Syria’s Proxy War


A few days after the Syrian army took Qusayr, in early June, the influential Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi described his grim vision of a Muslim world dominated by “Persians and Shia”: “The guide of the Revolution … Ayatollah Khamenei will fulfil his dream of delivering a sermon from the pulpit of the Umayyad Mosque [in Damascus] to announce that he [has] achieved Islamic unity, which he has long promised. He will descend from the pulpit with much pomp to wipe the head of a poor child to show the ‘tolerance of the powerful’ [toward Sunnis]. Then he will stand next to … Syrian Sunni scholars, with their white turbans, as there are always people like the mufti Ahmad Hassun who are ready to serve. He will [raise their hands] high, while cameras record this historic moment” (1).

In a speech the same day, Hassan Nasrallah, secretary-general of Hizbullah, justified sending fighters to Syria while recognising that although “a large part of the Syrians [support] the regime”, many were probably against it. He felt this internal conflict was secondary, since “Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, and the entire region are targeted by [a] US-Israeli-Takfiri scheme” (2) that must be resisted at all costs, which meant rushing to help the Assad regime.

As a US official wrote in a report by the International Crisis Group (3), “a Syrian war with regional consequences is becoming a regional war with a Syrian focus.” A new cold war is dividing the region, like the original, which set Nasser’s Egypt, allied with the USSR, against Saudi Arabia and the US in the 1950s and 60s. But times have changed. Arab nationalism has declined, sectarian positions are hardening, and there is even doubt over the future of the states and frontiers created after the first world war.

Syria, with its tens of thousands of dead, millions of refugees, and severely damaged industrial infrastructure and historic heritage, is the main victim. The hopeful dream of the spring of 2011 has turned into a nightmare. Why have the Syrians been unable to do in Damascus what the Egyptians did in Cairo?

The Egyptians were able to overthrow Mubarak relatively easily. The elite and social classes with ties to the clique that held power never really felt their privileges were threatened, let alone their physical safety. After the revolution, businessmen, senior army officers and intelligence service directors calmly changed sides. Only a few were brought to trial, slowly and with great reluctance. And Mubarak’s departure did not upset the regional geopolitical balance. The US and Saudi Arabia were able to adapt to changes they had not wanted but which did not threaten their interests, as long as they were able to channel those changes.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>Hopes of a transition faded

It is different in Syria. From the start of the conflict, unrestricted use of force by the intelligence services gained the regime precious months in which to organise. The regime encouraged the militarisation of the opposition, escalation of the conflict, and even sectarianism, in order to scare large sections of the population; minorities, the bourgeoisie and the urban middle classes were already frightened by the extremist language of some opposition groups and the influx of foreign fighters reported by the regime.

As the atrocities continued, hopes of a transition without calls for revenge faded, and relatively large sections of society rallied to the regime, fearing for their safety in the event of an Islamist victory. The West had been invoking Islamist bogeymen for years, which made that prospect all the more frightening, and lent credence to the Assad regime’s challenge to France: “Why are you helping the same groups in Syria that you are fighting in Mali?”

The regime also used Syria’s strategic position as leverage to elicit support from its main allies, Iran and Russia, which have surprised the world by intervening in the conflict with far more determination than Arab or western countries.

Syria is the only Arab ally that Iran has been able to count on since the 1979 revolution. Syria stood by it in difficult times, especially during Iraq’s invasion of Iran in 1980, when all the Gulf countries sided with Saddam Hussein. Given Iran’s deepening isolation over the last few years, the harsh sanctions imposed by the US and the EU, and the continued risk of military intervention by Israel and/or the US, Iran’s involvement in Syria, while not morally justifiable, is a rational strategic decision, and unlikely to be reversed by its new president, Hassan Rohani. Iran has done everything it can to rescue its ally, from granting credit to Syria’s central bank to supplying oil and military advisers.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>Call for jihad

Iran’s involvement has led it — with the approval of Russia — to encourage Hizbullah to become directly involved in Syria. Hizbullah could argue that thousands of Islamist fighters, from Lebanon and other Arab countries, are already there, but direct involvement can only worsen tensions between Sunni and Shia (armed clashes have since increased in Lebanon) and embolden radical Sunni preachers.

