MIDDLE EAST: by Jeffry Babb News Weekly
No winners in Syrian civil war
, June 22, 2013
The Crimean War (1853-56) is almost forgotten today, except perhaps for the Balaclava and Inkerman streets scattered throughout Melbourne’s older suburbs. But there is much to learn from this conflict, which claimed the lives of a million soldiers and uncounted civilians.
This war was the 19th century’s most deadly conflict. From 1853 to 1856, the Western powers, including France and Britain, allied to Turkey, confronted Czarist Russia for control of the Middle East.
For us it yielded Alfred Lord Tennyson’s epic poem, “The Charge of the Light Brigade”, and the founder of modern nursing, Florence Nightingale, known as “The Lady with the Lamp”.
For Russia, it reinforced her commitment as the preserver of Orthodox Christianity and the guardian of Christian holy places in the Middle East.
As the master storyteller of Russian history, Orlando Figes, makes clear in his narrative, Crimea: The Last Crusade (Allen Lane, 2010), Russia was above all else a Christian power. The Russian Orthodox Church ruled the hearts of the people and the Czar ruled in Moscow. And now, after nearly a century of godless, atheistic communism, the Orthodox Church once more is the religious and social glue holding Russia together.
So, we should not be surprised that an almost identical coalition has been assembled to prosecute the civil war in Syria. What is at stake is control of the Middle East. Russian is intransigently committed to the Assad regime, not least because Assad is seen as the protector of Syria’s Christians.
Unfortunately, the Russians are correct. Before it disintegrated, Syria was a secular, multi-religious state. Assad is from the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam that has some resemblance to Christianity. Syria was a popular place for Americans, including American Jews, to study Middle Eastern languages.
The Alawites, from the northwestern region near the coast, have always been in the minority. The Druze, an ethnic group widely regarded as heretics by more orthodox Muslims, are found in eastern Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel. They are notable, almost uniquely among non-Jews, for being brave warriors for the Jewish state. Shia Muslims have also backed Assad.
In recent weeks, Assad’s forces have been gaining ground. Bolstered by elements of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards, and a large-scale effort to train Assad’s fragmented troops, the balance on the ground has been swinging back towards Assad’s forces.
Iran’s interest is the ancient Persian ambition to find an outlet to the Mediterranean. By linking Syria to Lebanon and Iraq, the Iranians would have an outlet to the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean. Hezbollah, the de facto governing power in Lebanon, is now committing troops in support of Assad. The Russians intend to ship S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to the Syrians.
The Israelis dominate the air in the region by virtue of ruling the electromagnetic environment. Until recently, the Syrians and the Israelis could accommodate each other’s interests, to the point that recently Israel was in negotiations to return the Golan Heights to Syria.
It was in June 1967, during the Six-Day War, that Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria. One school of thought in Israel asserts that their return to Syria would have helped cement good relations. While such reports are credible, no doubt Jerusalem is glad wiser heads prevailed.
Ranged against the Assad regime are the rebels, who are mainly Sunnis. They are backed by France, Britain, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Some American commentators are calling for “boots on the ground” in Syria. No doubt these are the same people who urged George W. Bush to invade Iraq — and then did a backflip, urging him to get out when things turned bad.
Syria is not a religious war but a civil war with religious overtones. Of course, it is a very nasty civil war, as most civil wars are. Estimates of the death toll range from 75,000 to 90,000. In addition, some 1.5 million refugees have spilled over into Jordan, threatening to loosen the Hashemite dynasty’s grip on power in the country’s capital, Amman.
Syria is invaluable in strategic terms. The longer the war goes on, the more it will shape up as a proxy war between the United States and its allies on one side and Russia, China and Iran on the other.
Syria has no oil and will need a big brother to pay its bills. The fear is that no-one will win and that Syria will descend into a group of confessional statelets, similar to Iraq. The Iraqis have enough oil money to paper over the cracks, but incessant armed conflict between a group of confessional statelets in Syria would be a disaster.
The hardheads in the State Department, the Quay d’Orsay and the Foreign Office are no doubt playing strategic chess, working out whom to back and with what. As for putting “boots on the ground”, Assad’s opposition can’t even agree among themselves who should do what.
Iraq was a nightmare to conquer and pacify, but it would be simple compared to Syria.
Jeffry Babb is a Melbourne-based writer who has travelled extensively in the Middle East.