Syria, an ancient land on the Mediterranean Sea has witnessed many upheavals in last few centuries. Its history as well as its geography went through trials and tribulations of the time, and the French granted the country its independence in 1946. The population comprises of almost 74% Sunni Muslims, 16% Alawites and Druze, 10% Christians awwzznd a tiny Jewish minority mainly in Damascus, Al Qamishli, and Aleppo. For the past 45 years, this country has been ruled by the Baath party and the al-Asad clan has been at the helm. Like any other Arab state in the region, Syria has had its share of dissension in the past. An uprising in 1980, orchestrated by Ikhwan ul Muslimeen (Muslim Brotherhood) and some Salafi elements, was restricted to the city of Aleppo and was successfully crushed by Hafez el-Assad, the father of the current president Bashar el-Assad. Since it has been a member of the club known as the “confrontation states”, Syria has fought two wars (1967 and 1973) against Israel and ended up as a loser, particularly in the 1967 War, where a large chunk of its territory, the Golan Heights, was captured by Israel. As a member of the Arab League, Syria has been secular ever since the Baath Party takeover of 42 years ago. Also, Syria has been quite staunch in support of Hamas faction of the Palestinian movement and it also supported the U.S and its allies in the Gulf War I and Gulf War II against Iraq’s Saddam Hussain.
The Arab Spring, inspired by the freedom of Iraq in 2003, commenced with great vehemence in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain and Yemen while made soft landings in Morocco, Jordan and Saudi Arabia and finally descended upon Syria. Since the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen were of grassroots nature, and no mercenaries or foreign fighters participated, these countries promptly and with minimal violence, succumbed to the changes in their respective regimes. The monarchies of Jordan, Morocco and Saudi Arabia, however, were able to escape unscathed by baiting their citizenry with the offers of reform and improvement in their day to day life. Saudi Arabia even sent its troops to Bahrain to support the fledgling regime there – the bloody suppression of Bahrain’s population continues to date, as the Western powers, despite the most perilous plights of the Bahraini masses, have chosen to look the other way. The Shia citizens of Bahrain, who are in majority but largely disenfranchised, are being tortured and tormented on a daily basis by their rulers. Inside Saudi Arabia, the minority Shia Muslim community is not fairing any better either as the Saudi Kingdom continues to violate their most basic human rights and have essentially established a religious apartheid against the helpless Saudi Shia. Members of Shia clergy are arrested on a routine basis and they are imprisoned and tortured without any judicial due process. Also, Saudi based and financed Al-Qaida and Al-Nusra Front are creating havoc in Iraq by stoking sectarian strife and bloodshed.
To the east of the troubled Iraq lies Syria where the civil war has entered its third year. Almost 70,000 people (including 20,000 Syrian soldiers, 10,000 foreign fighters, and nearly 40,000 civilians caught in the bloody crossfire) have lost their lives. Almost 1.2 million Syrians have landed in Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, and Lebanon as refugees and the number of displaced Syrians has reached 4.5 million. According to independent accounts, 40,000 foreign fighters from as far as Albania and Zambia are engaged in this brutal conflict. Bashar al-Assad, no saint by any stretch of the imagination, is doing everything he possibly can to cling to the power he inherited from his father Hafez al-Assad almost a decade ago. In terms of longevity of his reign, he is no more or less of an evil than the other Arab rulers, be that a monarch or a president. Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar are arming and financing the fighters predominantly belonging to Al- Qaida, Jabhat el-Nusra (Al-Nusra Front) and the Muslim Brotherhood, while Jordan is facilitating the training of these rebels. Ironically, Palestinians (Hamas), whose cause was championed by Syria more than by any other Arab state, have opted to ditch in favor of the petro dollars from the State of Qatar. The “Friends of Syria” and other rag tag rebel groups that had launched the initial peaceful uprising are now openly collaborating with the aforementioned factions simply because they themselves are not the quality of fighters whom Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar would prefer to arm and finance for the Syrian conflict. France and the United Kingdom, after failing to persuade their fellow EU members to join this conflict, have embarked upon providing non-lethal support and training to the rebels. Russia and, to a lesser extent, China are siding with Syria and the scope and magnitude of their support is increasing by the day despite the ongoing pressure by the Western powers. Iran and Hezbollah, in a spirit of quid pro quo, are also providing Syria with arms and military assistance to stave off the insurgency.
Modern day warfare requires two very essential ingredients in order to avert a crisis of this nature. First and foremost, the troops on the ground that Syria has employed for the past two years to counter the opposition have been somewhat effective, and the regime seems to be comfortable with their performance. Despite frequent claims of triumphalism by the insurgents, and regardless of all the lethal and non-lethal supplies they have been receiving from outside, the Syrian Army, in all likelihood is expected to prevail. The other ingredient that is critically essential in a vicious venture of this sort is for all parties to pursue a formidable propaganda and lobbying campaign. This requires tremendous amount of capital, and Syria in comparison with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, is but penurious. Saudi Arabia with its trillions can buy and sell all the lobbying and PR firms, while Qatar has Al-Jazeera, the tried and tested powerful Arabic and English propaganda network that has quite recently acquired an American network for a half a billion dollars. The tiny Island-State of Bahrain has purchased the services of 13 most reputable Public Relations firms to lobby and advance its criminal agenda of suppressing and persecuting its populace. The Turks, the erstwhile Ottomans, for the past few years have spent millions to suppress the most tragic fact that they massacred almost 1.5 million Armenians in an act of genocide that took place in 1915. Also, during the contemporary times, Turkey is guilty of suppressing its Kurdish minority of 17 million by inflicting one pogrom after another against these helpless Kurds resulting in the loss of almost 40,000 lives in the past decade. The Black September of 1970 bears witness to thousands of Palestinians being slaughtered by Jordan on a nod from the Hashemite King Hussain.
