If intervening in Syria were just a matter of backing one side, the West’s choice would be straightforward. It’s nothing of the kind, writes George Kerevan
The Syrian imbroglio is far messier and more complicated than David Cameron imagines. For a start, we are dealing with four different wars going on at the same time. Interfere in one and you are liable to cause unforeseen ructions in the others.
First, there is the proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran for leadership of the Middle East. This, of course, has a religious dimension in the age-old conflict between the Sunni and Shia versions of Islam. But it is also the modern form of an equally age-old rivalry between the Persians and the Arabs, with Assad’s pro-Tehran regime merely a pawn in the game. From day one, the Syrian insurgency has been funded and armed by Saudi, with Riyadh cunningly sending its own dissidents to Syria to make trouble abroad.
The interests of the Saudi royal family don’t necessarily fit our western notions of Muslim religious solidarity. The Saudis were the biggest cheerleaders for the overthrow of the President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood by the Egyptian army. The independent Brotherhood has always been seen as a threat by regimes in the Arab Middle East, be they religious or secular. The Saudis elite is in a race for survival. Fracking could reduce global oil prices and rob them of the loot they need to buy domestic harmony. At the same time, Tehran vies with Riyadh to lead the Muslim world – the role that gives the Saudi royals the credibility that justifies their ownership of the nation’s wealth.
The second war stems from the West’s own concern to contain Iran by overthrowing the vexatious Assad. Mixed up in this is our naïve attempt at bringing western-style democracy to the Middle East. Theoretically, removing Assad would curtail Tehran’s influence and cut off the flow of Iranian arms to Hezbollah in Lebanon. It might – say the optimists – weaken the hardliners in Tehran and aid the process of internal reform. This view is put strongly in the US by the old neo-cons.
We should count Israel in this camp though current Israeli opinion seems divided as to what to do about Assad. Some Israelis think that overthrowing Assad will pull Iran’s political teeth and create a breathing space to do a deal with the moderate Palestinians. However, the growing possibility of a Sunni jihadist regime installed in Damascus has led other Israeli commentators to hanker for keeping a chastened Assad in place pro tem. Meanwhile, with talk of western missile strikes, Israelis have been rushing to buy gasmasks, including the expensive ones that work with a religious beard.
Third, there is the war of the Sunni jihadi groups to destroy Israel and recreate a united caliphate in the area French and British imperialists sub-divided into the cartological fictions of Syria and Iraq. These groups come under the over-worked al-Qaeda brand. Fortunately, the two key players, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the Al Nurah Front are rivals, with clashing leaderships.
The jihadists, with their fanaticism and organisation, have taken control of the insurgency against Assad – whom they see as a tool of an unholy alliance of apostate Shias, Jews and the Great Satan in America. Syria’s Christian minority might be forgiven for asking why David Cameron allows London-born jihadis to come to their country to cut off their heads. Or what will jihadis will do with Assad’s nerve gas if they win?
The fourth war concerns Russia’s embarrassing attempts to hang on to a semblance of its former superpower status by backing Assad. The Iranian media yesterday was full of stories that Putin would bomb Saudi Arabia if the West bombed Syria. Purportedly, Putin is angry at an alleged threat from Saudi to unleash Chechen terrorists during the Olympic Winter Games next February in Sochi. The veracity of such reports is doubtful but indicative of the hysterical headlines in Russia and the Middle East prompted by the West’s threat to “punish” Assad. If Assad survives, Putin’s reckless foreign policy will be emboldened. If Assad goes down, Putin will sulk.
The dynamics of this conflict are hardly opaque. The Arab Spring was not really a democratic opening so much as a populist uprising against deteriorating economic conditions and mass unemployment – the 2009 global recession forced most Middle East regimes to slash food and oil subsidies for their citizens. It quickly turned into a Sunni revolt against the secular dictatorships in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and (finally) Syria.
A war-weary West supported these overthrows (including bombing Gaddafi) without considering the ensuing political vacuum would lead to fundamentalist regimes of varying fanaticism. However, in those countries with large non-Sunni minorities – Copts in Egypt, Alawites in Syria – there has been stiff popular resistance to the imposition of Islamic fundamentalism.
In recent weeks, the Assad regime has shown signs of surviving. Iran and Russia have been shipping in quantities of arms – flown through Iraq with the connivance of the Shia regime in Baghdad. Indeed, Iraqi troops have recently been fighting the Syrian insurgents along the 400-mile desert border – a clear sign this conflict is being internationalised. The Syrian jihadists make no secret of wanting to incorporate Iraq in their caliphate. A fundamentalist regime in Damascus could soon find itself in a war with Iraq.
It is difficult to see any replacement for Assad being secular or democratic. That implies war, whether with Iraq or Israel. The survival of a weakened Assad might produce an interval of political quiet and discrete negotiation. Equally, it might embolden Iran and Putin to throw their weight around. Worse, a political defeat for Riyadh, on the back of its unlikely support for the Egyptian army coup, could fatally destabilise the Saudi regime. And if you think the current Saudi regime is fundamentalist, wait till you see the next one.
All of which suggest that David Cameron should think twice before pushing any big red buttons.