars are about economy and your name suggests that you are an offspring of a colonial subject. You have a short memory sir!
Mohammad Ali Khan Mar 24, 2013 11:03pm
Chemical weapons will be neutralized in Syria and Lebanon before any attack on Iran.
Cyrus Howell Mar 25, 2013 12:36am
The prologue to war has been the same for 4,000 years. Growing populations and little money.