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Hichem Karoui: Syria, USA and Israel
May 27, 2012
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

The dramatic events in Northern Lebanon, last week, obviously related to the Syrian crisis, elevated a little more the level of insecurity and provoked anxious questions about the plans of Assad and his allies in Lebanon. The extension of the conflict to the fragile neighbour is not a mere philosophic speculation. Syria has always been an influential and much feared actor in Lebanon. When they remember the civil war, the Lebanese link it systematically to the occult role of the Syrian Mukhabarat.

Although the civil war erupted in 1975, the seeds of this explosion were long embedded in Lebanon’s history. The domestic factors were directly related to the political confessional system that governed the country since its independence, formalised through the National Pact in 1943.

The demographic changes in the country made this system outdated because of its structural inadaptability to the changes. The Syrian society contains similar cleavages that until the outburst of the revolution, have been muted by the Assad minority regime.

Minorities are not just a source of cleavages in society, but, as Jon B. Alterman pointed in his testimony before the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations (April 19), their anxieties “can make them cling to ruling governments. The twelve per cent  or so of Syrians who are Alawite, the ten per cent or so who are Christian, and the smaller Kurdish, Druze and Armenian populations, are all a source of strength to Assad, for they fear dominance by the Sunni Arab majority.” That makes him assume: “in many cases, they will fight to death for the ruling government, because they fear ruin if it is deposed.”

But the gradual militarisation of the conflict and its possible extension to Lebanon, provoke other considerations, some of which are related to Israel.

The militarisation of the Syrian crisis, with the emergence of the Free Syrian Army, is not much of a surprise in a country where the successive governments since the fifties of the last centuries have all resulted from coups and counter-coups. The modern history of Syria itself is that of an endless series of military meddling with political affairs, and since the coup that brought Hafiz Assad to power, that of a ruthless dictatorship.

True, militarisation was imposed on the Syrian revolution, which was  initially peaceful, as the murderous and immoral rampage of Assad and its clique of assassins caused anger and mutiny  among the military. However, some among influential US observers are sceptical regarding the military way as conducive to the triumph of the revolution.

Two examples recently illustrated this mind-frame.

1.  David Ignatius wrote in the Washington Post on May 24, about the growing instability in Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon, that “fear of blowing up the region – and spawning even more Sunni-Shiite sectarian war – is one reason the Obama administration has refused to arm the Syrian opposition. Officials fear that militarising the conflict, without reliable Syrian allies or a clear endgame strategy, could produce unintended consequences much like those of the Iraq war.”

2. Alterman, in his testimony said  to US congressmen:
 “Understand that militarisation helps Assad. The more the protest movement looks like an armed insurrection, the more it will play into the hands of a relatively well-armed and well-trained Syrian army.”

How to reply to both arguments?

1. If the point made by Ignatius is true, then what is the use of staying in Afghanistan all these years, with the unbelievable consequence of being forced to yield to the Taliban? Would it not be wiser to withdraw after destroying the enemy, which the Americans did when they launched the war that dismantled the Taliban regime? But in Afghanistan as well as in Iraq, the US military were pursuing a strategy based on the fictive notion of “nation-building” as a necessary post-war responsibility. The “unintended consequences” have always been a result of such a strategy. The US successive administrations could simply not bring themselves to accepting the idea that Omniscience is only to God, and the US is not God: it cannot destroy and create at will. It has to choose between war and peace. If it chooses war, the logical consequence is that of destroying the enemy. The enemy would resist and fight. This is expected. Therefore, it is not “unintended consequences” that the US has been facing in Afghanistan, Iraq and in any country where its troops intervened.

2. Militarisation helps Assad? Absolutely not. Nothing is more scaring for any despotic rule  than to see people ready to die, guns at hands, for their freedom. And no army in the world, whatsoever the level of its training, has ever been able to defeat a handful of well-armed men, determined to bring down a hated regime.  These are simple facts of history. Just read history; what does it say about revolutions? Have they always been bloodless, peaceful demonstrations? And when have such demonstrations been enough to topple dictatorships?

If the US is not willing to arm the Syrian opposition, it is not because it fears more instability, but because Syria represents presently zero threats and zero interest to Obama.

Even Israel is more comfortable with  such a regime that has never been considered menacing than with a new one where the Islamists may win a majority and rule the country. So, the real instability for the US-Israel alliance may result in the defeat of Assad with no  “reliable ally” to run Syria and reassure Israel.

Meanwhile, who cares about the probability of Syria tilting toward civil war? The US? Israel? Unlikely. Both of them have been able to live with 15 years of civil war in Lebanon. As long as the Arabs fight each other, external powers watch. It may even be a source of joy for some. Obviously, some Arabs are always willing to do the dirty job that would otherwise be Tsahal’s. The performance of the Syrian government is actually a crystal-clear example.

The truth is, there is no interest for the US in arming the Syrian opposition, so far. Maybe the day such an opposition pledges to strike a deal with Israel, funds and weapons would flow endlessly and consequently, the US would use all its means – and we know they are powerful – to topple Assad and end the plight of the Syrian people.

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The author is an expert in US-Middle East
relations at the Arab Center for Research
and Policy Studies (Doha Institute)

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