And then, there exists this moralist group of the so-called hawkish U.S Senators led by John McCain (R-Arizona) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), which continues to prod President Barack Obama with daily pontifications that U.S must not look the other way while bloodshed in Syria continues. These Senators, joined by an ill-informed media and a few self proclaimed experts on the Middle East, have been articulating numerous proposals and scenarios that U.S government should follow in arming and financing the Syrian opposition. This group, however is conveniently overlooking the acts of State sponsored terrorism being perpetrated by Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Bahrain and Qatar upon the innocent Shia, Kurdish, Alawite, and Christian citizens of Syria, Bahrain, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The triumvirate of Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, in the meantime, is busy looking for every opportunity to raise the temperature of this conflict to a point where the US and its NATO allies can, somehow, be lured in to entering the fray to change the regime and topple Bashar al-Assad.
At the onset of the Iraqi War in 2003, when U.S. and its allies wanted to use Turkish space to launch an attack from northern Iraq, Turkey flatly rejected the request despite Saddam’s despotic demeanor and his ruthless reign of 35 years that resulted in the massacre of a million Iraqi Shias and Kurds. During the tenure of U.S. President Bill Clinton, and prior to the famous Dayton agreement, almost a quarter million Yugoslavian Muslims were massacred and maimed by the Serbs in a systemic pogrom of ethnic cleansing, while in Rwanda, almost a million Hutus and Tutsis perished as result of Civil War. In both of these most horrific and tragic instances the Western powers in general and the UN in particular remained bystanders. The U.S. and its allies did not venture to liberate Afghanistan from the cruel claws of Al-Qaida and Taliban, until the horrors and tragedies of 9/11 magnitude were inflicted against its innocent citizens. Nor were Saddam and his despotic Baath regime in Iraq dismantled by them until Saddam had invaded Kuwait, a fellow Arab state, and had perpetrated countless acts of terror, tyranny and bloodshed against his own people.
There is no simple option available to solve this Syrian crisis, and as such the Western powers will be best off keeping away from any involvement at this juncture, but the geo-political nature of this crisis compels U.S. in particular to seek a few alternatives. Divisions among the U.S.’s Arab and Muslim allies are impeding Obama administration’s efforts to forge unified responses to Syrian crisis. These regional divisions are driven by religious, political and economic rivalries that have been exacerbated by the revolutions and rebellions that have swept across the Middle East. Qatar and Turkey whose leaders are supportive of political Islam have shown a tilt towards Muslim Brotherhood, whereas Saudi Arabia, U.A.E. and Jordan and other Sunni Monarchies are hostile towards the Muslim Brotherhood, and its potential for destabilizing their political and economic systems. As a result, Qatar and Saudi Arabia are backing different factions within the Syrian opposition and that frustration has prompted Moaz al-Khatib, Chairman of the Syrian opposition Coalition, to resign. Al-Khatib, a paramount voice of reason wanted to communicate with the Syrian government to seek a diplomatic end to the war.
Iraq, Lebanon, and Iran are being shut-off by the West out of the resolution process of the Syrian conflict when it is almost impossible to achieve a solution without their involvement. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has quite recently met with the Russians on the possibility of holding an International conference in the near future, aimed at ending the Syrian conflict. Whether the warring parties will participate or not, any intervention by the West, particularly in arming the insurgents will result in more bloodshed and sufferings for the Syrian civilians. Since the nations do not use piety and sainthood as the criterion to elect or select their leaders, and of course Bashar al-Assad like his counterparts in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar and Jordan has none of that background, any attempt to replace him will not only backfire but will also result in a disintegrated and partitioned Syria where Al-Qaida, Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Nusra will rule as warlords à la Afghanistan. The decision to replace or keep Bashar al-Assad can only be made by the Syrian people, and that moment has yet to arrive!
Bashar al-Asad’s reign may have become untenable, but Syria must survive and if its history is any guide it probably will. Despite defection of politicians and members of the Armed Forces, and after all the destruction and desecration of mosques, shrines and grave sites, Syria continues to prove that it is quite capable of turning on the switch of “shock and awe” on Al-Qaida, Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Nusra empire. If Syria does indeed turns this switch and prevails, the balance of power in the region will decisively pivot towards Russia and China and away from the United States, which would certainly not be the most desirable outcome. An international conference to find a solution is certainly a good start but for a tenable outcome it must include Iran, Iraq and Lebanon alongside Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. Only a broad coalition of nations such as this can impose a peaceful, secular and democratic solution – a solution that will let Syria be Syria, neither Salafi nor Shia.
By Agha (Shaukat) Jafri