The stage is set, the actors are in their places, and the orchestra strikes up the prelude: all that remains is for the curtain to rise on Act One of “World War III in the Middle East.”
The stage set: a street somewhere in Syria, where mysterious armed gangs [.pdf] roam freely, attacking civilians, kidnapping Shi’ite pilgrims, and suicide-bombing both military and civilian targets. Syrian troops – nervous, ill-trained, and short of weaponry and replacement parts – attack entire towns, with high casualties on both sides.
The actors: Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad, the 47-year-old US-educated former ophthalmologist, who may not be so strong after all. Standing behind him: the Ba’athist party apparatus and the military hierarchy, both dominated by the minority Alawite sect, an idiosyncratic regional variant of Islam considered heretical by most Muslims. Assad is the villain of the piece – an odd fate for a man who many thought would turn out to be a reformer.
This is a drama without heroes, for the simple reason that a single leader has not emerged out of the opposition – which is fractured into competing factions with different programs and conflicting ideologies. There is the group which has gotten the most attention, the Syrian National Council (SNC), dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood. Most of their activists are in exile, and the SNC is said to have very little influence inside the country. On the other hand, there is the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change, or NCC, made up of leftist and Arab nationalist parties, all illegal in Syria but which have still managed to maintain a clandestine existence.
The big issues dividing the opposition are 1) The prospect of dialogue with the Assad regime, and 2) the prospect of foreign intervention, either by NATO, or some other agency. The Islamists organized around the SNC refuse all negotiations short of arranging for Assad’s abdication, while the largely secular and minority-oriented NCC insists on talks. On the issue of foreign intervention, the SNC is for it, the NCC against it – although they invite Arab League mediation.
A third factor – the wild card – is the so-called “Free Syrian Army,” which supposedly consists of defectors from the ranks of the regular Army and security forces. There is some doubt, however, about just how many defectors are in its ranks: there may be more Islamists than anything else. They operate from a base in Turkey, which has been helpfully provided by the government in Ankara: however, who’s exactly in charge of the FSA isn’t exactly clear. The group was founded by Col. Riad Assad, but a recent defector, General Mostafa Ahmed al-Sheikh, has reportedly pulled rank on the colonel, and declared himself commander-in-chief. Col. Assad disputes this, but apparently the Turks agree with the General: they’ve ordered Assad’s bank account closed.
In any case, it appears the Qataris and the Saudis are sending weapons to the FSA, and what started out as a protest movement is now a military campaign in which the better-armed and better-trained force is going to be the victor. Which means Bashar al-Assad is far from finished, Washington’s declaration of his “inevitable” end to the contrary notwithstanding. Militarily, the opposition is no match for the Syrian army, which shows no signs of turning on Assad and the regime: the officer corps is made up almost exclusively of Alawites, the group that has the most to lose if the Ba’athists fall. The opposition, for their part , is divided and fractious.
Yet it is clear the Western powers have decided on pursuing a policy of regime change no matter what the cost to the people of Syria. The simultaneous withdrawal of the US, British, and French embassies, and the cutting off of diplomatic relations with the nations of the Arab League, is a clearing of the decks for the coming assault – which is going to be the bloodiest and most vicious yet. All of which raises a question: why now? After all, Syria has been a charter member of the infamous “axis of evil” ever since the Bush era, and the US has been overtly hostile to Assad in spite of the post-9/11 intelligence-sharing between Washington and Damascus.
The reason, in a word, is Iran. Remember, this is just the first Act of the tragedy now being played out in the region: the final act will culminate in “shock and awe” in the skies over Tehran. First, however, a few preliminaries must be gotten out of the way, and a casus belli clearly established. A civil war in Syria will pit Sunni Islamists against Syria’s national minorities: not only Alawites, but also Druze, Christians, and Assyrians. The Kurds are sure to go with the rebels, but they have their own organization – and their own agenda.
The key question is whether this will draw in the Iranians – and lead to a wider conflict. Syria could become a battleground in the larger Sunni-Shi’ite conflict, an outcome the regime-changers in Washington, London, and Paris are counting on. The idea is to unite the Sunni countries against Persian/Shia “imperialism” – with Israel standing in the background and ready to pick up the pieces.
We in the West have been fed a steady diet of pro-rebel propaganda, consisting of tales of mass slaughter carried out by the Syrian military. Yet it is often the case that initial claims of casualties are “revised downwards,” as in the case of the alleged shelling of the Khaldiyeh section of besieged Homs, where “hundreds” eventually became “dozens” of dead and wounded. Remember the phony reports of “incubator babies” supposedly speared by Saddam Hussein’s troops as they entered Kuwait? Well it looks like they’ve recycled that bit of war propaganda and recast it in a Syrian context. Most of the reports we get of atrocities committed by government troops are coming from the rebels, and there is almost no attempt by the Western media to separate war propaganda from actual news – and so what else is new?
While there are a few voices on the right and the left calling for Western intervention, the prospect of that happening appears dim, at least in the immediate future. There is no doubt, however, that the Western powers and their regional sock puppets are funding and arming the various militias that claim to be the “opposition,” with radical Islamists in the forefront. This campaign can succeed in keeping the Assad regime in a state of crisis and basically grinding the country down. The real danger – or opportunity, depending on one’s point of view – comes with the possibility of Iran allowing itself to be dragged into the fight.
If Tehran can be lured into playing the proxy war game, the prospect of this turning into a regional conflict is considerably heightened. In avoiding that trap, however, the Iranians risk losing their one and only reliable ally in the region. Hezbollah and the various Palestinian factions – formerly somewhat sympathetic to Assad’s plight – are now distancing themselves from the regime. And as has been demonstrated often enough, neither Russia nor China can be counted on to hold off the UN Security Council and the Western powers indefinitely: Both Syria and Iran face complete encirclement, and growing economic and political isolation.
One by one, the Muslim nations of the Middle East are being targeted, and taken down: but Iran is not likely to go quite as easily as the rest. Nor is Syria going to be a “cakewalk,” as the neocons predicted the Iraq war would turn out. And there is another factor to consider: before the regime-changers can complete their mission, they must prepare the American people for the coming conflict. A steady diet of war propaganda, dressed up with phony atrocity stories and various conspiracy theories regarding Iranian intentions, should do the trick, however, as we move into an election year – and President Obama faces increasing pressure from the Israel lobby.
In playing the “Sunni card,” this administration and its allies are unleashing a vicious killer in the region: a civil war in the Muslim world, pitting Sunnis against all others. Civil wars, particularly religious ones, have a particularly nasty character, and this one promises to bathe the whole region in blood. Before we go much farther down this path, American policymakers have got to ask themselves if this is what they really want – and whether they stand ready to accept the judgment of history.