The conference in Cairo on 13 June held in support of “our Syrian brothers” called for jihad. Mohammed Morsi took part and, though he had until then been cautious on Syria, announced that Egypt was breaking off diplomatic relations with the Assad regime. Anti-Shia rhetoric, even from moderate sheikhs, grew louder. Hassan al-Shafii, representative of Al-Azhar, the major institution of Sunni Islam based in Cairo, asked: “What is the meaning of Hizbullah’s interference [and spilling of] innocent blood in Qusayr? It is a war against Sunnis, it is Shia sectarianism” (4).

Russia’s involvement is not just a whim of Vladimir Putin, but a reassertion of its international importance. An Egyptian diplomat said: “The West is paying the price for its attempts to marginalise Russia since the end of the USSR. Despite Boris Yeltsin’s goodwill, Nato has expanded right up to Russia’s borders.” For two years, “the West has been suggesting to Russia that it should simply adopt the West’s line [on Syria]. That was not a realistic proposition.”

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>Wary since Libya

The way in which the UN Security Council resolution on Libya was distorted to legitimise military intervention also made Russia wary, and other countries too: Brazil, China, India and South Africa have expressed reservations over resolutions on Syria presented at the UN by the West. The fall of the Assad regime would be unacceptable to Russia: it would be a victory for Islamists and could stir up Muslims within the Federation, among whom Russia claims Wahabist propaganda is being disseminated.

Compared with the determination of Russia and Iran, external support for Syria’s opposition has been fragmented, erratic and incompetent, hardly a vast Saudi-Qatari-American-Israeli-Salafist conspiracy. Each country has been doing its own thing and helping its own clients, providing aid to some and refusing it to others. The absurdities reached a peak this April when Qatar funded the imposition of Ghassan Hitto, a US national, as prime minister of Syria’s “interim” government. Interference from rich Gulf businessmen not subject to any form of control adds to the confusion (5).

It is difficult to see what is really going on with so many different groups and combat units (katibas), all deceptively labelled “Islamists”, a term that makes it possible to ignore their strategic and political differences (6). Jabhat al-Nusra, which claims to be a branch of Al-Qaida, worries the West as much as it does Saudi Arabia, which fought a war to the death against Al-Qaida at home between 2003 and 2005. This apprehension is also felt within Salafist organisations: Nader Bakkar, the media-savvy spokesman of Egypt’s biggest Salafist party Al-Nour, wants to cut the ground from under Al-Qaida’s feet: “What we are asking for is a no-fly zone. So that the revolutionaries can win the war themselves. We are urging people in Egypt not to go to Syria; the victory must be won by Syrians alone.”

This confusion has been encouraged by the diffidence of the US, which though keen to see the Syrian regime fall, is reluctant to embark on another Middle East adventure after its failures in Iraq and Afghanistan. The change in Washington’s outlook is exemplified by Richard Haass. As one of the brains behind the Republican Party’s foreign policy he worked with President George W Bush. Now head of the influential Council on Foreign Relations in New York, he has just published a book called Foreign Policy Begins at Home: the Case for Putting America’s House in Order, which argues that internal problems, from the deterioration of the transport system to the lack of skilled labour, are preventing the US from exercising global leadership.

President Barack Obama has decided to supply weapons to the Syrian rebels. The pretext is the Syrian army’s use of sarin gas — a controversial affair with no independent enquiry as yet (7) — which, according to the US, has killed about 140 of the 90,000 victims of the conflict to date. But how should the decision be interpreted?

Syria has become a regional and international battlefield, and neither camp will accept the defeat of its champion. After the Syrian army’s success at Qusayr, the US wants to prevent the regime from gaining a complete victory, though such a victory is highly unlikely since much of the population has become radicalised and, with nothing more to lose, strongly rejects the regime. But the desires of the US will probably not turn into large-scale intervention, no-fly zones or the commitment of ground troops. If the military balance is maintained, the stalemate will continue, as will the death and destruction, and the risk that the conflict will spread across the region.

Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon have been caught up in the conflict; Iraqi and Lebanese fighters, Sunni and Shia, find themselves on opposing sides in Syria. The international insurgency highway (8) is bringing fighters, weapons and ideas into Syria from as far as Afghanistan and the Sahel. As long as the external protagonists continue to see the conflict as a zero-sum game, Syria’s people will suffer and the whole region is in danger of being dragged in. 

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