The lesser of two evils – why the West shouldn’t intervene in Syria

At present there is a growing chorus of voices calling for a more ‘muscular’ Western intervention in Syria. This is not a sensible call; the consequences would be bloody civil strife and a quagmire of ‘insurgency’.

Syria and Iraq have many many similarities. Whilst the Shiite/Sunni balance is inverted in Iraq compared to Syria, they share a similar culture and societal make-up. Syria is full of Iraqi refugees, who are often denied the right to work even though many are highly qualified. The Syrians had a first row seat to witness the disintegration of Iraq. People are painfully aware of what can be the consequence of foreign intervention. What comes now may sound sickening but is probably sensible: it’s not in anyone’s interest for the West to intervene to remove Assad. Although one should always be wary of making predictions based on precedent from other states, Iraq descended into a maelstrom of sectarian violence with the removal of Hussein or as Mamdani said, “the top was blown off” and all hell broke loose. I think if the Assad regime falls too quickly (that is, due to a foreign intervention), the Syrian people will suffer terribly. With a successful revolution this may happen anyway, but there is no reason to be the cause.

I also see another trend common to this region (from Iraq and Lebanon). In the words of Naim Qassem of Hezbollah, when the Israelis arrived in 1982, they were greeted with “perfumed rice and trills of joy” by the Shias. How long before their presence was resented? How long in Iraq before people were willing to kill to eject foreign forces?

Foreign intervention in Syria will prompt sectarian violence and an ‘insurgency’ which might make Iraq’s look calm (it would probably attract Hezbollah and the Sadrist Jaish Al Mahdi, as well as Iranian meddling). No Western power wants – or should want – to provoke such a conflict.


Sorry, our hands are tied – why Britain has Syrian ‘limitations’

Michael D. Clark

From the Foreign Policy journal morning brief, April 27, 2011:

When asked why the international community had intervened to protect civilians in Libya but not Syria, British Defense Secretary Liam Fox replied “there are limitations to what we can do.”

There are indeed limitations. The coalition government are not super-heroes you know. But what exactly are these limitations? Are there limitations particular to Syria which did not apply to Libya? Or perhaps the limitations are more of a constraint in this case.

Perhaps this might help elucidate the issue: ‘Syrian officers received training in Britain’ (The Guardian)

I remember such visitors well. The British Cadets nicknamed them ‘floppies’, in homage to their outstanding physical prowess and as an acronym for ‘Future Leader Of Potential Enemies’. But no, half a dozen alumni from Sandhurst are hardly likely to put Liam Fox off.

Maybe this will make things a little clearer: ‘Syria and UK ‘share intelligence’’ (BBC)

Now that’s more like it. “We hope that the co-operation with Britain will bring much better results in the fight against terrorism,” a senior Syrian source told the BBC.  Jolly good. It does rather depend on who the ‘terrorists’ are though…

Not to worry, the Foreign Secretary at the time, one bright young thing named David Milliband, said “Syria could play a constructive role fostering stability”. There you are then, there are certain limitations. Coyly however, Mr Milliband expressed caution, saying the country could be a “force for stability or it can be a force for instability”.

And that hits the nail squarely on the head. A major ‘limitation’ is that Britain is not troubled by Assad’s regime. It does not export terrorism to the UK; on the contrary it seems to be cooperating with our ongoing War on Terror.

Additionally, might it be that Syria benefits from a hefty protector to the East? Tehran is hardly top of Britain’s list of governments to annoy. Iran actually helped with the invasion of Iraq; such assistance is unlikely to be forthcoming in any conflict with Damascus. A connected point worth raising is that Britain has most likely learnt valuable lessons from its involvement in regime change in another nearby Arab state. There are many similarities between Iraq and Syria, such as sectarian undercurrents which may easily spin out of control, sucking in mission creep like some insurgent Charybdis.

As Mahmood Mamdani notes in his excellent review article,

“Every Middle Eastern movement that opposes the American empire–secular or religious, state or nonstate–is being drawn to Iraq, as if to a magnet, to test out its convictions. More than a year after the U.S. invasion, it has become clear that, by blowing the top off one of the region’s most efficient dictatorships, the United States has created a free-for-all for fighters of every hue–Islamist and nationalist, from the homeland and the diaspora–sparking a contest that will influence the course of political Islam for years to come”.

Hezbollah sits on the doorstep, a rather off-putting guard dog. Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army is only a short hop away, over the border in Southern Iraq. Who knows what agents provocateurs Iran might send.

The main ‘limitation’ is that the British government cannot afford another Iraq, has no wish to anger Tehran, and probably has little desire to burn useful bridges.

Why Syria is far from North Africa

Michael D. Clark

As has become standard practice in Western media over the last three months, the current unrest in Syria is being portrayed as part of a perceived wave of democratic uprising sweeping the Middle East.

This is a gross oversimplification and a poor representation of a highly complex issue. 

It is not merely the flawed perception of the unrest as part of a wider trend towards regional democratisation, although this is a common deficiency in most mainstream reporting. In the particular case of Syria, the prevalent discourse relies initially on a number of dubious assumptions regarding the wishes of the Syrian people to follow in the footsteps of Tunisia and Egypt. It often builds on this with cherry-picked opinions and a steadfast determination to avoid incorporating the complex and often opaque sentiments and statements of Syrian citizens.

This view suffers from certain striking flaws in the implicit assumption that ‘the people’ want the dictator deposed. Whilst many people want changes in the government, in the constitution or in the legislation, it is a minority of protesters and an even smaller minority of those not protesting, who want Assad himself to go.

Why might this be?

An oft unreported facet in the story is that most Syrians are painfully aware of the realities of ‘democratisation’ – after all, they have the example of another Arab state far closer to home than Egypt or Tunisia. The departure of Saddam Hussein from Iraq initiated a still unfinished maelstrom of sectarian violence. The view from Syria of a neighbour tearing itself apart left a lasting impression. Cities all over the country are full of unemployed Iraqi refugees, a proud and strong people to whom the Syrians feel a close affinity, brought low by war and civil strife. In a state cobbled together by Sykes-Picot, consisting of often antipathetic sectarian groups, the loss of a strong leader can often herald something even worse to come.

Perhaps the least forgivable part of mainstream reporting is its drastic lack of understanding of the Syrian people. They are a proud people; proud of decades of resistance against the West, against America and against Israel. The Assad dynasty has left deep and terrible scars on the people, but it has also imparted a national sense of strength and dare I say it, hubris. The link is often made between Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas. This in itself is an argument with its own issues, but it does raise one important point. After the fall of Iraq and now Libya, Syria is the last strong Arab nation, as yet unbowed to America.

There is a widespread perception among Syrians, especially those who have worked in other parts of the Arab world, that Syria is the last bulwark of Arab self-respect. The Gulf Arabs and the Jordanians sell themselves and drown in hypocrisy; the North Africans are barely Arabs and are lax Muslims; the Lebanese (with the notable exception of Hezbollah) are the weak little brother; Iraq and the Palestinians are laid low by outside forces. Only Syria the strong remains.

It is not the place of this article to deconstruct and critically analyse the Syrian national mythology. It is however imperative to stress its place in the Syrian heart and mind. If the overthrow of Assad leads to the collapse of this proud independence, many Syrians will feel that however much has been gained, something far more precious has been lost.