End­ing the Syr­ian war

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

Syria is cur­rently the world’s great­est hu­man­i­tar­ian catas­tro­phe and most dan­ger­ous geopo­lit­i­cal hotspot. The Syr­ian peo­ple are caught in a blood­bath, with more than 400,000 dead and ten mil­lion dis­placed.

Vi­o­lent ji­hadist groups backed by out­side pa­trons mer­ci­lessly rav­age the coun­try and prey on the pop­u­la­tion. All par­ties to the con­flict – Pres­i­dent Bashar al-As­sad’s regime, the anti-As­sad forces sup­ported by the United States and its al­lies, and the Is­lamic State – have com­mit­ted, and con­tinue to com­mit, se­ri­ous war crimes.

It is time for a so­lu­tion. But such a so­lu­tion must be based on a trans­par­ent and re­al­is­tic ac­count of what caused the war in the first place.

The chronol­ogy is as fol­lows. In Fe­bru­ary 2011, peace­ful protests were staged in Syria’s ma­jor cities, amid the re­gion­wide phe­nom­e­non dubbed the “Arab Spring.” The As­sad regime re­acted with a shift­ing mix of vi­o­lent re­pres­sion (shoot­ing at demon­stra­tors) and of­fers of re­form. Soon, the vi­o­lence es­ca­lated. As­sad’s op­po­nents ac­cused the regime of us­ing force against civil­ians with­out re­straint, while the govern­ment pointed to the deaths of sol­diers and po­lice­men as ev­i­dence of vi­o­lent ji­hadists among the pro­tes­tors.

It seems likely that as early as March or April 2011, Sunni anti-regime fight­ers and arms started to en­ter Syria from neigh­bour­ing coun­tries. Many eye­wit­ness ac­counts tell of for­eign ji­hadists en­gag­ing in vi­o­lent at­tacks on po­lice­men. (Such ac­counts are, how­ever, hard to con­firm, es­pe­cially af­ter al­most five years).

The US and its re­gional al­lies tried to nudge As­sad from power in the spring of 2011, think­ing that he would fall quickly like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Tu­nisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Many ob­servers as­sert that Qatar funded an in­crease in anti-regime ac­tiv­ity within Syria and used the Doha-based broad­caster Al Jazeera to boost anti-As­sad sen­ti­ment world­wide, though such claims are hard to pin down defini­tively.

The US im­posed a tight­en­ing noose of trade and fi­nan­cial sanc­tions on the regime. The Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion, a bell­wether of US of­fi­cial pol­icy, called for As­sad’s ouster, and anti-As­sad pro­pa­ganda in the US me­dia soared. (Un­til then, As­sad was con­sid­ered in the US me­dia to be a rel­a­tively be­nign, al­beit au­thor­i­tar­ian, ruler, and then-Sec­re­tary of State Hil­lary Clin­ton noted as late as March 2011 that many in the US Congress re­garded As­sad as a re­former.)

The launch of the war can be dated to Au­gust 18, 2011, when Pres­i­dent Barack Obama and Clin­ton de­clared that “As­sad must go.” Up to that point, the vi­o­lence was still con­tain­able. To­tal deaths, in­clud­ing both civil­ians and com­bat­ants, ran per­haps to around 2,900 (ac­cord­ing to one tally by regime op­po­nents).

Af­ter Au­gust, the death rate soared. It is some­times claimed that the US did not act vig­or­ously at this point. Obama’s political foes gen­er­ally at­tack him for hav­ing taken too lit­tle ac­tion, not too much. But the US did in fact act to topple As­sad, al­beit mostly covertly and through al­lies, es­pe­cially Saudi Ara­bia and Turkey (though nei­ther coun­try needed much prod­ding to in­ter­vene). The CIA and Saudi Ara­bia covertly co­or­di­nated their ac­tions.

