News about President Obama’s program to listen in on nearly all telephone conversations in the United States, which Antiwar.com has been warning about for over two years, has preempted much of the alarming coverage about Syria. But one should not assume that lack of reporting means that the hawks are not continuing their efforts to intervene. Try to remember the successful formula for how the Iraq War was initiated. In the wake of the First Gulf War, the oppressed Shi’ites of Iraq rose up against dictator Saddam Hussein. Saddam put down the rebels by force, killing tens of thousands. This produced a series of sanctions from initially well-meaning though clueless foreigners, at least one of whom thought that killing half a million Iraqi children would be “worth it.” Pressure came from Iraqi expats and their largely neocon politician and media allies to “do something.” In the case of Iraq, 9/11 happened, providing a golden opportunity to shift the narrative to what appeared to be a genuine threat to the United States. Those who wanted war quickly discovered that it was not really necessary to have any facts to justify the use of force to oust Saddam so they invented a series of lies to make the case, lies that were picked up uncritically by the media.
The tale of what has been going on in Syria is in some respects quite similar. Dictator, popular revolt, violent suppression, alleged use of chemical weapons, and an acquiescent media that tells only one side, much of it consisting of fabricated information. Plus Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham to stir the pot by alleging government atrocities while likening the rebels to latter-day George Washingtons, just as they and others did regarding Iraq and Libya. President Barack Obama is resisting, but it now appears that armed intervention is right around the corner, particularly as the Europeans have agreed to provide weapons to the rebels.
The accepted story to date reads something like this: nearly everybody hates the Syrian government and would like to replace it. Turkey wanted a friendly regime in Damascus dedicated to keeping the Kurds in check. The U.S., with no actual interests in Syria, has decided to interfere on behalf of the dissidents while pretending to be neutral. It foolishly provided President Bashar al-Assad no way out of his self-created box by breaking off diplomatic relations and passing legislation to include the Syria Accountability Act of 2004, which together insured that a negotiated solution would never be possible. Saudi Arabia meanwhile had been for years itching to overthrow al-Assad and replace him with a pliable Sunni regime that will be both anti-Iranian and non-secular, adopting the intolerant Wahhabism that the Saudis have been exporting worldwide.
In a scenario reminiscent of the Spanish Civil War, everybody opposing al-Assad lined up behind their proxy, an insurgency active since March 2011 that was largely funded and armed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar but allowed to operate out of Turkey with the sometimes active, but more often passive, connivance of a number of Western powers, including Britain, France, Germany, and the United States. The original intention was to overthrow the admittedly dictatorial al-Assad quickly and replace him with a more representative government of some kind, leaving the details to work themselves out at future date. Iran, Russia, Hezbollah, and Iraq (ironically) meanwhile have lined up behind the Syrian government.
The rebels’ largely ad hoc political organization that was the counterpart to the Free Syrian Army ultimately evolved into the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (Syrian National Coalition) in November 2012, somewhat reminiscent of Ahmad Chalabi and the ill-starred Iraqi National Congress. It has been trying to define itself ever since, but it did initially successfully exploit the anti-Syrian sentiment among leading politicians in Washington and Europe while skillfully manipulating the media narrative to suggest that the al-Assad regime was engaging in widespread atrocities and threatening to destabilize its neighbors, most notably Lebanon. As in the case of Iraq, Syria’s possession of weapons of mass destruction was introduced into the indictment of al-Assad and cited as a regional threat, a theme that was quickly picked up both in Washington and Tel Aviv.
If there was a model for what was planned for Syria it must have been the invasion of Iraq in 2003 or possibly the United Nations-endorsed armed intervention in Libya in 2010, both of which intended to replace dictatorial regimes with representative governments that would at least provide a simulacrum of accountable popular rule. But the planners must have anticipated a better outcome. Both Libya and Iraq have become more destabilized than they were under their autocrats, a fact that appears to have escaped everyone’s notice. It did not take long for the wheels to fall off the bus in Syria as well. As in Iraq, the Syrian exiles had no real constituency within their homeland, which meant that the already somewhat organized resistance to al-Assad, consisting of the well-established Muslim Brotherhood and associated groups, came to the fore. Al-Assad, who somewhat credibly has described the rebels as terrorists supported by foreign governments, did not throw in the towel and leave. The Turkish people, meanwhile, began to turn sour on a war which seemed endless, was creating a huge refugee and security problem as genuine terrorists mixed in with the refugees, and was increasingly taking on the shape of a new jihad as foreign volunteers linked to al-Qaeda began to assume responsibility for most of the fighting.
