The Blindness Of The Western Commentariat On Syria. Countering the: “The Four Questions we need to answer before bombing ISIS or Assad” by Paul Mason in UK Guardian 21st September 2015 (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/sep/20/the-four-questions-we-need-to-answer-before-bombing-isis-or-assad)
The basic problem with virtually all the debate in the West over Syria, is that no one is listening to Syrians. Paul Mason gives an example of this problem, in his recent article in the “comment” section of the UK Guardian newspaper.
The UK government is again considering direct military intervention in Syria. “The [UK] government is reportedly ‘nervous’ of any military action that might provoke an Iraq-style protest movement.” The Stop The War Coalition will be happy to read this, as they were the major organiser of these demonstrations in 2003.
The first question is understanding what is going on in Syria. Paul Mason summarises this as “A democratic uprising became a civil war, got hijacked by Islamists, was abandoned by the west, and became a bargaining piece in a standoff with Putin’s Russia.”
A critical missing element is this article, like most others, is that the Assad regime is one of the most oppressive in the Middle East. The Syrian security forces are the foundation of the state’s power, and the most feared in the region. This system of rule by threat of torture and murder has been going on since 1970, when Bashar’s father took power in a coup. Infamously in 1982 in response to an uprising, Hafez al-Assad levelled the old city of Hama, killing around 40,000 people.
The torture and murder of peaceful protesters following the democratic uprising in Syria after March 2011, was typical of this regime. The torture, death and mutilation of 13 year old Hamza Ali Al-Khateeb that caught the foreign media’s attention in May 2011, was not an aberration but typical of this regime. The chemical attack by the regime in Ghouta in August 2013, that killed up to 500 civilians, was one of hundreds of uses of chemical weapons by the regime on it’s own people. It is no surprise that the Assad regime has killed 100,000s of Syrians, tortured 10,000s others to death, impoverished and displaced millions. 80% of these victims are the direct responsibility of the regime, only followed in terror by extreme jihadist groups like Islamic State.
The Assad regime forced the “democratic uprising” to become a “civil war”.
The West failed to provide adequate military support for the moderate Free Syrian Army, despite endless despairing requests for help. They struggled against the superior equipment of the Syrian Government Forces (well supplied by Russia and Iran in response to Israel). Paul Mason refers to “hijacking by Islamists” which ignores the large range of opinions across political Islam (“Islamists”) and that groups like the Muslim Brotherhood have been struggling against the regime since the 1970s. So “Islamists” are going to part of this struggle, whether the west likes it or not.
There is a more nuanced division between moderate secular and Islamist groups, versus the extreme jihadists. The extremists have done well only because they have been well supplied with arms. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States do not want democracy in Syria or anywhere else in the Middle East. They have a direct interest in supporting groups opposed to democracy. Also it is difficult to know how many Syrians fighting with these extreme groups buy into the ideology or join for the weapons, when there is no other supply.
The Gulf States also naturally supply the minimum amount of support to displaced Syrian civilians, who have dared to demand a representative government.
Just as obviously Iran and their ally Russia, have a direct interest in supporting Assad’s Alawite (exoteric branch of Shia Islam) regime. The Iranian regime justifies its existence as a theological dictatorship (the unelected Supreme Leader chooses who can run for election) by claiming to be the defender of Shia Islam.
It is no surprise that this, according to Paul Mason, is a “four way civil war”. He later mentions the Kurds, who are using the chaos, and fearing the return of authoritarianism, to stake out more of their long awaited Kurdish state.
At a more elemental level this is actually a two way civil war, between ordinary Syrians and psychopaths supported by mutually dependent elites.
Bombing ISIS and Assad may not be the best military intervention. Clearly Assad’s air force needs to be grounded with a “no fly zone”, which will involve bombing. Forces fighting the psychopaths of ISIS, other extreme jihadist groups or Assad (and their Russian and Iranian allies) need adequate military supplies. So yes an adequate military response from the West will help.
According to Mason the “next question is: what is the desired end result”. The unquestionable and obvious answer to this, is “What Ordinary Syrians Want”. That is a Representative Government, Distribution of Resources, Stability and Security. The elites in Russia, Saudi Arabia, Gulf States, Iran, Europe, USA ….. none of these forces want this outcome. If left to diplomacy the most likely outcome is the kind agreement that ended the bloody and depraved Algerian Civil War of the 1990s, that left the dictatorship of the FLN elite unreformed. It was no surprise that the Algerian politician Lakhdar Brahimi spent two years as special UN envoy to Syria.
“The next question is legality …. proving there is an overwhelming humanitarian need; that there is no alternative; and the action is proportionate.” After 45+ years of tyranny and terror under Assad, and over four years of civil war, the humanitarian need is obvious, and the action proportionate. It is unlikely the Syrian people will accept a return to dictatorship, after the suffering they have endured. The problem with the international community is that representative government is seen as optional.
“The final question is geopolitical effectiveness …. Why does the British Government think bombing ISIS, or bombing Assad’s airbases at the same time, would bring Russia closer to a strategic deal.” Suppling moderate Syrian forces with adequate arms, including those needed to deal with Russian forces, as occurred in Afghanistan in the 1980s would quickly lead to a withdrawal. This would also lead to defections from the extreme jihadist groups.
He finishes with “Right now, the public mood in Britain is split between ‘something must be done’ and ‘nothing can be done’….. ISIS rules half of Iraq because the government the west installed failed. It rules large parts of Syria because that state fell apart, and the west balked at the chance to fight Assad in 2013 …… Logic therefore dictates that what can beat ISIS is not primarily bombs or drones but an effective regional strategy.”
The tragedy is that neither the commentators nor the public they inform, has yet to hear the scream from the democratic uprising of 2011 in the Middle East, “We Want Representative Government”. The West’s regional policy must be to support ordinary people in their demands for this. This ensures the support of the vast majority of the people in the region. To implement this policy these people need to be empowered, sometimes with arms.
Already the moderate opposition in Syria is exhausted, democracy in Egypt has been seized back by the Army who never really let it go, the Libyan revolution is being usurped by the Gulf States, and Tunisia is under severe economic strain while the foreign backed jihadists cut the last thread of the tourist industry.
If left to rot, the result will be a grand disillusionment with the West, a huge surge in extremist jihadism, an explosion of terrorism that will spill out of the Middle East, as foreign powers compete to support ever more repressive regimes. Our civil liberties, our believe in democracy, our power to curb elites, all this is under threat …. because we cannot grasp that we share the same hard struggle.