The results of the EU’s decision not to extend its embargo on arms sales to Syria will be measured in hecatombs, and not in Syria alone. There is now a real chance that the entire region will descend into civil war, and that any such war will destabilise a world already on the brink of catastrophe.
To begin, anyone who confidently tells you what’s going on in Syria, who are the ‘good guys’ and who the bad, and whether indeed there is any meaning to these handy categories, is either a liar or a fool, at least unless they have lived there for a very long time, speak the languages of a country which is – like Libya – an artificially cobbled-together legacy of French and British imperialism, and know people on all sides of the conflict.
Secondly, while Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ founding texts continue to be the best place to start to understand the world as it is, it is another Victorian author, Lewis Carroll, who seems most appropriate when approaching recent developments in the Middle East-North Africa (MENA) region and the western powers’ response to them. Marx and Engels are great when things have at least some semblance of coherence, but here we are in a world in which, as Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty tells Alice, a word can mean just what you ‘choose it to mean—neither more nor less.’
So we saw the European Union and its member states acting as major paymasters for the Egyptian and Tunisian dictatorships. Though the European Mediterranean Programme paid lip service to promoting ‘democracy’, nothing much was done about this, while the so-called ‘market economy’ and liberalisation were pursued with great enthusiasm. It was clear even to mainstream commentators that the real aim was simply to create and sustain markets for European manufactured goods and services, while ensuring a supply of foodstuffs, oil and other commodities, as well as cheap labour, when such was in demand. Suddenly, however, when the dictatorships toppled and fell, the EU was all for democracy, and Tony Blair’s bizarre statement that Mubarak was ‘immensely courageous and a force for good’ was revealed clearly for what it was, one criminal speaking out in defence of another.
In Libya we had NATO supporting a set of criminal gangs against a rather brutal dictator, leaving a situation of confusion and, surely, further and ongoing violent conflict. At the same time other parts of the MENA region were exploding into civil conflict building in at least one case to full-scale war. Enter, once more, Carrollian dialectics. Justifying NATO support for the Libyan ‘rebels’, President Obama tells the world that the US ‘cannot stand idly by when a tyrant tells his people there will be no mercy’. In Bahrain, meanwhile, US marines do precisely that. But then Bahrain is a close friend of Saudi Arabia, a country run by tyrants who enjoy the full and unwavering support of the US. You could not, as they say, make this stuff up.
Lifting the arms embargo on Syria makes any peaceful solution, admittedly improbable as things stood, impossible. The Syrian National Council has said it won’t be attending the peace conference planned for August unless the ‘international community’, for which read the imperialist powers, attack forces from Iran, and Hezbollah, active in the country. Such action has thankfully, however, been ruled out, at least for now.
What little credibility the EU and its member states might have had has disappeared. Criteria for arms sales supposedly agreed by the member states are frequently flouted, but never before, as far as I can remember, with the full and public approval of Brussels. Arms are not supposed to be sold to countries which practice human rights abuses, which it has to be said in our times would leave few if any potential customers. They are not supposed to be sold to countries undergoing ‘internal conflict’, which, forgive me if I’m wrong, would surely include Syria. They are not supposed to be sold in circumstances which might endanger regional stability. In this case I would argue that what is being placed in danger is not only any chance of restoring any kind of stability to Syria, not even only regional stability, but global peace, or what’s left of it.
Geopolitical considerations, added to the likely reaction from various sides in the Syrian diaspora, added to the possible involvement of groups with a grudge (often a perfectly understandable grudge) against the ‘West’, added to Israel’s combination of jumpiness and an eye for the main chance in any situation, added to the withdrawal of Austrian UN troops from the Golan Heights and the possible withdrawal of the entire force, added to the involvement of Turkey, of Lebanon, of Jordan…. a peaceful, reassuring solution to this grim calculation is hard to see.
The idea that the weapons will go only to ‘moderates’ would be very funny indeed, if circumstances weren’t so tragic. We are approaching six figures in the tally of death in Syria, and there’s nothing moderate about that. Assad may stay in power, or he may fall. If the latter occurs then the most likely outcome would seem to be that the terrorist mobs who are the real counterforce will replace him, and the country will descend further into ethnic and religious conflict, just as Iraq did after its ‘liberation’.