The proposed alternative government of the Syrian National Coalition was quickly recognized by Washington, the Europeans, and the Arab League, primarily because it promised some kind of democratic and pluralistic future for Syria and control over the disparate and sometimes radical elements in the Free Syrian Army. Everyone underestimated the actual extent of the radical Islamist role in the revolution. The Coalition soon demonstrated that it had little authority over most of the actual rebel combatants and scant ability to enforce standards on the cadres who were fighting the Syrian Army. Emphasizing its political divisions and also its essential powerlessness, in January the Coalition was unable to agree on who might be part of a transitional government to run the areas controlled by the insurgents, largely because the Muslim Brotherhood was unwilling to cede authority to other groups. Since that time it has failed to agree on possible conditions for initiating peace negotiations with the Syrian government, only coming together on the demand that al-Assad cannot be part of the solution while also demanding that a supply of weapons to further their cause as a precondition. Planned peace talks in Geneva have stalled as a result.
One central issue that will probably not be confronted directly is the competing objectives of the various supporters of the insurgents, which should have been visible right from the beginning. The U.S. and the Europeans clearly envisioned some kind of humanitarian intervention which would lead to a new, more representative government, but that was not the goal of Turkey, which sought a pliable replacement regime that would cooperate in controlling the Kurdish minority, Ankara’s primary geopolitical security concern.
And then there are the Saudis, who have not been on the same page at all. Saudi Arabia’s rival as regional hegemon, Iran, is viewed in Riyadh as ascendant due to the rise to power of a friendly Shia regime in Iraq resulting from the American invasion and regime change. This has permitted the development of a geographically contiguous Arab bloc closely tied to Tehran and its regional interests, running through Iraq, across Syria, and connecting with Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. To break up that de facto coalition, the Saudis, who see Syria as the weak link in the chain, have sought to replace Assad’s Alawite-led government with an essentially fundamentalist Sunni regime espousing Wahhabism that prevails in the Kingdom, a view close to the more radical insurgents and hostile to the secularists. It would also make the country’s significant numbers of Christians, Alawites, Shi’ites, and Kurds potential victims of the arrangement.
All of which means that the Saudis believe in change in Syria, but on their own terms, and they actually oppose enabling the populist or democratic evolution favored by the West. In fact, Riyadh has been actively engaged regionally in doing what it can to contain the unrest resulting from the Arab Spring so that the populism does not become untidy and spill over into Saudi Arabia itself. This has meant that from the beginning Saudi objectives in Syria have differed from the goals of either Turkey or the Western powers, which should have been seen as a recipe for disaster.
And it gets even more complicated. In spite of their tendency to support religious groups rather than secular ones, Saudi Arabia views the Muslim Brotherhood’s “political Islam” as one of the divisive elements that has destabilized hitherto reliable countries like Egypt, unleashing forces that could ultimately threaten the Saudis themselves. As a result, working through their surrogates in Lebanon and in Turkey as well as in Jordan, they have systematically and deliberately starved most of the Free Syrian Army of money and weapons, instead diverting their assistance to the militant Jabhat al-Nusra, a Salafist group alleged to have links to al-Qaeda. Al-Nusra is generally regarded as the most effective insurgent group when it comes to fighting, but it advocates a strict Sunni religious state as part of a worldwide Caliphate under Sharia law when the fighting is concluded. It has also become a magnet for the foreign jihadis who have been drawn into the rebellion, an issue that has raised concerns in Washington because of the likelihood that any successor regime to al-Assad could easily be dominated by a well-armed and disciplined Salafist minority.
Syria is de facto in a bloody civil war that is approaching stalemate with the government still firmly in control in most provinces but not quite able to eliminate the rebels, while the United States and Europeans have no good options and the Turks are increasingly playing damage control. If there is a solution to the conflict it is not readily discernible, and it is now doubtful whether some kind of resolution by force could be imposed even if Washington and the Europeans were inclined to do so, which they are not.
Iraq is already a broken state. More than 1,000 Iraqis died in sectarian violence in May alone. Syria’s death toll is unknowable but it is likewise in danger of ceasing to exist as a nation-state. Its collapse could inspire a new global jihad and provoke violence throughout the Middle East, while its chemical weapons could easily fall into dangerous hands. Israel is already threatening to intervene, which could produce a major regional conflict. Well-armed bands of the most radical of the insurgents taking the lead in the conflict without any political direction or control cannot be what anyone envisioned two years ago, but that is what has emerged, with the United States again looking on like a helpless giant.