Al-Ahram Weekly Online   11 - 17 October 2012
Issue No. 1118
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Iran by proxy

Ignore the handwringing of Western leaders, it is foreign intervention that is fuelling the chaos in Syria, writes Jeremy Salt from Ankara

It would seem quite simple. All that needs to happen for the fighting to end in Syria is for those with guns in their hands to put them down. So why isn't it happening?

Again the answer is simple, and not just seemingly. Outside governments supporting the armed groups do not want them to put their weapons down. It has been deliberately locked into a cycle of violence which its enemies hope will end in its destruction. This strategy is the prime cause of the death and devastation over which the sponsors of this violence have been wringing their hands before the UN General Assembly.

Agendas vary slightly but the prime goal of Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the governments of the US, Britain and France is not political reform but the destruction of Iran's best friend in the region. Syria is the central arch in a strategic relationship between Hizbullah, Syria and Iran. The fall of that arch would give Western governments one of their greatest strategic victories in the modern history of the Middle East.

Syria is frequently described as collapsing or bleeding or plunging into "civil war". None is correct. Syria is being collapsed, being bled and being plunged into devastation as a direct consequence of decisions taken outside Syria. The collective calling itself The Friends of the Syrian People has deliberately brought Syria to where it is now. There are no small mercies in this situation but it could have been worse, if these "friends" had been able to launch an aerial assault under the aegis of the Security Council. Had Russia and China not blocked them Syria would be now be a total ruin, with an infinitely greater number of dead than the 20,000 or so already killed. Their fallback position was the war of attrition being waged by their armed protégés.

Few countries could withstand the battering Syria has taken in the past 18 months. In the name of regime change horror has followed horror. Aleppo has been turned into a replica of Beirut at the height of the civil war, with a large part of the mediaeval souk has burned to the ground. Yet the government has not collapsed and neither has the army disintegrated. The message from this is that Syria has a government and not a regime, and an army in which ordinary soldiers are mostly Sunni Muslim and not Al-Assad loyalists.

Military defections have been few. So have defections from the ranks of government despite the large amounts of money on offer. Foreign Minister Walid Al-Muallim was offered $100 million by the ruler of Qatar if he would defect but turned it down and went public with the bribe. One of the last known cases was the $20,000 a month for the next 20 years and a home in Doha offered to the Syrian consul in Mauritania. He also refused. Bashar Al-Assad was correct when he said a few days ago that the rulers of Saudi Arabia and Qatar think they can buy anyone. If there is anywhere where regime change is needed it is surely in these Gulf states.

One of the last defectors was the head of security in Aleppo. Before his departure and untimely end (he was assassinated a few kilometres short of the Turkish border by persons unknown) he had arranged for the infiltration of thousands of jihadis into the city. Many are not even Syrian. They have come to fight from all corners of the Muslim world. There are Chechens, Afghans, Pakistanis, Tajiks, Tunisians, Egyptians, Libyans (lots of Libyans), Saudis and Iraqis. Aleppo has been targeted because it is close to the Turkish border and the hope is that it can be turned into a "rebel" capital in a "liberated" zone stretching up to the Turkish border. This could be done only over the dead bodies, and against the wishes, of the people of the city.

Whether inside the cells fighting in the name of the so-called Free Syrian Army (FSA) or operating independently, Salafi jihadis inside Syria are tactically cooperating against the common enemy. The FSA is little more than a convenient label. Most of the armed groups have their own command structure and take no notice of the FSA. Recently Riad Al-Asaad crossed the border from Turkey to direct the struggle from inside Syria, only to stay a day and a night before going back because there was no point in him staying.

The political arm of the FSA is the so-called Syrian National Council, touted as an alternative government but dysfunctional from the start and now recognised as such by its sponsors. Put these two hard realities together and you have the formula for complete chaos. There is no alternative government in sight. There is no rational end in sight. The armed groups cannot overthrow the government without the direct intervention of their outside sponsors and that possibility seems to be receding although Qatar is still trying to talk it up. Yet unless the violence can be ended and negotiations begun what lies ahead for Syria is ever greater destruction, chaos and loss of life.

Not that chaos is has been discarded as an end in itself. Whoever ends up governing in Damascus, it will take decades for Syria to recover from the damage already done. If the decision is finally taken to attack Iran, Syria will probably be too stricken to offer any aid. And if Syria cannot help, then Hizbullah might have to stay on the sidelines as well, releasing Israel from the fear of a second front opening in the north. This is how the governments orchestrating the campaign against Syria want the dominoes to fall. The implications for the Palestinians are clear. Any gain for Israel is a loss for them and the overthrow of the Syrian government, followed by the collapse of the strategic relationship between Hizbullah, Syria and Iran, would be an enormous gain for Israel, releasing pressure on one front and giving it more time to complete its absorption of Jerusalem and the West Bank.

What most Syrians want is to be left alone to sort out their own affairs. They want change but not at any cost. They don't want the West sticking its nose in their affairs and they don't want armed gangs running amuck in their country. The West might have forgotten its bloody record in the Middle East dating to the beginning of the 19th century but Syrians have not. They know how disastrously Western intervention always ends in the Middle East. Heads of governments who have been fuelling the armed opposition have been lining up at the UN General Assembly to call for an end to the violence. If they mean what they say they would be throwing their weight behind the attempts of the non-violent domestic opposition to bring a mediated end to this conflict. But they don't and therefore must be seen for what they are -- hypocrites who are pushing their own agenda at a massive cost to Syria and its people.

The writer is an associate professor of Middle Eastern history and politics at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey.

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