As the civil war in Syria rages on with no apparent end in sight, the moment has come to ask ourselves what kind of Syria we want to have. In an excellent analysis for Le Nouvel Economiste, French journalist Pascal Lorot lays out a pragmatic position on Syria that echoes Russia’s and China’s sentiments in preventing a unanimous resolution for action in the Security Council.
He particularly talks about Vladimir Putin’s explanation, which I also find interesting. Briefly, the Russian official position is that if Bashar al-Assad falls, Syria will become an Islamist heartland that will cause much bigger problems than the Assad dynasty ever has, or ever will. Given this fear, the logical choice is that Assad’s government is the lesser of two evils.
There are several conditions to consider here.
First, nobody disagrees that Assad is the main perpetrator of violence in Syria and for that he should be condemned at least and at most, brought to international justice. His father, Hafez, never faced legal consequence for the suppression of the 1982 uprisings in Hama that killed approximately 40,000 people.
Second, none of the regime changes in the Middle East have produced anything resembling a democracy. Islamist governments were formed in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s new president, visited Iran before any other country — a sign that long-frozen links in the Middle East can be rekindled. Adversely affected will be the minorities in those countries. An ominous precedent comes out of Iraq, whose Christian population virtually disappeared following the American invasion in 2003; coincidentally, Iraq is still rent asunder by internal violence, ideological and religious, in what was supposed to be a flourishing democracy.
Third, the reasoning for Russia’s position has a strong backing of history in dealing with the Muslim world. While the country has 140 million people of a predominantly Eastern Orthodox religious inclination, there are 20 million Muslims who live inside and Russia borders on the central Asian states that are also predominantly Islamic. One might say that dealing with Muslims for centuries on end from multiple wars with the Ottoman Empire to the occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s gives Russia a good understanding of how Islam functions culturally, religiously and politically, and that lays the groundwork for the Kremlin policy response. For this reason, listening to what Moscow has to say is worthwhile, regardless of what interests it might have in the Middle East.
The fourth, and most important, factor in this discussion is that the Syrian government armies are fighting not so much against an internal enemy, as they are against growing numbers of foreign radical Islamic elements, coming in from around the world. These fighters, many of who would have recent experience in Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Sinai or Pakistan, are representative of movements, whose political agenda has nothing to do with democracy, but rather, the establishment of Sharia law states, akin to al-Shabab’s vision for Somalia, or the Taliban’s for Afghanistan. The Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoots, such as Hamas, would be also two examples of such groups. The evidence that the rebels are not-so-democratic any more comes from Dr. Jacques Beres, the co-founder of Doctors Without Borders, who spent time in Aleppo tending to wounded fighters – many of whom were Islamist extremists.
Supporting evidence might be found in yesterday’s announcement that army deserters who joined the rebels earlier in the conflict are now choosing to fall back into the ranks of the army. The symbolism is strong, because it shows an indication of Syria starting to face an external, rather than an internal threat and this could upset the entire raison d’être of the conflict in the first place, and give it an entirely new meaning and duration. It also shows disillusionment with a Free Syrian Army that has no coherent structure, leadership or vision for Syria, and operates alongside a plethora of other known and unknown formations.
Fifth, and finally, we should consider the financiers of radical Islamic terrorism. Not surprisingly, Saudi Arabia is top of the list, along with possible connections from Qatar’s financial institutions, combine to form the cash flow to sustain Islamic terrorism – from ideological groups to outfitting the suicide bombers. These two, however, are also steadfast Western allies in the Middle East, and their strategic value outweighs their alleged state-sponsoring of terrorism activities at this stage.
At the UN General Assembly, President Obama predictably reiterated the general Western position, also visibly supported by French President Francois Hollande, that Assad must be removed from power. However, the typical naivety of Western foreign policy in overlooking the consequences of its actions in Syria comes through finally in Western media, and the Russians’ reminder about what might be coming after Assad is something we should seriously consider.
Again, the Arab “Spring” that never was, threatens to turn into an Islamic Winter, a new idea gaining ground in the public space to describe the upheaval around the Middle East. Essentially, the democratic dreams we had for the Middle East will not materialize at this juncture in history — rather, we’ll be shut out as Islam has finally by and large found its political expression outside of secular totalitarianism.