The crises in Syria are a continuation of the engineered springs and autumns of the Arab world. It is now the indisputable focal point of international rivalries, strategic posturing, schisms within different schools of Islamic thought and a conflict of traditional Bedouin politics, Persian influence and byzantine intrigues. These crises also reflect the rivalries that existed between the various caliphates of Islam, which ran parallel and counter to each other. Syria is a melting pot of rivalries, fratricidal wars, non-state actors and a reality that Arab Muslims are still competing for their versions of identity, thereby allowing foreign powers to operate in a vacuum they create.
Syria’s fault is that it is a long time Russian ally, allows Iran to exercise its influence, supports Hamas and Hezbollah and threatens Israel in multiple ways. For a long time, it has remained a tolerant society where Muslims, Christians and Jews go freely to places of common worship, a bastion of Abrahamic heritage and a fusion of diverse cultures. It also has a well developed chemical weapons programme as dissuasion to Israel’s nuclear capability. It is not a signatory to Chemical Weapons Convention.
The situation is complex and dangerous in that an escalation could lead to dangerous and uncontrollable spillovers. Robert Fisk writing for Independent said: “If Barack Obama decides to attack the Syrian regime, he has ensured - for the very first time in history - that the United States will be on the same side as al-Qaeda…....All for one and one for all should be the battle cry if the West goes to war against Assad’s Syrian regime.”
An Arab commentator sums up the complexity commenting: “Iran is backing Assad. Gulf States are against Assad! Assad is against Muslim Brotherhood and Obama are against General Sisi. But Gulf States are pro-Sisi! Which means they are against Muslim Brotherhood. Iran is pro-Hamas, but Hamas is backing Muslim Brotherhood! Obama is backing Muslim Brotherhood, yet Hamas is against US! Gulf States are pro-US. But Turkey is with Gulf States against Assad; yet Turkey is pro-Muslim Brotherhood against General Sisi! And General Sisi is being backed by the Gulf States. Welcome to Middle East!”
Ever since the demise of the once great, but later very sick Ottoman Empire, West Asia/Middle East never found its equilibrium. The creation of Israel, Nasser’s coup against Farouk, overthrow of Mosaddeq regime in Iran by West, Suez Canal crisis, Arab-Israel wars, Iran-Iraq war, the two US led Iraq invasions and Arab Springs are all ripples of reinventing an Arab House divided within itself.
In order to sustain their monarchies within this vacuum, these once very poor, but now dirty rich Arab Kingdoms use their petro dollars and influence of Western masters to play dirty intrigues through sectarianism and militancy. These signatures reverberate as far away as Indonesia, Philippines, Malaysia, Chechnya, China, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The principal state actors that support these groups with support of the West are Saudi Arabia and Gulf States. They spread their tentacles during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, co-opted pliant regimes seeking legitimacy (Pakistan) and thrown the entire region into instability. These countries have poor human right records, impose draconian laws, deprive women of rights and use imported manpower of the third world like bonded labour. Their economic success is managed by Western multinationals and corporations. The political economy in the region has been played in a manner that their downfall would create international economic crises. Hence, the West forced by its own industrial and economic complexes is compelled to sustain these regimes. It is also this preservation instinct that inhibits democracy in Egypt, pluralism in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, and denial of space to Shia Muslims in the entire Arab Peninsula. Iran with Syria is perceived as the major enemy.
After the engineering in Iraq, Libya and Egypt, the West considers Syria as the major hurdle to their designs of placing Israel as the policeman of the region. Iran with its influence over Shia Muslims, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Hezbollah would be next. Within this game plan, the Arab monarchies see an opportunity to retain their control through autocratic rule. The current model for stability in the region is divisive. A house divided within is what suits Western economies and democracies.
Within the Arab Crescent, there are three countries with doubtful chemical weapon facilities. Israel has signed and not ratified the chemical weapons convention. It also has an undeclared nuclear strike capability and remains the most protected Western ally in the region. Egypt and Syria have not signed the treaty. Syria has a known chemical weapons programme built with the assistance of USSR and German, French and British pharmaceutical companies. Iraq had the tacit approval of USA to develop and use chemical weapons against Iran, a time that Syria used to build its weapons. Notwithstanding historical complicity, a selective case is now being made to punish Syria.
US domination of global affairs has gone beyond a point of restoring equilibrium after the cold war. If the crises persist or escalate, the world will move into a new phase of rivalry. President Obama’s ‘red line’ on the use of chemical weapons in Syria has been crossed. It is yet to be determined who did it? Was it the Syrian government? Was it an element within the army who acted at their own? Or were it the non-state actors under foreign influence edged on to shape an environment for US air strikes. Someone has called it President Obama’s bluff, and the world and United Nations need to investigate and move cautiously before another intervention takes place.
The lessons of Spanish-American war, Zimmerman Telegram, Berlin airlift, Gulf of Tonkin, Grenada, Panama, Yugoslavia, Iraqi war crimes in Kuwait, sexed up Iraq dossiers and Osama’s complicity with Afghan Taliban should not be lost on the US Congress.
Already, Britain has been forced to consider non-military options through its Parliament pending the UN investigation. It is to be seen if US decides to go solo or is restrained from its punitive strikes by Congress in the interim.
A regime change in Syria 2013 on the heels of Serbia, Iraq, Libya and Egypt will create a new wave of anarchy with a revulsion against autocratic monarchies and USA through populist sentiment, the strongest dimension of strategy. Iran will be the obvious beneficiary, but so would the benefits spread to South and Central Asia. In the larger scheme of things, it is more important to contain the sources of proxies that transcend international borders than decimate a dictatorship in Syria, which exercises a healthy pluralism in the Islamic world.
n The writer is a retired army officer, current affairs host on television and political economist.