OPINION: by Philip AyresNews Weekly
Syria: Why are we encouraging chaos?
, August 18, 2012
Russia has the better policy on Syria, in terms of Syrian interests, Russian interests and Western interests, and News Weekly did its readers a service in publishing Elizabeth Kendal’s perceptive piece “Christians’ plight lost under a mountain of propaganda” (News Weekly, August 4, 2012).
By contrast, recent articles touching on the Middle East by Joseph Poprzeczny appear nostalgic for the Cold War and its us-and-them certainties. All Russian policies are not by definition bad.
If NATO and the US State Department wished for the religious minorities of Syria (Christian, Alawi or Alawites, Druze, mainstream Shia, etc) to be thrown to the wolves amidst an anarchy of competing Sunni fundamentalisms, they could not have designed a better “policy” than to cheer on the enemies of these minorities.
The authoritarian regime of Bashar al-Assad, like that of his father Hafez al-Assad, was secular in spirit and held the nation together through its security apparatus, its police-power and a widely-shared consensus that different faiths should be free not only to worship but to participate in affairs of state (the recently-murdered Defence Minister was a Christian).
The leadership has always been substantially Alawi (a quiet sect of Shia Islam viewed as Satan-inspired heretics by mainstream Sunni Islam). Certainly there were and are political prisoners, many of them the kind of radical Islamists currently spreading civil war under the flags of al Qaida in the Levant (AQL), the Muslim Brotherhood and the Syrian Taliban, armed increasingly from Saudi Arabia via Iraq.
The al-Assad regime has generally maintained order, and any local disturbances have been ruthlessly suppressed. It is a secularist, minorities-supporting, minority-based government that has kept the country together. It has no relationship with Israel and neither needs nor desires any.
There has been no sanctioned opposition, though there have been one or two coalition parties such as the Social Nationalist Party. It is an undemocratic state but preferable to the anarchic and intolerant Syria now shaping up as the alternative, thanks to the profusion of weapons flowing to the insurgents.
Most of these hate the Syrian Christians, who have been there for two millennia, even more than they hate the Alawi and the Druze, all of whom they associate with the al-Assad regime. If these minorities are expelled in large numbers we should encourage them to come to Australia, as we are encouraging their persecutors.
Whether the regime can re-establish a degree of order looks increasingly doubtful. At least they currently have Russia’s support through its small naval base there, and the impotence of a veto-blocked Security Council.
We live in an increasingly multi-polar world, preferable to the one-superpower world we temporarily had following the collapse of Soviet Communism. Most historians see advantages in a balance of power. The traitors who betrayed the West’s nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union in the late 1940s deserved hanging and electrocution, but in retrospect who wants to live under the aegis of a sole nuclear super-power?
But transitionary periods like the present have dangers, and as America accommodates its “manifest destiny” to reduced circumstances, self-doubt and confusion seems to rule its councils. Debt-burdened and exhausted by over-reach, it still holds to a touching faith in the universal applicability of liberal democracy, at a time when a large measure of disengagement has become necessary and inevitable (the journal The American Conservative is very clear-headed on this, as is Ron Paul).
The results from Tunisia to Syria are chaos and butchery, followed by a ballot, whatever that means or leads to. Meanwhile the Republicans solicit support by deluding the electorate that they can continue to have the world in their image.
There’s an historical analogy in late-16th-century Spain attempting to impose its system on the Netherlands at a time when Spain’s financial resources were spent. The system didn’t fit the Netherlands, and in any case the policy couldn’t be afforded. The Dutch should have been left alone. It was time to disengage, to laissez faire.
American and NATO enthusiasm for the “Arab Spring” is so disarmingly idealistic that one searches in vain for deeper motives.
The overthrow of the al-Assad regime in favour of Sunni Islamists would diminish Iran’s strategic reach, and that might suit Israel, but only if the threat to Israel from Iran is greater than the threat from a Shia Hezbollah armed with chemical weapons out of a broken Syria.
It might be thought that the end of the al-Assad regime would mean a weakened Hezbollah, but how would an anarchically fractured Syria be any obstacle to the supply of Iranian assistance to Lebanese allies? Meanwhile Sunni Hamas would have its financial and ideological support base strengthened and diversified.
A young Syrian Druze I know explained to me recently that although the al-Assad government was authoritarian and at times cruel, it was basically friendly to the Druze and Christians and “it’s the only Arab country that stands up to Israel”.
I could see her point on both counts, but from the Israeli point of view surely an anarchic Syria would be worse: AQL, the Syrian MB and the Syrian Taliban would all do their best to strengthen Hamas financially while having no ability, and probably no intention, to weaken Hezbollah or block its supply-train. Why would they do that? Just because Hezbollah is Shia?
Perhaps there is no misguided real politik here. Perhaps American policy these days really is driven by a misguided bleeding heart, and doing good.
We need to think outside the old squares, and Russia is not always wrong. It has its own al Qaidas and has learned how to crush them. In Syria we seem to be encouraging them.
Philip Ayres, currently engaged on the biography of Sir Ninian Stephen, has published major biographies of Malcolm Fraser, Owen Dixon, Douglas Mawson and Cardinal Moran. He travelled in Afghanistan in late-1987 with Hezb-i-Islami, the most extreme of the Islamists then fighting the Soviet-backed Afghan government. Hezb-i-Islami is now aligned with the Taliban and fights NATO.