Gordon Campbell on the lack of options in Syria

Is the Assad regime better or worse than what is likely to follow in its wake? Given the carnage in Iraq and the drift towards fresh tyranny under Nouri al-Maliki that has followed the fall of Saddam Hussein, that is a legitimate question. This time, the West has to avoid falling for the line being peddled by the exiled opposition, who are once again trying to portray foreign intervention as a swift act of liberation likely to be greeted with open arms by a grateful population. (Yes, just as the Iraq invaders were going to be welcomed with rose petals.) They wouldn’t be – and thankfully, no-one outside the idiot wing of the Republican Party is seriously considering a military invasion of Syria. The Turks, the only available proxy on hand who could lead such an operation, aren’t having a bar of it, either.

The struggle going on inside Syria is not a further flowering of the Arab Spring. The Syrian opposition is widely unloved. Partly because events in Syria are so clearly unfolding in the shadow of the wider conflict in the Middle East between the Sunni states of Saudi Arabia and Qatar on one hand, and the Shia state of Iran on the other. Israel’s interest (which is always the US default position) is a related one to the Saudi goal – namely, to pursue a weakened Syria, which will in turn weaken the Syrian/Hizbollah positions inside Lebanon, and further isolate the main prize, which is Iran. Thus, we have the Saudis pouring money and weapons into the Syrian opposition, regardless of how much of it ends up in the hands of the jihadist friends of al Qaeda, who have their own beef with the secular regime in Damascus, and sense an opportunity.

As yet, the global community has given Assad no incentive to co-operate. It wants regime change, not reform. As Patrick Cockburn recently pointed out in the Independent:

President Bashar al-Assad will not go quietly and believes he does not have to go at all. Here lies the problem at the heart of the Syrian crisis, where Russia has some right on its side and President Putin’s critics are mistaken. Mr Assad’s regime is being asked to reform itself and, at the same time, to drop dead politically and pass out of existence. These aims are contradictory. Why should the Syrian government modify its behaviour if the true purpose of international pressure is regime change?

Regimes changed in Iraq and Libya because they were defeated in war by the Western powers (the Libyan rebels would not have lasted a week without Nato support). If the Western powers are not going to go to war in Syria, and can’t get the Turks to do their dirty work for them, then they should push for reform and power-sharing that leaves a modified version of the Assad regime in place. This would be difficult for the Russians to oppose and would relieve the fears of Iran. The alternative may be a long war that will tear Syria apart.

Exactly. The massacre at Houla – which seems to have been carried out by pro-Assad militia – has caused an understandable tide of revulsion against the Assad regime. Yet, as some commentators have pointed out, the West has lived with as much before – or worse – without pursuing regime change. The problem is that the West’s wider goal of targeting Iran is seen to require and justify the replacement of Assad, whatever carnage results in the process among the Syrian people, and however it benefits – in the longer run – the forces of fundamentalism. One can safely assume that if the drift to sectarian bitterness deepens inside Syria, the bloodshed in coming months and years will make the massacre in Houla pale by comparison.

Blame the Russians? Hardly. The Russians have had their own reasons for wanting Assad to survive. They can see the game-plan for a Saudi/US/Israeli domination of the Middle East that will follow if first Syria, then Iran is subjugated. Yet ironically, in the short term, Russian intransigence has done the Syrian opposition a service by buying them more time, both to increase their numbers on the ground, and to prove their credibility as a legitimate alternative. Because until now, the Syrian opposition hasn’t had much credibility, either diplomatically or in military terms. Its leadership, safe in their air-conditioned offices in the Gulf, have been far more competent at creating martyrs by sending their troops into suicidal conflicts, than in winning battles – or in winning over the wider population, most of whom still appear to regard them as a bunch of foreign pawns, crooks and opportunists.

The veteran US policy- maker (under Jimmy Carter) Zbigniew Brzezinski sounded a welcome note of caution this week:

“It’s not going to be solved by recalling ambassadors from Moscow or telling the Russians they are acting like thugs,” he said. “The fact of the matter is unless there is international cooperation which results in some proposal that the Assad government can live with, and which involves some sort of supervised effort to establish some domestic consensus, this conflict is going to go on. And let’s not exaggerate this conflict.” He said that the Syrian uprising is distinct from other conflicts because violence isn’t widespread geographically, the army has remained intact and the business elite has remained supportive of the Assad government.

That latter part was truer a few months ago than it is now. Right now, the current extent of the regime’s support where it matters – within the Sunni business elite, and within the Army – is a complete unknown. Syria is unusual in that the Assad family (and the military/intelligence leadership) come from the minority Alawite community, who comprise only about 12% of the population, and who profess a form of Shia Islam. For survival, the Assads have forged strong ties with the Sunni business elite, who benefited from the stability to do commerce that Hafez al-Assad delivered, after the years of incompetent instability that preceded his rule.

That mutually beneficial relationship is now coming under severe strain. The sanctions imposed by the West are killing the country’s economy, a less than robust creature at the best of times. Like the Assads and their generals, the Sunni business elite probably feels it is being given no other option by the outside world. They will hang together, because otherwise, they will hang separately. As a result, more sectarian division and bloodshed seem inevitable for the Syrian people. The enemies of Syria (and more to the point, the enemies of Iran) wouldn’t want it any other way.