By Jeremy Salt
It would seem to be quite simple. All that has 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 Hezbollah, Syria and Iran. The fall of that central 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 the 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 even 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 medieval souk now burnt 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 the ordinary soldiers are mostly Sunni Muslim – and not ‘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 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 of cases was the $20,000 a month for the next 20 years and a home in Doha offered to the Syrian consul in Mauretania. He also refused. Bashar al Assad was totally 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 kilometers 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 the jihad 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, the salafi jihadis inside Syria are tactically cooperating against the common enemy. The FSA is little more than a convenient trademark. Most of the armed groups have their own command structure and take no notice of the FSA. Recently Riad al Assad 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 recognized as such even 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. All that lies ahead of Syria unless the violence can be ended and negotiations begun is more chaos, more destruction and more loss of life.
Not that chaos is to be discarded as an end in itself. It will take Syria decades to recover from the damage already done whoever governs in Damascus. If the decision is finally taken to attack Iran, Syria would probably be too stricken to come to its aid even if the government has not been overthrown; if Syria cannot help, then Hezbollah 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 Hezbollah, 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 own bloody record in the Middle East dating back 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 massive cost to Syria and its people.
– Jeremy Salt is an associate professor of Middle Eastern history and politics at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.