What started out hopefully as an Arab Spring but became an Arab Winter in many countries has become an Arab Nightmare in Syria. When US president Barack Obama punted the decision to attack Syria for the probable use of chemical weapons against its own civilians, it was a subtle confirmation of what everyone knew to be true – there was no easy way out. For two and a half years, the Syrian civil war has raged on with no sign of respite; worse, from a Western, liberal perspective, each side makes the other look better.
Washington’s initial reluctance to interfere in Syria stemmed from its awareness that it had a reputation in the region of always propping up dictators, and it did not wish to taint a potential homegrown liberal movement. As chants turned into bullets, the United States urged regional players to take a bigger role in bringing peace to Syria.
The United States was also tied down by many constraints – it had economic woes at home, it was already in Afghanistan and trying to get out of Iraq, it faced strong opposition from Russia, Iran, and perhaps China, on Syria, and it had Iran’s nuclear programme to contend with. Outsourcing Syria’s rebellion to cash-rich Gulf allies like Saudi Arabia and Qatar seemed the sensible solution. Whether as a result of this outsourcing and subsequent selective funding or other factors, Syria’s opposition today is composed of an unexpectedly large number of jihadists, from the infamous Jabhat al-Nusra to the rapidly growing Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). The United States has, therefore, since found it difficult to justify arming the same rebels it was fighting elsewhere.
The hesitation to act even after the use of chemical weapons last week – not for the first time – underscores the lack of a viable opposition as well as a workable attack plan. Legality has rarely stood in the way of national interest before, yet the notion of norm defence – chemical weapons, as WMDs, should never be used in warfare – seems to have galvanised many. Yet were it so simple: on the one hand, hitting Bashar al-Assad’s air force, missile sites, and chemical weapons factories may weaken him, but on the other, the rebellion is fractured and the probable replacement for Assad is even worse.
This is assuming, of course, that the strikes will be successful and Assad can be weakened or should be: special weapons will be required to destroy chemical weapons storage facilities because the heat and blast from regular explosives would only disperse the agents. Even then, it is not such an easy task. As one scholar has noted, we should be clear whether we want to protect Syrians or punish Assad – it will be difficult to do both.
Syria is a reminder, as if Iraq wasn’t, that there is only so much the force of arms can accomplish. Even if hostilities continued for another year and both sides were driven to the negotiating table by exhaustion, sectarian differences within the country, the Lebanese powder keg, and foreign influence from every power worth its salt would wreck the country and possibly partition it. There is no pretty option left for Syria save war exhaustion or outright victory.
Syria is also a reminder, as were Iraq and Afghanistan, that the sort of goals the West professes to wish to see can only be achieved through sweat and blood – local as well as their own, and over many years. The West has no stomach for empire anymore, and the Rest will resist it tooth and nail; therefore, any notions of surgical strikes, let alone quick interventions or regime change, must be viewed with scepticism. TLAM strikes may help ease frustration and may even serve short-term interests, but the sort of transformations wished for will need decades…if they happen at all.
Another interesting question one might ask is why the burden of intervention falls on the United States. Regional powers have for years been large recipients of US and European military hardware – Riyadh has spent billions on its air force, Jordan trains regularly with the USAF, and Turkey derives the benefits of being a NATO member. Frank Jannuzi, executive deputy director of Amnesty International, suggests, however, that a better long-term alternative to missile strikes is to impose an arms embargo on Syria and hold those responsible for war crimes accountable via the International Criminal Court. Though applaudable, the idea highlights the deadlock in the United Nations Security Council and the body’s repeated failure to address human rights issues.
Yet Syria did not just happen; a sequence of events, perhaps started fortuitously for some, in conjunction with another sequence of responses, brought it to this juncture. US interest in Syria at this specific juncture is for one primary reason: to isolate Iran. If Assad falls and Hezbollah loses its base, it will weaken Iran even further. Therefore, Washington has encouraged Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Turkey to support the Syrian Islamists. Ironically, the US routinely bombs these same groups or their kin in Yemen, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Similarly, the United States has had to rely on questionable allies in Afghanistan too as its sanctions on Iran are getting in the way of a fully committed fight against the Taliban there. The question arises, just how much is the US willing to watch disintegrate to win on its terms in Iran?
It is no secret that Russia has been wary of increasing US reach in the Middle East and Central Asia; the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, pressure on Iran, bombing of Libya, and the assistance to the rebels in Syria via allies has left Russia nervous. Syria is one of Iran’s few remaining allies, and Tehran is not going to abandon it, chemical weapons or not, to the US. As in Afghanistan, Washington can expect a pushback to its extended Iran policy in Syria. If Moscow’s S-300 air defence system arrives in 2014 – there is little reason to doubt that Assad will not hold on until then – a no-fly zone, under discussion for a while, becomes even harder to implement.
This is not to ignore the myriad other reasons for the pig’s breakfast in Syria; however, it might do everyone some good to ponder about the wisdom of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan as allies in a war against dictators and terrorism. The Good Book says that all the armies of the world will gather together at Megiddo at the end of the world. That is hopefully a long way away, but today, most of our hypocrisies have gathered not too far away, in Syria.