On Syria, and the lessons of the British riots

The call this morning by the Obama administration for Bashir al-Assad to leave office in Syria, and the US imposition of sanctions has been echoed by similar moves from the EU. On the surface, the human rights atrocities committed by the Syrian military have provided the rationale for these moves against Damascus – with the latest outrages including the Syrian Army attacks on the Palestinian refugee camp near Latakia.

(NB : Israeli military action against Palestinian refugee settlements tends not to inspire similar mainstream reporting in the West.)

While there is no prospect of military action by the West of the type that occurred in Libya – partly because there is no credible opposition on the ground for outsiders to support – some have turned to Turkey as the only available triggerman, covertly assisted by the Saudis:

Saudi Arabia, through its connections to insurgents and Sunni tribes in Iraq and to Sunni politicians in Lebanon, will likely provide additional financing for weapons smuggling operations into Syria.

Turkey is the only country with the military capability, national security interests and favourable geographic location that can intervene in Syria. Turkey is increasingly likely to receive international support, from Nato and the Arab League and possibly from the UN Security Council, to send troops into northern Syria. In its initial stages, this would likely involve the creation of a 10km-20km buffer zone in Hasaka, Raqqa, Idlib and Aleppo Provinces.

Turkey, having deftly established its diplomatic independence over the past 10 years, seems unlikely to be so obliging to the West. Still, via, its current co-ordination of diplomatic and economic sanctions, the Obama administration will be hoping and planning for a palace coup, led by forces friendly to the West.

So far there has been a striking lack of commentary in the Western press about the strategic interests (especially those of Washington and Tel Aviv ) driving the calls for regime change in Syria. The fall of the corrupt and vicious Assad dynasty would have unknown internal consequences for the bulk of its people, most of whom do not seem to support the rebels, either. More to the point, any pro-Western, Sunni-dominated regime that might emerge victorious in Damascus would have implications for the Shi-ites in Lebanon, for the Kurds in Syria, Iraq and Turkey, for the Iran vs Saudi Arabia regional power struggle, for Turkey’s ambitions as a major economic and diplomatic power, for Russia’s military presence in the region etc etc…

The neighbourhood media certainly seems to see the likely ripple effects of the Syrian unrest far more clearly than the Western press. Here, for instance is the Oriental Review’s columnist in the Ukraine heatedly summarising the situation, albeit in apocalyptic terms:

– In case riots in Syria end in Assad`s resignation, Syria will be controlled by the US

– Turkey, Russia and Iran will have its positions in the Middle East weakened

– Russia will be ousted from the Mediterranean [by losing access to the Syrian port of Tartus] and locked inside the Black Sea basin, where it will have to deal with Romania, Bulgaria and Georgia – US allies and anti-Russian foreign policies

– the Kurdish issue will become even a greater threat for Turkey, especially in view of the fact that a pro-American Assad`s successor won`t be opposing what Kurdish rebels are going to implement….

– If Assad steps down, Turkey will face huge economic losses (in 2010 bilateral trade between Syria and Turkey stood at $2.5billion, and the sides agreed to reach the $5bln level)

-If this all happens, Turkey will have no alternative but to abandon its ambitious plans to create a free trade zone with Syria, Jordan and Lebanon.

Well, not really. If Turkey is the force that finally tips the balance on the Assad regime, it will extract concessions for doing so from whatever government emerges in Damascus. For now, it is doubtful whether the people of Syria – much less the region –would be any better off if regime change does occur in Damascus. The lesson of 1979 is that whatever replaces a morally and economically discredited regime can always be as bad, or worse – and there are few grounds for optimism this time, either.
Beyond the Riots

As the riots in Britain recede into history, and attain some perspective – not as bad as Greece, nor as organised as in Spain, and nothing like the sacking of foreign stores in 2001 in Argentina – there has been some terrific reporting on the moral panics and lynch law responses in Britain. The Economist of all places, has strongly rebutted the notion that the riots marked an unprecedented stage in Britain’s social and moral decline.

Naomi Klein, in an excellent Nation piece (reprinted in the Guardian) didn’t regard the spending cuts as having caused the looting in Britain in any direct sense.

Yet, accurately, Klein treats the spending cuts and the global financial crisis that preceded them as a kind of moral parallel – much as the neo-liberal experiment (that had sacked Argentina’s economy) set the tone for the looting of foreign superstores in 2001:

Argentina’s mass looting was called El Saqueo—the sacking. That was politically significant because it was the very same word used to describe what that country’s elites had done by selling off the country’s national assets in flagrantly corrupt privatization deals, hiding their money offshore, then passing on the bill to the people with a brutal austerity package…

That was then though in Latin America, and this is now in Britain:

[Britain’s] riots are not political, or so we keep hearing. They are just about lawless kids taking advantage of a situation to take what isn’t theirs. And British society, Cameron tells us, abhors that kind of behavior.

This is said in all seriousness. As if the massive bank bailouts never happened, followed by the defiant record bonuses. Followed by the emergency G-8 and G-20 meetings, when the leaders decided, collectively, not to do anything to punish the bankers for any of this, nor to do anything serious to prevent a similar crisis from happening again. Instead they would all go home to their respective countries and force sacrifices on the most vulnerable. They would do this by firing public sector workers, scapegoating teachers, closing libraries, upping tuitions, rolling back union contracts, creating rush privatizations of public assets and decreasing pensions—mix the cocktail for where you live. And who is on television lecturing about the need to give up these “entitlements”? The bankers and hedge-fund managers, of course.

Keep that in mind at election time, as you ponder who got the cream from last year’s tax cuts – and who is now lecturing us about the need for austerity.


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