Of course, the chronol­ogy of the war does not ex­plain it. For that, we need to ex­am­ine the mo­ti­va­tions of the key ac­tors. First and fore­most, the war in Syria is a proxy war, in­volv­ing mainly the United States, Rus­sia, Saudi Ara­bia, Turkey, and Iran. The US and its al­lies, Saudi Ara­bia and Turkey, started the war in 2011 in or­der to over­throw As­sad’s regime. The US al­liance was met with es­ca­lat­ing coun­ter­force by Rus­sia and Iran, whose Le­banese proxy army Hezbol­lah is fight­ing along­side As­sad’s govern­ment.

The US in­ter­est in over­throw­ing As­sad’s regime was pre­cisely its re­liance on Ira­nian and Rus­sian back­ing. Re­mov­ing As­sad, US se­cu­rity of­fi­cials be­lieved, would weaken Iran, un­der­mine Hezbol­lah, and roll back Rus­sia’s geopo­lit­i­cal reach.

Amer­ica’s al­lies, in­clud­ing Turkey, Saudi Ara­bia, and Qatar, were in­ter­ested in re­plac­ing As­sad’s Alaw­ite regime in Syria with a Sunni-led regime (Alaw­ites are a branch of Shia Is­lam). This, they be­lieved, would also weaken their re­gional com­peti­tor, Iran, and cur­tail Shia in­flu­ence in the Middle East more gen­er­ally.

In be­liev­ing that As­sad would be eas­ily over­thrown, the US – not for the first time – was re­ly­ing on its own pro­pa­ganda. The regime faced deep op­po­si­tion, but also had con­sid­er­able in­ter­nal sup­port. More im­por­tant, the regime had pow­er­ful al­lies, no­tably Iran and Rus­sia. It was naive to be­lieve that nei­ther would re­spond.

The pub­lic should ap­pre­ci­ate the dirty na­ture of the CIAled fight. The US and its al­lies flooded Syria with Sunni ji­hadists, just as the US had flooded Afghanistan in the 1980s with Sunni ji­hadists (the Mu­jahideen) that later be­came Al Qaeda. Saudi Ara­bia, Turkey, Qatar, and the US have reg­u­larly backed some of the most vi­o­lent ji­hadist groups in a cyn­i­cal mis­cal­cu­la­tion that th­ese prox­ies would do their dirty work and then some­how be pushed aside.

Ac­cord­ing to the US and Euro­pean main­stream me­dia, Rus­sia’s mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tion in Syria is treach­er­ous and ex­pan­sion­ist. The truth is dif­fer­ent. The US is not al­lowed un­der the UN Char­ter to or­gan­ise an al­liance, fund mer­ce­nar­ies, and smug­gle heavy weapons to over­throw an­other coun­try’s govern­ment. Rus­sia in this case is re­act­ing, not act­ing. It is re­spond­ing to US provo­ca­tions against its ally.

End­ing the war re­quires ad­her­ence to six prin­ci­ples. First, the US should cease both overt and covert op­er­a­tions to over­throw Syria’s govern­ment. Se­cond, the UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil should im­ple­ment the cease­fire now un­der ne­go­ti­a­tion, call­ing on all coun­tries, in­clud­ing the US, Rus­sia, Saudi Ara­bia, Turkey, Qatar, and Iran, to stop arm­ing and fund­ing mil­i­tary forces within Syria.

Third, all para­mil­i­tary ac­tiv­i­ties should cease, in­clud­ing those of so-called “mod­er­ates” backed by the US. Fourth, the US and Rus­sia – and, in­deed, the UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil – should hold Syria’s govern­ment strictly re­spon­si­ble to de­sist from puni­tive ac­tions against regime op­po­nents. Fifth, the political tran­si­tion should take place grad­u­ally and with con­fi­dence build­ing on all sides, rather than through an ar­bi­trary, desta­bil­is­ing rush to “free elec­tions.”

Fi­nally, the Gulf States, Turkey, and Iran should be pressed to ne­go­ti­ate face to face on a re­gional frame­work that can en­sure last­ing peace. Arabs, Turks, and Ira­ni­ans have all lived with each other for mil­len­nia. They, not the out­side pow­ers, should lead the way to a sta­ble or­der in the re­gion.

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