A Subtle Shift
This was published in the National.
From the very start, some commentators convinced themselves that the Syrian popular revolution was plotted, funded and armed by the West. From Seamus Milne to John Pilger, from Glenn Greenwald to George Galloway, they described the West supplying oppositionist ‘jihadist elements.’ Former leftist icon Tariq Ali spoke on Russia Today of “Russia and China resisting attempts by the West to take Syria over.” Russia is resupplying the Assad regime with the materiel with which to slaughter the Syrian people, making Ali’s performance on Russia’s satellite as unedifying, and as distant from reality, as that of a commentator telling Fox News that Palestinian resistance is simply an Iranian attempt to take over Israel.
These journalists have staked their positions against the evidence. They have done so by forcing Syrian realities, breaking the edges of these jigsaw pieces, to fit their prior geopolitical concerns (their opposition to concurrent Israeli-American and Saudi enmities towards Iran) or ideological stances (that, following Iraqi and Palestinian models, the West must always be the troublemaker in the Arab world).
But Syria is neither Palestine nor Iraq; Syrian events are moved primarily by internal dynamics – namely the violence of the regime and the agency of the rising Syrian people. The conspiratorial leftist perspective misses this, first by vastly overestimating Western influence on current events (a failure to accurately diagnose the historical moment) and, secondly, by misunderstanding how unenthusiastic the West is for any rapid democratic or revolutionary change in Syria.
Months into the slaughter Hillary Clinton continued to describe al-Assad as a potential reformer and called for regime-led transition – a position not so different from Russia or Iran’s today. The Israel Lobby is fundamental to American Middle East policy, and Israel remained happy enough with the devil it knew in Damascus, a facilitator of Lebanon’s Hizbullah certainly, but also the guarantor of Israel’s quietest border – on the occupied Golan Heights. For not only did the Assad regime ensure that not a single bullet was fired across the line since 1973, or that Israeli planes striking targets in Syria were never engaged, it also locked up innocents like Tal al-Malouhi, a young woman whose only crime was to write blog posts on Palestinian suffering.
For the first months the revolution was a peaceful protest movement, but as civil society leaders were targetted for torture and death, as the numbers escalated of those shot and raped, Syrians began arming themselves, buying black market weapons from Beirut or from corrupt army officers. Revolutionary soldiers brought their weapons with them when they defected. Expatriate Syrians and Gulf businessmen bought weapons in Turkey and Iraq and sent them across the border.
Finally the Saudi and Qatari regimes delivered light weapons, but were prevented from sending heavy weapons by their American ally, which feared these may one day be directed against Israel or fall into the hands of anti-Western Islamists. In the words of Syrian National Coalition head (now resigned) Muaz al-Khatib, “the length of the beards of the fighters” seemed more important to the West “than the massacres.”
Just as it once left Bosnian Muslims defenceless against already-armed Serbs, the European Union placed an arms embargo on Syrian fighters. Russia and Iran, meanwhile, rejected any ban on arms sales to the regime. Politicians talked in vain of achieving an obviously unattainable international consensus.
In the absence of real international support, the lengths of some of the fighters’ beards, and their anti-Westernism, only increased. Following the regime (which predicted ‘armed gangs’ and ‘takfeeri militias’ before they existed, then created the conditions for their birth), the US has found itself in the self-fulfilling prophecy business. Syria has been so traumatised by two years of war that it now faces warlordism and national disintegration. The refugee crisis and growing sectarian polarisation are destabilising the wider region. Worst of all from a Western perspective, the al-Qa’ida-linked Jabhat an-Nusra has grown from an irrelevance to a key player. Raqqa, the first completely liberated city of the revolution, was captured by Jabhat al-Nusra in alliance with others bearing black flags.
As a result of these entirely forseeable developments, it now seems that a shift, albeit limited, is finally underway. Britain and France are expressing potential willingness to ignore the EU embargo (and Britain has expanded “non-lethal aid” to include armoured vehicles). The US Treasury has exempted Syrian rebels from formerly-imposed sanctions against private aid. All three countries are involved in small-scale training of rebels in Jordan. Most significantly, shipments of anti-tank weapons have arrived in Syria from Croatia, probably paid for by the Saudis, perhaps in coordination with the US.
The aim of the new policy is to tip the balance against both the extremist Salafist militias and the Assad regime, so that it will be forced to negotiate (although this remains unlikely; al-Assad wishes not to discuss a transition but to splinter Syria so he can survive as a warlord). The more time passes with Assad ensconced in Damascus and without a functioning central state, the greater the risk of a conflict developing between the alliance of Salafist forces in de facto charge of the north and east of the country, and the Muslim Brotherhood or non-ideological militias, variously backed by Qatar or Western powers, which are most active in the south and centre.
Was it the danger of the resistance consuming itself at the behest of foreign powers that made Muaz al-Khatib resign as head of the Syrian National Coalition? When the SNC met to appoint a prime minister, a struggle ensued between backers of Saudi Arabia and Qatar’s favored candidates. Qatar’s favourite, and the Muslim Brotherhood’s – American resident Ghassan Hitto – won the vote, but not unanimously and perhaps not without a good deal of arm-twisting. In the resignation note he posted on Facebook, al-Khatib wrote: “Those who are willing to obey [outside powers] will be supported, those who disobey will [be] offered nothing but hunger and siege. We will not beg for help from anyone.”
Or perhaps al-Khatib resigned, more simply, out of frustration at the world’s generalised failure to end or even ameliorate the bloodshed in Syria. At the Arab League he pleaded for the NATO Patriot missile batteries protecting Turkey to extend their range to Scud-riven northern Syria. “We are still waiting for a decision from NATO,” he said, “not to fight but to protect lives.”
Syrians need weapons to finish Assad before the crater of this disaster is too deep to climb out of. Commentators who claim that more weapons will just make things worse, that neither side can win the fight, should acknowledge that vast swathes of the country have already been liberated. This was achieved despite the commitment of the regime’s sectarian hardcore, the success of its divide and rule tactics, and its fundamental weapons advantage, for the simple reason that al-Assad has long lost legitimacy in the eyes of the vast majority of Syrians. Any uptick in weapons supply therefore immediately translates into the liberation of new territories, as seen recently in Dara’a province and the Damascus suburbs.
With or without weapons from outside, the fight in Syria continues. Muaz al-Khatib again: “If there is a decision to execute us as Syrians, then let’s die as we want. The gate of freedom has opened and will not be closed, not only for Syrians but for all peoples.”