Syria and the Arab Spring

In the past fortnight, two very different messages about the tragic Syrian conflict have appeared in the Times newspaper:

Sir Roger Tomkys, formerly British Ambassador to Bahrain 1981-84, argues that we should ‘focus less on [the question of] Assad’s political survival and more on the physical survival of the Syrian people’.  This would require a conference involving the sponsor powers in this proxy war, Iran and Saudi Arabia, which would seek, ‘not long-term political solutions but a ceasefire to enable humanitarian assistance and secure a breathing space.’ This would involve leaving Assad and the Baathist regime in place, but, Tomkys enquires, ‘Are not all the alternatives worse?’

An alternative view is indeed expressed by the British cross-party Parliamentary Group on Syria which maintains that this month’s international conference in Geneva must ‘chart the transition to a Syria free of Assad’s rule’, citing the wishes of the Syrian people ‘whose call for freedom has been brutally suppressed since 2011’ and the ‘need to bolster the Syrian opposition coalition’ in the interests of ‘establishing a democratic, secular and tolerant future for Syria.’ Fine words indeed, but are they realistic?

The following factors are relevant:

As it has become weaker economically and militarily, Her Majesty’s Government (HMG) has become more and more accustomed to intervening in the internal affairs of other countries where before it would not have taken sides, but worked diplomatically for rapprochement and an end to violence. In the case of the Arab Spring, which started in Tunisia in December 2010,  intoxicated by the sight of crowds seemingly demanding ‘freedom and democracy’, HMG has sided from the outset against established governments (like Gaddafi’s and Assad’s) which a week or so earlier it had recognised. As a result, Britain has no influence with Assad, or his principal supporters, Russia and Iran, whose interests and even existence the MPs’ group ignore. By rejecting Iran’s presence at a conference (at an earlier stage) Britain put its own prejudices ahead of the plight of the Syrian people.

As events have shown, there were many other currents, apart from a demand for democracy, at work in the Arab Spring disturbances. Disgust at the corruption of the ruling elite was at least equally powerful. Demand amongst the young for better job opportunities was an issue, particularly in Tunisia. The wish for a more Islamic state played an increasingly prominent role in Egypt, as did Cyrenaic separatism in Libya.  In Syria, the main dividing issue is religion.

Developments in Syria

The schism in Islam between Sunni and Shia and their mutual enmity goes back well over 1400 years, to the 7th century. It is particularly noticeable in Iraq (where the US/UK coalition replaced minority Sunni rule by Saddam Hussein – with a ‘democratic’ Shia administration’), Bahrain (where demonstrations by the Shia majority against their Sunni ruler were put down by the Saudi (Sunni) army, without a squeak of protest by the West) and Syria, where the Assad family, leaders of a substantial Shiite minority, have ruled for decades over the Sunni majority and other minorities. Whilst the replacement of ageing corrupt leaders in relatively homogenous Egypt, Libya and Tunisia has proved far from straightforward, the religious schism in Syria always meant that nothing short of all out civil war would result – and so it has proved (as in Iraq where, despite the ‘democracy’ imposed by the West, the mounting death toll probably exceeds that inflicted by Saddam in the bloodiest days of his rule).  The Syrian conflict is also fuelled by outside powers, not simply Russia and Shiite Iran on Assad’s side but also by Sunni controlled Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States who have grasped the opportunity to try to overthrow the Shiite heresy in Syria. To that end they arm the Free Syrian Army and allow rich ‘individuals’ to supply Al Qaeda there. (They do not, however, provide much aid to the miserable refugees, for whose plight they are partly responsible). The MPs’ group seem totally oblivious to all these ramifications.

Outcomes of the Arab Spring

The outcome of the Arab ‘Spring’ has not met the expectations of the secular democrats who sponsored it. In Tunisia, which had a more democratic past than its neighbours, extremist Salafist Islam is gaining influence under the rule of a moderate Islamist party, politicians from the secular opposition party have been assassinated and women are afraid that their rights will be eroded. In Libya, the central government has been unable to exert its authority over the militia forces which have controlled most of Libya since Gaddafi’s overthrow.   The country is in a state of anarchy in which militiamen defy the government (at one point kidnapping the Prime Minister himself), disrupt oil production, and settle old scores. Westerners are liable to be murdered and HMG has advised Britons not to visit it. (One wonders if Messrs Cameron and Hague are proud of the results of their gung-ho intervention.) In Egypt, the army dismissed the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood Government which had produced a repressive constitution, and imprisoned the Prime Minister and his colleagues.  (This might be advantageous to secular Egyptians, but is embarrassing to Western democratic purists!) Against this background, and bearing in mind the Iraqi experience and the much greater involvement of Al Qaeda in Syria, idealistic hopes for an easy transfer of power to a liberal and peaceful democracy seem entirely misplaced.

The desire for Western action to topple Assad therefore takes no account of realities. There can be no guarantee that arms delivered to the Free Syrian army would not fall into the hands of Al Qaeda[1], as occurred when jihadists seized several warehouses filled with non-lethal supplies given by the West.  In the event of its shifting the balance in favour of the Sunnis, the resulting massacres would ensure we should receive the deep hatred of the Shia worldwide and little or no Sunni gratitude.  If Assad’s regime were toppled in present circumstances, Syria would collapse into a bloody anarchy which would make even today’s climate appear relatively tolerable.

What should Britain do?

In view of the above, Britain has only a minor role to play at the Geneva conference. Indeed, it is questionable whether we have any valid reason to be there at all. If we do have a role, it is to seek, first, a ceasefire between Assad and the moderate rebels represented at the conference. That should lead, following agreement on safe zones and humane treatment of returning refugees, to joint action for the liquidation of Al Qaeda jihadists, who are the common enemies of Shia, moderate Sunnis and the rest of the human race. That should be the prime aim of our policy, which should attract both US and Russian support without too much difficulty.


[1]  As occurred when jihadists seized several warehouses filled with non-lethal supplies given by the West.

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