INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS: by Jeffry Babb News Weekly
No military solution in sight to end Syrian civil war
, November 9, 2013
United States President Barack Obama’s legacy looks likely to be a cause of more than usual controversy. But one thing is certain — you wouldn’t want to be in a poker game with him.
In the space of a month, he held his nerve when all around him were urging him to “do something” about the Assad regime in Syria. He then stared down the Republican’s Tea Party faction over the Budget and debt ceiling, in what is universally recognised to be an electoral disaster for the Grand Old Party.
What we can say about Obama is that, despite plenty of urging, he didn’t start a war during his term in office. For this, the war-weary American people will give thanks.
When his predecessor, George W. Bush, put a match to the powder-keg in the Second Gulf War, few envisaged the strategic disaster it has since become. When U.S. forces exited Iraq after failing to secure an agreement on the status of U.S. troops, Iraq was handed to the Iranians on a platter.
What would toppling Assad achieve? Much the same as toppling Saddam Hussein in Iraq — or worse.
The fact is, the Western allies want Assad to stay. This accounts for the paradoxical way in which William Hague, the Britain’s Foreign Secretary, has been simultaneously inviting Bashar al-Assad to attend a peace conference in Geneva while continuing to aid the rebels.
Assad in power is better than Assad out of power. There is no military solution to this conflict. That is because the rebels are fragmented and will not be able to form a government. As for the likelihood of Assad resigning before or after the peace conference at the behest of the rebels, forget it. It is more likely that Barack Obama will fly to heaven, as did his namesake Barack (al-Buraq, or “Lightning”), the winged horse who bore the Prophet Mohammed aloft on his Night of Power.
Conservative commentators have condemned Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry for treating the Russians as equals, thus giving Moscow prestige and bargaining rights to which, these commentators believe, the Russians are not entitled.
It now looks like a very shrewd move: it bought the U.S. some breathing space and to some extent brought Russia inside the tent. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has done a deal with the Russian Orthodox Church to act in the interests of Christian believers and holy sites in the Middle East, which has been the Orthodox Church’s age-old mission.
The Orthodox Church is the only body with moral authority amongst the common people in Putin’s Russia. Maintaining the church’s goodwill is very important to Putin’s government.
The Assad regime has protected Christians in Syria, and they are part of his support base. The Putin government thus has a substantial investment in the Assad regime. Nor should it be forgotten that Russia has a naval base on the Syrian coast, which is useful to project its power into the Mediterranean Sea.
While the Assad regime certainly has grave defects, it is, if nothing else, a known quantity. The same cannot be said of the rebels. Following an outbreak of chemical warfare, the Assad regime has been cooperating with the United Nations to locate and destroy the government’s stock of chemical weapons. The rebels have not been slow in alleging other atrocities, but they are certainly not lilywhite themselves. Nor have atrocities in the Syrian conflict been restricted only to supporters of the Assad regime.
The difficulty in resolving the Syrian imbroglio lies with the nature of the Syrian state before it collapsed into civil war. Syria was a secular state. The Alawites, who constitute less than 10 per cent of the population, provided the ruling caste, including the Assad clan. The Alawites are a secretive Shia Muslim sect whose rituals are similar to those of Christianity. The Christians, of whom there were substantial numbers before the war, supported the Assad regime. In addition to the Druze, another Shia sect, Syria contained large numbers of Shia and Sunni believers. As a result, one cannot simply divide the two sides in the Syrian conflict into “good guys” and “bad guys”.
Good reasons exist to treat the Syrian conflict with urgency, apart from addressing the resulting humanitarian disaster. If government authority collapses totally, the inevitable outflow of refugees could destabilise the region. Already, Jordan, which is a Western ally, is hosting millions of refugees whose plight is threatening to overwhelm the resources of King Abdullah’s government.
From the point of view of the Western allies, the worst outcome would be for Syria to become a weak Iranian client-state that allowed Tehran to exercise power in an arc from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea — an ancient Persian objective.
The Iranians have been ready to negotiate over their nuclear weapons program, a sign that Western sanctions are biting. An entire younger generation have no idea of what life was like under the Shah. All they know is that a state which is burdened with crippling sanctions can’t meet their hopes and aspirations, which are much the same as those of young people everywhere.
Jeffry Babb is a Melbourne-based writer who has travelled extensively in the Middle East.