By Jeremy Salt
In his speech to university students this week, Bashar al Assad spoke of a conspiracy against Syria. Use another word if you like, but of course there is one. The foot soldiers in the campaign to bring down the Syrian government are the armed men calling themselves the Free Syrian Army and the random armed gangs. None of them could maintain their violent campaign without outside support. Short of open armed intervention from the outside, they cannot overthrow the Syrian government. All they can do is keep killing and causing chaos in the hope that it will eventually collapse. Their sponsors are the US, Britain, France, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Syrian National Council, assorted ‘activists’ in exile, some closely linked to the British Foreign Office and the US State Department, and every salafist across the region. Reform is not the issue. Their agendas vary but converge at one point: their determination to destroy the Baathist government. For the US, Britain and France – ‘the west’ – the destruction of a government and a political party that has long got in their way is the issue. For Saudi Arabia, the issue is confronting Iran and containing Shiism across the region. For the Muslim Brotherhood, the issue is revenge for Hafez al Assad’s repression of their revolt in 1982, the destruction of a secular government and the installation of a sharia-based substitute which they expect to dominate. For both the Muslim Brotherhood and the salafists the issue is also the destruction of the Alawis as a socio-political force in Syria.
For the US and Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria and Hizbullah are three parts of the same problem. Saudi Arabia regards Iran as the ‘head of the snake’ and wanted it attacked in the last years of the Bush administration, but a direct attack, removing the veil from the covert war already being involved, would be enormously dangerous to the countries waging it. This is what hinders them from going ahead, not the catastrophe that such a war would be for the people of Iran and the region. (It is extraordinary that although Iran has lived under the threat of such an attack for years, the western media still has not deal with the consequences of a military attack on live nuclear reactors.) Iran would be seriously weakened by successful open (as opposed to the covert war presently being waged) armed intervention in Syria. Such an attack would have much the same immediate effect as a direct attack on Iran. In 2006 the two countries signed a defence agreement to confront ‘common threats’, and Iran would regard open intervention in Syria as the prelude to an attack on itself. The most likely form of armed intervention would be the declaration of a no-fly zone or a ‘humanitarian corridor’ just over the Turkish-Syrian border. The template for this kind of war was Libya, where up to 50, 000 people were killed after France, Britain, the US and their lesser allies decided to attack in the name of maintaining a no-fly zone. Russia and China have indicated that they would block any moves at the UN Security Council to set up such arrangements. In the light of these difficulties, destabilising Syria with the aim of achieving the same objectives as an open attack is a second best option. Bringing down the Syrian government, rupturing its strategic relationship with Iran and Hizbullah, is an end in itself for the US and its western and gulf allies. Insofar as Iran is concerned, removing Syria from the calculus of war by throwing it into such turmoil that it could not respond would significantly strengthen the US-Israeli position and perhaps make war more likely.
Since the beginning of the year the geopolitical map of the region has been significantly redrawn. Islamist parties have come or are coming into government in Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt, and are likely to do well when elections are held in Libya. What parties say when in opposition and what they feel obliged to do in office are usually two different things and the Islamist parties are no different. On the critical question of relations with Israel, Rashid Ghannushi, the leader of Tunisia’s Al Nahda party has held quiet talks with the Israelis in Washington and has indicated that Palestine will not be a priority for the new Tunisian government. Conflicting signals are coming from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. According to the US State Department, the brotherhood has given an assurance that it will uphold the 1979 treaty with Israel. Almost immediately this was denied, with senior brotherhood figures saying that the treaty could not be regarded as sacrosanct and repeating the possibility of a referendum being held so the people could decide. This will be the trickiest of questions for the new government to handle but as the new Egyptian government will need the billions of dollars of aid pledged by the US, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the IMF (last year an offer of $3 billion was not taken up but will be discussed again this January), pragmatism is likely to win out, in the short term and perhaps for as long as Israel itself does not put the treaty at risk through another savage attack on Gaza or Lebanon.
In this rapidly changing environment Syria is a holdout state, standing firm against the US and Israel on the one hand and the rising Islamist/salafist trend on the other. The peaceful opposition was swamped in violence a long time ago, with the army still battling ‘defectors’ and the armed gangs the media keeps telling us are an invention of the state. The western media has yet to interview the families of the thousands of soldiers and civilians who have been killed by ‘defectors’ and other armed bands to see what they think about what is happening in their country. Relying on the unverified accusations of ‘activists’ or suspect sources outside Syria, the media has played a critical role in the development of a false narrative. Last week the Guardian hit a new low point with the accusation by of a London-based ‘activist’ that the Syrian security forces are packing detainees into container ships and dumping them at sea. It had no evidence for this claim, but then this is how the Guardian has been ‘reporting’ this crisis throughout. When Damascus was bombed, both the Guardian and the BBC led with the claim that these bombings were the work of the government – according to activists. They had no evidence for this accusation either, literally made while Syrians were still washing the blood off the streets and picking up the body parts of the civilians who had been killed. When the Arab League issued an interim statement on the work of its monitors in Syria, it called for an end to the violence by the state and by armed gangs. On its web page, the BBC reported only that it called on the Syrian government to end the violence.
The west is on the hunt for another war in the Middle East. This is the essence of the campaign against Syria. Iran is being provoked every other day. This week another nuclear scientist was assassinated. The clear intention is to goad Iran into retaliating, providing the pretext for the armed attack that many in Israel and the US want. There is no question that Syria needs to reform but anyone who thinks that the US, Britain, France, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are campaigning against Syria for the cause of reform is living in a dream world. Every wild accusation made by activists and dutifully reported by the media is grist to their mill. They don’t want the violence to end. They want it continue until the Syrian government is destroyed, and they have the resources to keep this going virtually endlessly. If they take the plunge and launch an open attack on Syria or Iran they are likely to trigger off a regional war and, in the view of some, a global war. In their grey suits and pastel ties, these people are as crazy as any fascist in a brown uniform.
Jeremy Salt teaches the history of the modern Middle East in the Department of Political science, Bilkent University, Ankara. He previously taught at Bogazici (Bosporus) University in Istanbul and the University of Melbourne. His publications include The Unmaking of the Middle East: A History of Western Disorder in Arab Lands (University of California Press, 2008). He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.