Syria’s civil war has been raging for two years now. And, as ever in such protracted internal conflict, the outside world is torn between responding to a heart-wrenching humanitarian catastrophe and staying outside the fray. The images of death and deprivation, of humanity’s cultural heritage destroyed cry out for ‘something to be done’. And yet, apart from humanitarian aid to the dramatically growing number of Syrian refugees, the provision of ‘non-lethal assistance’ to ‘approved’ Syrian rebel groups, and the drawing of a (now muddled) red line around the large-scale use of chemical weapons, very little appears to have been done so far, eliciting accusations of indecisiveness from some Western media and of indifference from Syrian rebel groups. Surely, now that Assad has seemingly used chemical weapons, it is time to ‘alleviate the Syrian people’s suffering’ and push yet another ruthless Baathist regime out of power?
Those advocating direct – or, indeed, indirect – intervention in the Syrian civil war claim to be taking the moral high ground. Many of the more gung-ho politicians and commentators itching for a final reckoning with the Assad regime accuse those with a more cautious view of a cynical disregard for human suffering. They demand immediate action, through the UN Security Council if possible, through unilateral action if necessary. In these exhortations, the tortuous complexities of the Middle East are simplified, and the tight interlacing of strategic imperatives with humanitarian concerns are camouflaged. As in the past, such simplification and obfuscation could lead to miscalculations for which thousands of the region's inhabitants would pay the ultimate price.
|Aleppo's Bazaar, 2013|
To start with, the ‘Syrian democratic uprising’ was neither about Syria, nor, in fact, about democracy, at least for many of the outside forces involved in fomenting the conflict's transition from popular uprising to armed revolt. The West's and its Gulf allies' prime concern has always lain with the Syrian regime’s strategic alignment with Iran; this, not a bleeding-heart interest in human rights explains the early support given by the Gulf’s hereditary dictatorships to the Syrian opposition. In the years running up to the rebellion, Bashar Al-Assad was gently coaxed into giving up this alignment with Tehran through subtle pressures and inducements; it is not at all unreasonable to assume that, with the Arab Spring presenting an unmissable opportunity, someone, at some point, made a decision to push him out when it became clear subtlety and coaxing would not have their desired effect. In the process, the dictator's murderously ruthless determination and his ability to play on Syrians' sectarian fears were seriously underestimated. That the Syrian people are now paying the price of such a major miscalculation is not something that would be easily admitted in Western and allied capitals.
Syria has since long become a proxy battleground for Iran on one side, and Saudi Arabia and the West on the other (with a good number of Salafi wildcards thrown in for good measure); this amplifies the potential effects of any future miscalculations regarding interventions that will, as ever, mix any humanitarian considerations with cold strategic computation. Those who think Tehran will remain impassive at the sight of its last Arab ally’s demise, or that Syria’s sectarian fault-lines will not spread out to engulf the whole Levant are discounting potential scenarios for both of Syria's immediate neighbours that are, mildly put, far from promising. In Lebanon, both Iran and Saudi Arabia have their own proxies - respectively, Hezbollah and the March 14 movement - and any major cross-border incident could already cause a spill-over of the war into its ever-fragile body politic; the Syrian conflict has also started feeding into the fault-lines running through Iraq’s fractured society. Full-scale civil conflict in either of these countries could prove at least as deadly as anything seen in Syria to date; and the West might, therefore, end up saving some strangers at the price of sacrificing others.
In Lebanon, a substantial weakening or downfall of the Assad regime would dramatically affect the country’s internal balance of power, increasing the likelihood of civil war. An emboldened March 14 alliance could – with Saudi support and perhaps backed up with threats from a rebel-dominated Syria – press firmly for Hezbollah’s disarmament. Faced with a choice between disarming itself into strategic irrelevance and pre-emptively taking control of the country by force of arms - as it already did once when pushed into a corner, in 2008 - Hezbollah may very well choose the latter, egged on by its external allies’ wish to further confound things for their Western and Gulf opponents. Israel provides a further potential complication: once Hezbollah’s supply-lines through Syria are cut, it would most definitely be under an intense temptation to finish what it started in 2006 by annihilating the Shi’ite party’s considerable arsenal of missiles and other assorted heavy weaponry. In the ensuing mayhem, “saving the Syrian people” could therefore very well end up in the sacrifice of thousands of Lebanese.
In Iraq, the Al-Maliki regime has, over the past few years, become increasingly sectarian, fuelling the Sunni minority’s discontent through escalating levels of (often murderous) repression and selective access to the state’s oil-based resources; Bagdad's recent ban on several satellite channels - including Al Jazeera - on the basis of perceived sectarian (pro-Sunni) bias is only the latest manifestation of this development, and echoes similar accusations heard in Damascus and South Beirut. A potential future Sunni uprising could, in turn, easily replicate the discourses of “Sunni dispossession by a dictatorial Shi’ite regime” heard in Syria, quite apart from receiving the support of the armed Salafi (and non-Salafi) fighters now engaged in fighting on Syrian soil. Iran’s influence on more radical Shi’ite elements within the country should not be discounted either: again, if pushed into a corner, Tehran would be interested in and capable of causing serious trouble in Syria's weak Eastern neighbour. Rash intervention could thus end up causing the the deaths of thousands of Iraqis as well.
There is, quite simply, no automatic moral high ground in knee-jerk democratic or humanitarian entanglements, in the saving of some at the price of killing scores of others. Not keeping this in mind could lead the whole region into yet another - entirely avoidable - disaster, involving not one, but three collapsed states, and a host of other cynical players whose actions and reactions might take everyone...on the road to nowhere. The McCains and Grahams of the world better take heed, instead of playing on the short-term hopes and fears of their electorates, as happened in the run-up to an earlier Middle Eastern debacle.